THE first time I was called a lady, I was wearing elf ears. I was 13 years old and I’d landed a super-sweet paid gig handing out free chocolates to people buying Christmas trees at what these days we’d style a “pop-up” shop, but in those days was a disused hotel car park.

“Ask the lady if you can have some,” said a mother to her shy child, and I was momentarily confused and a little indignant. Why did she need to ask a lady when I was standing right here, and my entire role in this operation was confectionery distribution? What a cheek. But of course she meant me. Cutting a dash in my sophisticated uniform (a dark green body warmer with a smiling cartoon tree on the back), not yet five feet tall, not yet aware that when our budget Santa Claus kept retreating to his little garden shed and returning smelling of booze, he was merely conforming to well-established cliche. An innocent in the world. A girl, not yet a woman.

It was thrilling, this idea of becoming a lady to whom people might defer, whose permission or approval they might seek, whose opinion they might value.

I thought back to those heady days last Sunday, shortly after disembarking from a taxi at the BBC Scotland headquarters. There’d been minimal chit-chat with the taxi driver, who seemed a friendly enough chap, as I don’t do chit-chat before 9am and my mind was firmly focused on the Brexit proposals cooked up at Chequers 36 hours earlier and what might happen next.

It was a short journey, and he cheerfully announced its conclusion with a snappy sign-off. “There we are, good girl,” he chirped as I waited for the red light to go out. “Thanks!” I replied, decades worth of female socialisation kicking in, before my brain had quite caught up with my ears. My 36-year-old brain. My 36-year-old ears.

I suspect there will be some among you rolling your eyes. So what? Who cares? What does it matter that a random man addressed you as he might an obedient Labrador, or a potty-training toddler? Get over it. And of course I did get over it, tapping out a quick tweet about it before turned my attention back to the likely timing of the first resignation (which I’m smug enough to point out I got correct to within the nearest hour).

But it does matter, this girlification of adult women against their will. It mattered to me when I listened to a talk some years ago by Vicky Pryce, the economist and wife of LibDem MP Chris Huhne who was reflecting on her time in prison. Remember that pair? They were both jailed in 2013 for perverting the course of justice after she falsely claimed responsibility for racking up his speeding points to prevent him from losing his licence. She bounced back quickly from her two-month spell behind bars, had a book about the experience ready for Christmas stockings five months later, then hit the promotional trail.

During her appearance at the Aye Write! book festival she spoke to a former governor of Barlinnie about Prisonomics, which purports to explore the social and economic costs of imprisoning women in particular. Except she didn’t talk about women. She talked about “girls”.

She was asked if she felt conspicuous, as a middle-class professional in prison? No, she replied, she was just one of the girls. The girls in prison, the girls who had experienced violence, abuse, poverty, addiction, the girls who all looked out for each other. Orange is the New Black is wasn’t, apparently.

It made me uncomfortable. It felt false, cynical, patronising, infantilising. When it was time for questions, I decided to ask her about it. I raised my 31-year-old hand, and was the first to be called upon. You can perhaps guess what’s coming next. The former prison governor directed the microphone-carrier to “the girl down here at the front”.

I can already hear the howls about hypocrisy. “What about your ‘girls’ nights out’?” “What about ‘girl code’ or ‘girl power’ or all these other times you women call yourself girls?”. “How dare you shame an innocent taxi driver/prison governor for the supposed crime you commit yourself on a regular basis?” There is, of course, a world of difference between a man or woman self-describing as a boy or a girl, or using the term to refer to their peers (their actual peers, not vulnerable people they are pretending are their peers in order to research a book), and the word being assigned to them. Perhaps my taxi driver refers to male political commentators as good boys, but somehow I very much doubt it.

Of course this split-second incident didn’t put me off my stride (did I mention I also forecast an attention-seeking Brexiteer resignation in between World Cup front pages?) but it’s part of a broader context of subtle undermining, diminishing and disrespecting. Girls just wanna have fun, they don’t wanna have professional careers. Girls can’t help it, whereas adult women are capable of exercising restraint. Girls are prized, above all, for their youth, not their brains.

The fact that this girl-bombing is often subconscious, with zero malicious intent, does not mean it should pass without comment. The polite correction of a well-meaning gentleman might be enough to change the habit of a lifetime. Perhaps after a while men themselves will pick up the baton, and start correcting their male colleagues. Boy, wouldn’t that make a refreshing change?