‘The missus’, ‘chicks’ and ‘babes’: Is there ever a place for these words in the office?

Article by Gary Nunn /
ABC News /
September 28, 2018  /
Click here to view original /

Justin Milne, ABC’s chairman until his resignation on Thursday, reportedly called former managing director Michelle Guthrie “the missus” in front of staff. Fairfax Media also reported that he referred to other female staff as “chicks” and “babes”.

It’s a claim that Mr Milne denies.

“I really don’t think I did. I don’t call people the missus and I have zero recollection of ever doing that. I don’t know why I would. I don’t think of her as the missus at all,” he told Leigh Sales on 7.30.

Mr Milne said he only used “chicks” in relation to friends, and never used “babes”.

“I don’t do it all the time. I do it to try to relax people but I certainly don’t use that word in a derisive or denigrating way. And if it’s caused offence to people, then I do apologise for that.”

Workplace etiquette can be a quagmire, especially when it comes to language, but the linguist community is unequivocal.

University of Melbourne Languages Professor John Hajek says that sort of language “undermines by changing women from adults into children and small animals”.

“It’s clearly disempowering. Most workplaces wouldn’t freely allow use of those demeaning terms,” he says.

The English language doesn’t provide an equal and opposite set of terms for men and women, says Nick Enfield, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney.

“This example has created so much interest because it’s entirely inappropriate to the context — you’d only use it in very informal contexts.”

“For senior staff to use that terminology is an explicit way to emphatically not show respect.”

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer in politics and gender studies at the University of Melbourne, agrees.

“We need to remember our intention isn’t all that matters,” she says.

“Our words have consequences and can offend, demean or embarrass others even if our goal might just be familiarity and friendliness.”

Where does it all start?

Early is the answer.

A social experiment was conducted for the BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls: what would happen to a classroom of seven-year-olds if they weren’t treated differently as boys and girls?

It’s less radical than it sounds — the pink and blue coat cupboards were painted a universal orange, for example.

But one of the most telling findings of the documentary had nothing to do with the kids and everything to do with their teacher, Mr Andre, and specifically his language.

But presenter Javid Abdelmoneim made Mr Andre see there was a direction his nomenclature was taking when he talked to these girls, and it was downwards. It even inferred possession with “my love”.

By contrast, Mr Andre talked to boys in a pally way, putting them on equal footing: they were all called “fella” and “mate”.

Mr Andre was persuaded that he shouldn’t speak to his young male and female students differently and he no longer does.

Where will it all stop?

There are limits to how far we can curtail freedom of speech in the workplace. We can all agree context is everything and common sense is paramount, but there’s a range of opinions on some terms.

In 2016, the Australian Diversity Council launched a #WordsAtWork campaign, fronted by then Australian of the Year David Morrison, complete with a cringeworthy behaviour-change video.

It took aim at the term “guys”. At the time, Mr Morrison said:

“‘Guys’ is used thoughtlessly. I have removed it from my lexicon. Many workplace emails start with the phrase ‘hi guys’ — but it is masculine. There might be people who go ‘that’s what I say all the time and I don’t mean it to be in any way disrespectful’, but it’s not what you intend, it’s how you’re listened to.”

At the time, I asked some women how they listened to this.

Avril Henry, who advised Mr Morrison for two years on gender equality, told me:

“As a feminist I think we need to choose our battles carefully to ensure we pursue gender equality — but not at the expense of alienating men and the broader public. Most women use the term ‘guys’ as a non-gender-specific term. Language is important but we could end up creating greater confusion and resentment by being seen to be politically correct.”

Professor Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist at the University of Oxford, said:

“If women want to be addressed as ‘guys’, I’m not going to tell them they’re betraying the feminist cause — particularly if the alternative is being addressed as ‘babes’ and ‘dolls’. In language, as in life, you do your best with whatever you’ve got.”

Boys and girls

We shouldn’t lose our heads here, as the Daily Telegraph did by claiming the army was banning the terms “him” and “he” in a recent splash unpicked as exaggeration by Media Watch.

Some terms are more nuanced though — I’ve certainly used “boys” and “girls” in the workplace and heard many others do so. My intention is never to diminish, but to be warm. But I need to check my male privilege here and Professor Enfield agrees: