Gender and Organizations
By Sally Raskoff
As the Girl Scouts of the USA celebrates their hundredth year, girls across the country continue to join the organization. Membership rates have fluctuated over the years, but along with the Boy Scouts they continue to serve our society by providing youth activities and opportunities for community service. Kids who join Scouts develop their skills in many different areas by participating in games, camping, sales, and community service activities.
Recently, a child in Colorado asked to join the Girl Scouts, as her older sister had. While the sister was able to join, this child was at first denied access by the scout leader because they did not consider her female. This transgender child has a male body, but has identified as a girl since she was two. Now seven, she wanted to follow her sister into Scouts.
The troop leader’s response was that “he” couldn’t join because “he” had male parts, not female parts. She was quickly corrected by the national organization whose position is that if someone who identifies as a girl wants to be a Girl Scout, she should be a Girl Scout. Subsequently, their statement included a note about the need to give their troop leader sensitivity training.
I was not surprised about the position of the national organization. I wrote my dissertation on the organization, studying adult members of both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, both volunteers and paid staff. I did interviews and did participant observation, taking field notes as I became a leader. While I found many interesting things, it was abundantly clear that both of these organizations reinforce and reflect the gender definitions that we have in society. Both are great examples of how gender structures not just people but also society and organizations.
Both the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts provide their members with virtually the same activities; the main difference between the organizations is that they serve different gender groups. As they have both existed for some time, their policies have changed throughout the years but they certainly reflect our gender hierarchy, definitions, and inequalities.
Theories about gender regimes, hold that in societies where men are the group with more power, defining masculinity requires that boys and men conform to a very narrow definition of what men should be (often referred to as hegemonic masculinity). Women, as the group with less societal power, have more flexibility in how they should and could be feminine.
Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are great examples of these differences.
In the Boy Scouts, there is an emphasis on conformity and hewing strictly to the belief system. If you do not believe in God, you cannot be a member. If you are not heterosexual, do not let that be known, especially if you are a leader. Competition and individualism are key ideals and activities focus on winning.
In Girl Scouts, if you don’t believe in God, you don’t have to say that part of the Promise, you can remain silent or substitute your own words. If you are not heterosexual, it is not a concern.
Competition and individualism, quintessentially American ideals, are they are taught in a context of cooperation and team spirit within the Girl Scouts. Rarely do you hear of Girl Scout leaders losing or injuring members on a hike or during an activity. Accidents occurring in Girl Scout activities typically involve outsiders or equipment failures, not competitive or risky behaviors. This is not so in Boy Scouts.
One of the key findings in my research was how differently the two organizations are rewarded and perceived by society. A quote from an interviewee still sticks in my memory as they recounted fund raising first for Boy Scouts, then for Girl Scouts. They had a regular donor who gave one thousand dollars every year to the Boy Scouts, but when they requested funds for Girl Scouts, the check was missing a zero – it was only for a hundred dollars! When asked, “Why the difference considering that the kids do the very same useful activities?” the donor replied, “What would girls do with that kind of money?”
This attitude explains why Girl Scouts must depend heavily on that oh-so-important cookie sale every year to meet their budgets and the Boy Scouts sale of popcorn or nuts is just one of many activities in which they may participate. Former members and community groups give a lot of money to Boy Scouts, while the amount donated to Girl Scouts is much less.
Maybe some people give less money to the Girl Scouts because they share the attitude reflected by the quote above and think that girls’ activities are trivial. The gendered wage gap also affects fundraising. Former Girl Scouts don’t make as much money on average as former Boy Scouts. Men are still paid more and are promoted faster and higher than are women and this has a direct impact on both scouting organizations.
One hundred years ago, Juliette Low started the Girl Scouts, not the Girl Guides as they were in other countries, to allow American girls to reach their potential and be active, not passive, participants in the world. Her legacy continues today even though gender inequalities still exist to challenge the success of those efforts.
As the Girl Scouts continue to train their own leaders and other members to be truly inclusive, they face an uphill battle, as they always have.