The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) recently announced that it will admit girls to the organization. Girls have participated in some BSA programs in the past. However, under this new policy, young girls will officially be allowed to join young boys in the Cub Scouts in the new year. In 2019, older girls will also be able to join, giving them the opportunity to achieve the prestigious Eagle Scout ranking.
Boy Scouts have been instituting policies of diversity and inclusion since about 2013 when it lifted its ban on openly gay members. Two years later, BSA allowed gay Scout leaders. Transgender members were officially allowed admission beginning in January of this year. To be clear, while BSA now admits gay and trans* members, we don’t necessarily know just how included they feel as outsiders let in.
BSA’s membership has been declining for about the last 40 years. Its numbers are more than half of what it was in the 1970s. Randall Stephenson, BSA national board chairman, does not mention increasing membership as an impetus for the new girls-allowed policy. Stephenson says, instead, that it’s time to make the Scouts’ “outstanding leadership development programs available to girls.” Having a single scouts’ organization, according to Stephenson, would also lessen the logistical burden placed on busy parents who have to shuttle their kids to different organizations.
Since its inception, Girl Scouts has been about empowering its young members. This goal has not always meant liberating girls from oppressive social roles. Empowerment included teaching girls to become mothers of families; later, empowerment meant exposing girls to careers that were socially constructed as masculine.
Girls Scouts of America felt blind-sided by BSA’s announcement and they fervently disagree with this new co-ed policy. Lisa Margosian, chief customer officer for the Girl Scouts, argues that girls thrive in an all-girls environment where they “can experiment, take risks and stretch themselves in the company of other girls.”
It is important for girls to feel safe and comfortable in their learning environments. The danger, in theory and practice, is that this gender separation will reinforce prevailing gender roles. For example, girls are taught to serve and nurture. They are to be protected against men, crime, poverty. Boys are taught to protect women and earn money to support the family.
Think of Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts as microcosms and training grounds for the American workforce. As they stand now, these organizations reify gender stereotypes. Boys are leaders, thinkers, strong, providers and protectors. They literally learn survival skills in the woods. BSA grooms boys for the “good old boys” club that is corporate America. Meanwhile, girls are taught to be caregivers. Selling cookies as a fundraiser is a precursor to the stereotypical role of moms making baked good for school fundraisers. Moms take on this role whether their full-time job is an at-home mother or they work outside of the home. Even when moms are financial providers, they are also socially-coded as caregivers. They do double the work. Dads, however, are deemed exceptional or even deviant when they are at-home-dads or when they work double duty as caregivers and providers.
From birth onward, gender displays like behaviors, appearances, mannerisms, and other cues become concretized in the everyday lives of individuals. What we think is innate gender expression is actually an internalized and socially-constructed understanding of gender roles. Children are conditioned to internalize and perform gender roles before they are even born. Gender reveal parties and baby showers usually associate boy children with the color blue and girls with the color pink. These same choices tend to continue through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and then parenthood all over again. These internalized gender roles stigmatize professional women as emotional and ill-suited for leadership. They have also served to exclude women from white-collar professional workspaces on the whole. STEM disciplines are still boys-only clubs.
No doubt there are significant logistical and ideological details to work out, not only for BSA but also for the Girl Scouts. Moreover, we must deeply scrutinize BSA’s new policies of admitting gay, transgender, and girl members as motivated by the desperate need to increase membership. Nevertheless, BSA is positioning itself to occupy the unique position of teaching boys and girls to work together and to value each other as equals. This step has the potential to help usher in a new era of actual “equal employment opportunity.”
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