fbpx The power of language - London Youth

08 March 2019

Growing up as a little girl and now as a 30 year old woman, I have often been described as having a ‘bubbly’ personality. Despite the fact this description has always come from a very positive place I have always secretly hated the word.  Although on the occasion when I have protested I have always struggled to explain exactly why I feel irritated by this label and have never been able to quite put my finger on it.

It eventually struck me, on an overstuffed train home one night, that the word ‘bubbly’ is completely and utterly gendered. Although it conjures up images of someone who is happy and fun it also brings with it negative descriptors like airhead (another gendered word) and someone who doesn’t have much substance.

I mean, let’s face it what man has ever been described as bubbly? A quick Google search confirmed my theory: type in ‘famous men who were bubbly’ and you bizarrely get a list of male celebs under 5ft. Type in the same but exchange men for women and you get reams of lists of the cutest women, the nicest women and ‘celebs who used to be cheerleaders’. Point made.

Now, don’t get me wrong, being known for my cheery disposition is something to be proud of, but I want words used to describe me that share the same airspace as men. Words like confident, witty, happy and even loud will do just fine for me.

The power of language, particularly when used to describe others, is something we need to be increasingly aware of in our sector. The use of our language is often long discussed in the Equality and Diversity training I run here at London Youth; young people today are more diverse, more inclusive, and more likely to campaign for their rights and the rights of others than previous generations[i]. This presents a challenge for us as their mentors to be the best version of ourselves and challenge our own use of language and practices.

We need to understand and encourage our young people and give them access to space where they feel safe, grow confidence and make their plans to reverse global warming, vote for politicians that represent them and abolish the gender pay gap –  and that’s for starters.

In a recent training a youth worker asked me if it was ok to support their young people to set up a space specifically intended for girls. The answer is ‘100% yes!’ Of girls aged 7-10 surveyed in the Girls’ Attitudes Survey 76% think that ‘jokes about women being stupid or weak in the media badly affect the way people treat women’[1] How I ask myself, is this still a thing in 2019? The fact that young girls are continually being fed the image that they are less capable is a big issue and we need to do more. Girls’ only spaces are not about being away from boys – it is about focusing on issues that affect girls most and putting support in place. You don’t have to send the boys away, but they need to understand it is their time to listen and be respectful and that this isn’t about them.

We must also make sure that those spaces are inclusive for people who are trans and non-binary too. Sex and gender reassignment are protected characterstics in the Equality Act for a reason –  trans people especially face much higher levels of discrimination than others[ii]  and we need to do our duty to protect young people that may be facing this on a daily basis.

Turning 30 and being a woman has brought on lots of fresh new worries about where I’m headed in life, what I really want to prioritise over the next biologically precious 10 years and how I’m going to do all this and remain me (cheerful not bubbly). I know when I speak to many of my female friends that they too are feeling this, and I imagine that this will not change anytime soon. What we can change, however, is how we support one another as women, as colleagues and as friends and be an example to the young people around us. I meet regularly with a group of women peers who reflect and challenge each other and we have grown to implicitly trust and champion one another. It hasn’t been too long, but I can see and feel the good we are doing for one another and the growing belief we have in ourselves.

It is these women who have inspired me to write this blog and talk about how we all need a space to feel confident, because once we feel confidence inside, we are much more likely to take that outside into the big scary world.

– Sarah Pearce, Membership Development Officer


[1] https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/globalassets/docs-and-resources/research-and-campaigns/girls-attitudes-survey-2018.pdf (page 32)

[i] https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/publication/documents/2018-07/ipsos-thinks-beyond-binary-lives-loves-generation-z.pdf

[ii] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/news/new-research-exposes-profound-discrimination-trans-people-face

Join the conversation on social media using #BalanceforBetter on Twitter and Instagram.

Find out more about International Women’s Day here.

Share this article: