The Blog

On First Name Terms - Why Calling Women Anything Other Than Their First Name at Work Is Almost Always Sexist

Don't call me babe. Don't call me feisty. In fact, in professional situations, can we just stick to my name?

Don't call me babe. Don't call me feisty. In fact, in professional situations, can we just stick to my name?

I took umbrage reading the often sexist media coverage of the cabinet reshuffle's new front line of female MPs women, but what really got my goat, so to speak, was when Spectator blogger Melanie McDonagh described one, Pritti Patel, as "feisty"

Forthright and strong she may be, but, much like calling someone "bossy", feisty is one of those uniquely patronising descriptors usually only levied at women, which suggest she needs in some way, to pipe down - in other words, to know her place.

I too have been described thus, by, at the time, my boss, and it wasn't intended to be flattering. Over the course my working life, I've been called a multitude of labels, or what you might term "endearments" - except that these labels were directed at me by people who were colleagues rather than friends.

Whether it's a senior man calling me "pet", or a senior woman - she was of South African origin - passive aggressively calling me "chook", or my old boss, describing me to the entire office during a promotion as "feisty," it irked me, however inoffensively it may have been intended.

Each time I've stood my ground and asked to be called by my name, perhaps earning me my reputation as being outspoken - read "feisty" - as if this simple courtesy was in some way ruder than being called a pet name in the first place. But this is probably because, in speaking my mind, I turned the tables on the - usually senior - person who, by calling me a patronising name attempted to gently undermine me or subtlety denigrate.

In my book, calling someone something other than their name in a professional situation is invariably more about power than friendliness. By and large, I avoid "pet names" at work - I feel there's too much risk of unintentionally crossing a line. Although, when dealing with much younger members of staff, I've have perhaps lapsed into the odd "m'dear"or even "hon" if I've temporarily misplaced someone's name, particularly if they are new and I'm trying to make them feel welcome. But even so, I recognised I was doing it because in that situation I had the upper hand. My bad. This is why I'm sensitive to it from others.

But over familiarity should be used with caution in the workplace - if you`re "in" with a particular group - usually those higher up the tree, jocular name calling can be isolating to those not included in the clique. Nicknames often reek of a boy's club mentality, which is often both exclusive and small c conservative, even on the rare occasion a woman is admitted to the bantering ranks.

Which is why I found myself bristling at the media's barrage of patronising descriptors levied at the women who promoted to the front lines of government: variously described as "girls" in the Daily Mail, its coverage naturally centred on fripperies: looks and clothes, with poor attractive Esther McVey described as "sashaying" into Downing Street, a uniquely feminine adjective, if ever there was one. Objectification aside, using belittling descriptors such as "girls" or "feisty" is designed to deprive women of authority and is almost always inappropriate - and basically sexist.

Calling women names has been used throughout history as a way of maintaining power and the status quo, and I don't want to stand for in the workplace, however this may make me appear "bristly", "standoffish" or in any other way, "the office bitch". But I know that I wouldn't dream of calling my boss "mate" or any other label or term of "endearment" when they have the power to hire or fire me.

Unless expressly invited to, I try to keep it neutral. And just because I may be relatively "junior," I should still command the same professional respect.