This year, the Boy Scouts of America are making changes. In February 2019, the organization will officially drop the word “boy” and change its name to “Scouts BSA.” It’s not an idle change; for the first time in its history, the Scouts are allowing girls to join and progress through scouting ranks, eventually earning the coveted Eagle Scout designation. “The leadership of the BSA determined that the best way to welcome girls to serve today’s families is to offer a unique model that builds on the proven benefits of our single-gender program, while also providing character and leadership opportunities for both boys and girls,” a representative of the organization tells HealthyWay via email. The move is somewhat controversial—and understandably so, since major changes to century-old organizations usually create some amount of controversy. But the Scouts’ new inclusivity highlights a cultural shift toward gender neutrality; these days, separating kids by biological sex seems almost arbitrary. Of course, the Scouts aren’t totally ignoring gender. The organization claims the change is practical, geared toward getting more families involved with scouting. “Now families can choose to sign up their sons and daughters for Cub Scouts,” the organization’s spokesperson explains. “Chartered partner organizations may choose to establish a new girl pack, establish a pack that consists of girl dens and boy dens, or remain an all-boy pack. Dens will be single gender—all boys or all girls.” We asked whether the Scouts have received any significant backlash from members. “Response has been very positive,” the spokesperson says. “In fact, 8,912 girls have already joined the Cub Scouts.” That’s a surprisingly large—and incredibly specific—number. The Cub Scout program, by the way, is the largest of the BSA’s scouting divisions, open to boys and girls from first through fifth grade. “Many of our current families, Scouts, donors, volunteers, and professional staff are in support of this decision, and in a number of cases from our Early Adopter efforts, we have heard that more parents have started volunteering since their entire family could now be involved.”
But soon after the Scouts announced the change, another major organization harshly criticized the move.
“Girl Scouts is the best girl leadership organization in the world, created with and for girls,” the Girl Scouts wrote in a blog shortly after the Scouts BSA announced their name change. While the blog didn’t mention the Scouts BSA by name, the message was clear. “We believe strongly in the importance of the all-girl, girl-led, and girl-friendly environment that Girl Scouts provides, which creates a free space for girls to learn and thrive.” The Girl Scouts—long maligned by traditionalists for their progressive stances on LGBT acceptance—were, in a sense, criticizing the Boy Scouts for being too inclusive. Their rationale: Some amount of gender exclusivity is healthy. “The benefit of the single-gender environment has been well-documented by educators, scholars, other girl- and youth-serving organizations, and Girl Scouts and their families,” the blog post continued. “Girl Scouts offers a one-of-a-kind experience for girls with a program tailored specifically to their unique developmental needs.” The blog, however, did not provide any references to support its “well-documented” benefits. It’s true that some educators and researchers believe single-gender structures can have benefits for kids. The science, however, is a bit complicated.
Let’s start with a widespread myth: Biological gender differences are, for the most part, overstated.
Some arguments against gender-neutral groups often cited psychological differences between boys and girls. Those differences aren’t exactly clear-cut, however. According to the American Psychological Association, a 2005 meta-analysis indicated “that men and women are basically alike in terms of personality, cognitive ability and leadership.” From adolescence to adulthood, males and females are more similar than dissimilar. We know what you’re thinking; boys and girls are different, almost from birth. But while some other studies show more defined differences between boys and girls, gender roles and social context play an enormous role—an objectively more significant role than neurological differences. For example, one meta-analysis looked at the stereotype that boys are generally better than girls at math. The research showed that boys and girls perform equally well in the subject until they reach high school. Through high school, boys gain a minor advantage. Even so, women are underrepresented in STEM fields. We can blame established gender roles for that unfortunate reality, along with key differences in how boys and girls are treated in classrooms. One study found that elementary school teachers routinely value boys’ comments over girls’ comments, and that, while boys are eight times more likely to call out in class without raising their hands, girls who called out were more likely to get a reminder to raise their hands next time. Those social differences are troubling, but again, they’re not physiological. We can’t really blame any fundamental differences between male and female brains for the distinctions, and we can’t really use physiological differences as an argument against mixed-gender activities.
The physical differences between the sexes might be a better argument for some single-gender groups.
In that area, the differences between boys and girls are obviously more pronounced. If an activity requires certain physical traits, it makes sense to limit enrollment to a single sex. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. In 2013, 12-year-old Madison Paige Baxter made headlines when her school, Strong Rock Christian School, kicked her off their football team. Madison had been a successful player, but according to her mother, Cassy Blythe, an official from the school said the boys on the team might “think of [Madison] in an impure way.” As Strong Rock Christian School is a private institution, it was not subject to Title IX regulations, which prevent public schools from discriminating on the basis of sex. The case brought an interesting tangle to the inclusivity discussion: Madison was apparently kicked off the team because of the way that boys might react, not because of concerns for her safety or a desire to provide boys with a single-gender group activity. The ejection was, in a word, unfair—not simply because it excluded Madison, but because it did so for the wrong reason. “My mom counted that I had five sacks,” Madison said at the time in an interview with ABC News. “The entire crowd thought it was one of their boys but when they saw my number and looked at the roster, they saw it was me. It’s taking that fun that I had for a year and snatching it right out from under me.”
That’s not to say there isn’t any justifiable reason to separate activities by gender.
Our point is simply that questions of inclusivity need to be treated carefully. In some situations, gender exclusivity might actually be beneficial for kids. Remember those social constructs we mentioned earlier? They’re certainly powerful, and in order to correct them, we need to teach young girls to recognize them. Boys and girls are treated differently by our society, and sometimes there’s nothing wrong with recognizing those differences. The Girl Scouts provide an excellent example. Writing for Slate, Parrish Turner notes that the organization provides kids with important lessons and leadership that wouldn’t be possible with a mixed-gender membership. Because the Girl Scouts assumes its members are female, scout leaders are able to talk about sexual harassment, discrimination, and various other topics specifically directed at women. They’re able to promote STEM fields, encourage girls to innovate, and give kids a safe space to develop into strong women. With that said, moderation is still crucial. We do know from research that mixed-gender friendships and activities can be helpful, and when there’s no reason to separate the sexes, it’s probably best to let them mingle. One study found that increasing cross-gender interactions actually diminishes aggression; in schools where those types of interactions were rare, cross-gender friendships created “status distinctions” that magnified the effect. In other words, in social environments where boys and girls aren’t typically expected to be friends, cross-gender friendships can have a powerful beneficial effect on behavior and, potentially, development.
Gender-exclusive situations may be helpful, but the reasoning behind them needs to be clear.
Ultimately, gender-exclusive groups aren’t necessarily a bad thing, provided the exclusion is occurring for a good reason. Kicking girls off a football team because the boys might have “impure thoughts” is harmful reasoning; establishing a girls-only group to give kids powerful female role models is perfectly reasonable. As for the Boy Scouts—soon to be called the Scouts BSA—the move towards inclusivity seems like a practical one to drive recruitment and keep families involved in scouting. It’s also not quite as inclusive as the headlines might indicate; single-gender packs and dens will still exist. Time will tell, but scouting purists probably don’t have to worry about the organization changing in profound ways. In the meantime, a mix of single- and mixed-gender activities seem like an appropriate foundation for well-rounded children. More important is that we keep discussing gender imbalances—and making sure that when we’re excluding kids from anything, we’re doing it for the right reasons.