After the leading candidate for superintendent of Easthampton Public Schools claimed he lost his job offer for using the word “ladies” in an e-mail, he said he was “shocked” because he “grew up in a time when ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ was a sign of respect.”
He wasn’t the only one; more than 150 people showed up to protest the school committee’s decision to revoke Vito Perrone’s offer, and the Globe’s initial story racked up more than 750 comments, with plenty of readers supporting the salutation.
But in today’s modern workplace, is “ladies” respectful or a microaggression? Unless you’re singing along to Beyoncé, experts say it’s probably best to steer clear of the term.
While not everyone will be offended, several diversity and inclusion experts told the Globe, the word has a long and complicated history, and can hold negative connotations when used in inappropriate settings, such as in contract negotiations in Perrone’s case. Instead, it’s best to ask people how they want to be addressed to avoid alienating or upsetting anyone, they said.
Elisa van Dam, vice president of allyship and inclusion at the Institute for Inclusive Leadership at Simmons University, said the word “ladies” can be infantilizing in a professional setting. Perrone had used the term to address two women in leadership positions, School Committee Chair Cynthia Kwiecinski and the committee’s executive assistant, Suzanne Colby.
“The idea of lady does not correlate or does not lead you to a woman who is in charge and in power and has her work really under control,” Dam said. “It’s none of the things that you want to be thought of as a woman in business or in any kind of hiring situation.”
She said a candidate addressing women as “ladies” at any stage of the hiring process can raise questions about the candidate’s judgment.
“It’s tone deaf. It seems that he hasn’t been paying attention to the way language use has been evolving and how we are talking about diversity and equity and inclusion and belonging,” Dam said. “He’s operating on a very old paradigm.”
It might be common, and feel natural, to address a group of women as ladies, but Karl Reid, chief inclusion officer at Northeastern University, said it is still important to ask people how to refer to them, as a sign of respect.
“No one group is a monolith, everyone is individual,” Reid said. “And understanding what is acceptable to that individual, then we are a step towards welcoming a more inclusive environment.”
While some people may appreciate being addressed as “ladies,” it can be an informal and inappropriate word to use when negotiating contract stipulations and in the workplace, said Jen Manion, a professor of history and sexuality, women’s and gender studies at Amherst College. And if someone referred to them in such a way at work, Manion said they would “flip.”
“Nobody ever calls me a lady at work,” Manion said. “It’s one thing to say while speaking to friends.”
The word has “historic baggage,” Manion said, as it was often associated with women-only spaces, such as passenger cars and public bathrooms, that were created for “keeping women separate and keeping women of color out of those spaces.” The term represented a group of women who fit a certain race or class, Manion said, and it also evokes a time when women weren’t allowed to work, and were expected to be soft spoken and demure.
Because of that context, Manion said “ladies” can come off as patronizing and demeaning.
“It is a phrase people throw around widely without thinking,” Manion said. “How would [Perrone] have phrased the e-mail if it was two men?”
Manion said better ways to address a group of people could include “y’all,” “everyone,” “folks,” “friends,” and “people.”
Reid said it’s important for those involved in situations like these to learn from what happened and how the meaning behind certain words could be seen as offensive.
“When these accidents occur, there is an expectation that we should have meaningful discourse about what is acceptable ... to create a more inclusive institution,” Reid said. “It’s an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation.”