When Women are Called "girls": The Effect of Infantilizing Labels on Women's Self-perceptions

Open Access
Macarthur, Heather Jean
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
April 16, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Stephanie A Shields, Thesis Advisor
  • Jonathan Emdin Cook, Thesis Advisor
  • Adriana Van Hell, Thesis Advisor
  • gender
  • women
  • language
  • infantilization
  • leadership
  • workplace
  • labels
Research and anecdotal observations suggest that it is a common occurrence for women to be referred to as “girls” into their thirties and beyond. Although this term is infantilizing and carries with it connotations of immaturity and frivolity, no research has investigated the effects of such language on women’s self-perceptions. For my Master’s research, I examined this topic by experimentally manipulating the label given to participants in feedback on a work profile test that was ostensibly being used to evaluate them for an advertised leadership position. Through the study outlined in this thesis, I investigated whether being called “girl” rather than “woman” in this feedback influenced women’s feelings about their own leadership characteristics (such as strength, confidence, and maturity) as well as their interest in future leadership positions. Results indicated that relative to participants who were called woman, those who were called girl felt less confident that they would obtain the position, reported that the feedback made them feel lower in qualities associated with leadership, and believed that other people who viewed their work profile would also see them as having less of these characteristics. They did not, however, show less interest in future leadership positions. Implications of this research, including the imperative to change current language norms, are discussed.