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Is 'ladies' acceptable workplace language?

The word feminism listed in the dictionary. (Peter Morgan/AP)
The word feminism listed in the dictionary. (Peter Morgan/AP)

Easthampton High School in Massachusetts offered Vito Perrone the job of superintendent. But the School Committee chair rescinded that offer soon after.

Why? A plethora of reasons, laid out by chair Cynthia Kwiecinski at a school committee meeting. Salary and paid time off negotiations accounted for part of it. The other piece, which Perrone originally made public, was Perrone referring to Kwiecinski and other members of the committee as “ladies” in the subject of an email.

In Kwiecinski’s remarks, she said she found the term “ladies” too colloquial for professional communication, especially when discussing matters such as salary and benefits. She called it disrespectful and a “micro-aggression.” Perrone’s use of the word made Kwiecinski question whether he would use similar labels for staffers as opposed to their names or titles, causing discomfort.

The revocation of Perrone’s job offer has sparked debate over the language he used. Is “ladies” a workplace-appropriate term, and Easthampton High just ascribed more meaning to it than it was worth? Or is the label inappropriate, demeaning and veiled in gender-based disrespect?

Perrone says he meant no offense by the word. But the committee had already voted to rescind the superintendent job offer.

“I apologized and said, ‘I’m really sorry,’” he says. “I grew up in the [1960s] and the [1970s]. ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ was a term of respect.”

Perrone says he understands Kwiecinski’s point of view and her want to be addressed by her title instead of a gendered term. But he says he wishes there had been an opportunity for discussion and education.

“Over time, our language changes. My use of ladies may have been old-fashioned, but it was not intended as a sign of disrespect. People are microaggressed, but we can’t diminish the definition of microaggression by using it as, ‘ladies’ is a microaggression,” Perrone says. “Someone said in the Boston Globe that I’m tone deaf. Okay, maybe I am. And I’m willing to reflect on that and move forward in a positive way about that. But I wasn’t even given a chance to do that.”

The incident has caused a media frenzy in local newspapers and uproar on both sides. People around Easthampton have rallied in support of both Perrone and the high school, and the discussion has become increasingly polarized.

Deborah Tannen, renowned linguist at Georgetown University, isn’t surprised by how much debate one word could drum up. She says that using any type of gendered language can get tricky. In this specific case, a 1970s definition of the word “ladies” labeled it as a frivolous, less-serious counterpart to “women.”

She also states that women in positions of authority are more likely to be talked down to or referred to by their first name as opposed to a title than their male colleagues. So someone in a chair position, like Kwiecinski, might have been disrespected before and carried that experience into other interactions.

While Perrone may think of “ladies and gentlemen” as a wholly-respectful address, Tannen says people of different lived experiences may have different definitions.

“The connotations of ‘gentlemen’ are more positive and very different from the connotations of ‘ladies.’ That’s often the case,” she says. “For example, ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ started out the same, but ‘mistress’ took on some very different connotations.”

A lot of the implication behind words lies in how they’re used in context, Tannen says. “Ladies” also has been used to ascribe the specific values a woman should have, through terms like “ladylike,” which pass judgment on women.

Tannen cites an example provided by a Boston Globe reader; when the reader hired a “cleaning lady,” their grandmother made the distinction that the cleaner be called a “cleaning woman” because she may not have the characteristics of a “lady.”

Other gendered terms, like referring to groups of people regardless of gender as “guys,” have also been called into question recently. Tannen says that as generations progress so do the meanings of words in the context of the present culture.

“That’s how language evolves,” Tannen says. “Things are introduced. They seem odd. Some people leap on it, some people resist it, and eventually, it becomes the norm to then be questioned by a later generation.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin Young. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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