What to Call Women in the Business Workplace

what to call women in the workplace 

I have spent an entire career in sales since my early 20’s being called a guy. Filling out forms that said “Salesman Number”. Being invited to sales incentive and award events at cigar bars.

My reason for going into a sales career was to support my family financially as a young single mom. I had no idea how much I would learn to actually fall in love with the profession – and today I still love the profession of sales with its warts and all.

Some of those warts are due to the lack of inclusion on many sales teams – especially tech, financial services, manufacturing, distribution, utilities, telecom, and more.

Having been the only woman or one of just a couple or a few in hundreds of sales situations over the years a few things have become clear to me.

It’s Not What You Say, but Rather Your Intent

How many times has a woman been on a team where they leader says -

“Hey guys, let’s focus on wrapping up Q4 strong”

“Guys, can I have your attention?”

Using the word “guys” for a team of men and women in a business setting may be fine – it never bothered me, but it IS a male focused term.  "Guy" references a man, so why would the plural, "guys" be co-ed? There are women who don’t want to be grouped in with “the guys.” So in some  cases it will be fine and others, not so much. That’s what’s funny about language though - what bothers one person doesn’t bother another.  If someone is coming from a good place, be understanding.  If you don't like what someone said, you might be able to quickly self-correct but sometimes it is best to wait and talk to someone privately rather than in front of others. 

The topic of what women want to be referred to was brought up recently on LinkedIn by Lauren Bailey, Founder of #GirlsClub who asked,

“When I say “guys” to a group of men AND women, is that offensive?”

“Is it OK to have a “Girls club” vs. a “Women’s club?”

Lauren is a woman, and if she (and I and others) don’t know what is “correct” how will our male allies and supporters? This brings me to my second point:

There are Regional Viewpoints about Language

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest and West Coast, no one would dare call a woman “honey.” Living in New England now for half of my last 20 years, I can tell you that there are regionalisms around North America and in other countries where in certain circumstances I'm OK with  “hun” - although it would be inappropriate in nearly all business settings. Here in the Boston area I've heard dozens of guys call another man a "kid" - again something you wouldn't say about a woman, but is very common for guys even in an office setting. In the South, there are other "endearing" terms we don't normally hear elsewhere. 

ASK: If you are a guy and you are not sure if what you are saying is appropriate, ASK.

There are different ways to ask, too - you can make it a big deal, or not - and get different results. 

Use Empathy: If someone gives you a strange look when you say something in front of a group, make note of it in your head and ask them after the meeting. It can be as easy as this:

“Mary, I noticed when I said “chicks” you sort of glared. Did I say the wrong thing?”

When in Doubt
Say What You’d Say in Front of Your Grandparents

Yes, I’m sorry I need to say this, but the workplace IS a professional environment.

It is not a locker room. Don’t drop “F-bombs” or talk inappropriately about women – or anyone for that matter. Do your work.

If you are working with a peer who is shooting his mouth off inappropriately, speak up about it.

In my professional selling world, women are women – not young ladies, not chicks, not gals, and you can’t go wrong calling any female older than a teenager a woman.

When it comes to women calling other women girls, that’s great.

When it comes to men calling the women girls, then please call the men “boys”, OK? That’s parity.

Speak from the Heart and You can’t Go Wrong

It boils down to being genuine and treating others equally, fairly, respectfully, and as humans.

One of my former bosses used to call me, “Pal.”

He’d say, “OK, pal – talk soon,”

I didn’t like it.

It wasn’t what I’d call “sexist” in any way – It just didn’t work for me.

I asked him to call me Lori instead. He did, it worked, and it was no big deal.

If You Look for Trouble, You May Find It

These sorts of issues become part of the little things that fester and grow bigger – unless you handle them upfront with respect and curiosity.


If you do these things you will have no trouble knowing what to say to someone, and in altering what you say as needed.


Lori Richardson  helps mid-sized companies grow revenues by solving key issues in their sales department - like recruiting, retention, diversity hiring, process, pipeline and leadership. She founded Women Sales Pros to help get more women into sales and sales leadership roles. She speaks at CEO groups on topics of sales growth. Clients include companies in the technology, telecom, manufacturing, distribution, and professional services industries. Subscribe to the award-winning blog, follow her on Twitter
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email lori@ScoreMoreSales.com | My LinkedIn Profile | @scoremoresales | G+

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