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Why I Refer to Powerful Female Leaders as ‘Girls’ Instead of ‘Women’

September 29, 2016, 11:30 AM UTC
The Girls' Lounge Dinner At Advertising Week 2016
Photograph by Slaven Vlasic—Getty Images for The Girls' Loun

When I refer to powerful women in business as “girls,” I sometimes hear that the word is offensive, or ageist, or not serious in some way. Yet I continue to do so and I will continue to do so because I believe it’s crucial to achieving equality in the workplace. Let me explain.

For me, the word “girl” isn’t about the literal translation of the word, defined by age or life stage. It’s about a mindset. Courage and wonder; being a risk-taker and adventure-seeker; breaking the rules and—most importantly—supporting others are what make, in my eyes, a girl.

I had a “heartbeat moment” (what I call my a-ha moments) a few years ago while reading an article about how research needs to be technology’s best friend. At the time, I was a researcher living in a bubble and I decided that I needed to go to my first technology conference: the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. I was used to knowing everyone in my industry and the thought of going to a trade show with over 150,000 “techie guys” was a scary one. I felt completely out of my comfort zone.

I had two options: go alone or invite a few friends to tag along. I suggested to four girlfriends that they attend the conference with me. They invited their friends and within 24 hours, we were 50 women strong.

When all 50 of us walked the CES floor together, two remarkable things happened: First, all the men at the conference turned their heads, wondering where the heck all these women came from. Second, I had a remarkable feeling of confidence that I had never experienced before in a professional setting.

At that moment, I understood the power of the pack. Women alone can be powerful, but together, we can have impact. This insight would come to have a profound influence on my career and my personal sense of purpose for creating diversity and defining a new “pack” in business.

A few years ago, I had lunch with film producer, Lynda Obst, who told me that she only casts “girls’ girls” in her movies. I asked her what a girls’ girl was, and she explained that it was someone who chooses quality time with her girlfriends over an invitation from a professional acquaintance. She went on to describe how “girl’s girls” are much more reliable than women with other priorities.

I am a girl’s girl through and through—collaborative, nurturing, and supportive. I don’t like to follow the traditional (read: male) handbook of leadership that says that in order to be successful leaders, we have to compete. I believe that the best leaders are team players. Not only does having a diversity of mindset mean we bring better ideas to the table, but it’s a fact that more diverse thinking leads to greater revenue, growth, and profits. We are better together.

What I discovered during that moment at CES all those years ago and a lunch with Lynda was that women do not need to leave all the things that define us out of the “work” equation. We can redefine female leadership as collaborative instead of competitive. In other words, we women can just be girls.

Shelley Zalis is the CEO of The Female Quotient and the creator of The Girls’ Lounge. She sold her research firm, OTX, to Ipsos in 2010 for about $80 million.