Recently, while trying to make a point, a male newscaster referred to his female counterpart as “young lady.” While used in a joking tone, it sounded like a verbal pat on the head, a condescension, a sexist put down. It gave the impression that he knew what he was talking about, but he had to tolerate her input, however misinformed it was.
The following day a man at my bank held the door for an older woman. He said, “Come right in, young lady,” despite the obvious fact that she was decades older than he was. Referring to older women as “young lady,” is somehow supposed to be a compliment, but it feels disingenuous, even a bit insulting.
Years ago, women were given formal instruction to become “young ladies.” They were taught what to wear to look feminine, how to sit without being suggestive, how to speak in pleasant tones, to never swear or argue or raise their voice. In other words, they were taught to act a certain way so that others — especially men—would find them attractive. The male counterpart — “young gentleman” never caught on in the same way. Well, boys will be boys after all.
Using the phrase “young lady” in the workplace carries with it certain negative undertones. It points out not just an age differential, but an experience deficit. It reminds me of historian and feminist writer and activist Rebecca Solnit’s forceful essay titled “Men Explain Things to Me,” where she wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and women don’t.
As a professional woman, you don’t need male colleagues explaining things to you or teaching you the ropes. You don’t need their protection or their oversight. You need their respect and their acknowledgment that you can hold your own, that your input, despite your age or gender, is as valuable as theirs.
So the next time someone refers to you as “young lady,” simply say that you prefer they not call you that. You don’t even have to be “ladylike” when you ask.