Some Thoughts on Scouting, Gender Differences, and Equality

Am I the only person who sees this so clearly?

I’m on Twitter a lot — even more lately since I’m trying to rest up to prevent a mild cold from becoming a bad one. One of the accounts I follow is Stephen Colbert. I’m a big fan — which, by the way, is the only reason I subscribe to CBS All Access — and although he doesn’t tweet often, what he has to say is usually right on target. Yesterday, he tweeted about the Boy Scouts of America now allowing girls to join: “How about we drop the whole “boy” and “girl” scouts thing and call them what they are: Kids with knives who know how to set fires.”

He was trying to be funny, of course, but there was a deeper meaning to his tweet. At least I found one. I replied, “I think @boyscouts and @girlscouts should merge as just plain SCOUTS to keep scouting alive and teach the same skills to all.” My suggestion — which I was completely serious about — seemed to be a hit with other Twitter users. At last count, it had 242 “likes,” which is pretty good for one of my tweets. I was almost immediately directed to an organization called Navigators USA, which seems (from its website) to promote the kind of healthy attitude we need in kids. Another Twitter user tweeted “That’s how it is overseas” and someone else immediately agreed.

The conversation took off in all kinds of directions, ranging from cookie sales to corruption to exposés on Boy Scout policies. Some of it was interesting, other tweets were propagandist. I enjoyed reminiscing about cookie sales with another person around my age. But the direction that interested me was the one that seemed to concern a handful of people: the differences between boys and girls. One person tweeted:

What is wrong with having Girl Scouts as well as Boy Scouts? Why don’t boys want to join the Girl Scouts ? What’s wrong with males and females being different? Why do women want to be the same as men? Gender will never go away no matter the century

Wow. Just wow.

In 240 characters — which I have yet to be endowed with — he managed to pinpoint the root of the problem in today’s gender biased world.

He wasn’t the only one with this backwards thinking. Another woman tweeted: “There are boys and there are girls different in many ways, I believe that’s a good thing!!” Then she went on to add, in typical gutsy-because-of-anonimity fashion: “Maria, there’s something really wrong with you!” (And if you haven’t guessed it, yes, she is a #MAGA Trump supporter. Sheesh.)

Still another argued that “Boys need Men (whether gay, straight, whatever) ALL men! Girls need strong women mentors. The rest is all sorted out as we (hopefully) grow.” When I attempted to engage her in a conversation pointing out that gender roles were old fashioned thinking, she finally blurted, “Yes, we’ll all become robots.” Where did that come from? I had enough, said goodbye, and muted her.

I figured this might be a good time to blog more thoroughly about my thoughts on this matter.

Gender Differences

Yes, there are biological differences between boys and girls. I will not argue that. I am a human, I’ve had sex, I’ve seen naked men and women. We are different.

Some people will argue that those biological differences extend to thinking and brain function. I am not qualified to comment on that. I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist. I don’t even know enough about those two fields to be able to link to studies that prove one idea or another on this topic. I don’t want to mislead people by sharing information I can’t verify so I won’t.

I’ll just tell you what my 50+ years as a female in America have shown me.

I was one of two girls in my family. My sister is very close in age — only 16 months younger than me. We were raised together almost as if we were twins.

But I became the tomboy. While my sister was playing with her friend’s dolls, I was playing with her friend’s brother’s Hot Wheels. I was doing jumps on my bike, whittling pointy sticks with a pocket knife (and I still have the scar where the damn thing closed on my finger), and reading race car magazines I got from a friend. Sure, I had dolls and yes, I did occasionally play with them — when I was younger. But there were other things that interested me more.

And yes, my mother raised me as a girl. I learned to cook and sew — hell, I made clothes on a sewing machine for my Barbie doll. I learned how to clean house and change diapers — my brother came along when I was eight — and do all the other things a woman was expected (in those days, anyway) to take care of when she got married and started a family. And most of these things have served me well all my life.

(And no, I never identified as a boy or was attracted to women sexually. In all honesty, I found most — but not all — women pretty dull and still do.)

But my mother never taught me to troubleshoot a broken vacuum cleaner or rewire a wall socket. She never explained how to replace the workings of a toilet tank. She never showed me how to change a tire or even how to check a tire to see if a tire’s pressure was low because it had sat too long or if it had an actual leak.

These are all skills I’ve used more than once throughout my life. Skills that are taught to boys but not girls.

Why?

And why is it that boys aren’t taught how to cook or sew or clean house? Well, maybe they are these days, but when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, boys were expected to be in shop class and not home economics.

I doubt they would have let me into shop class. As it was, I was the only girl in drafting class in high school.

Our culture and education system supported gender differences. Boys did and learned these things and girls did and learned these other things. There was little overlap.

And that sets up dependencies. Women depending on men to do specific things for them; men depending on women to do other things for them.

It’s quaint and I’m sure some of the Twitter users I quoted above seem to think it’s “right.” But is it?

Why should either gender be reliant on the other for basic tasks of everyday life? Why should I have to “call a man” to come fix my toilet when I can buy a kit at the hardware store for $15 and do it myself? Why should a man, when his wife goes off on ladies night, have to eat leftovers or take out food when he should be able to cook a meal for himself?

Yes, there are gender differences. But should those differences limit the capabilities of a man or woman?

I say no.

Scouting

I have to admit that I don’t know much about today’s scouting organizations. I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout and even a Cadet for a short time back in the late 60s and early 70s. But I don’t have kids so I don’t have experience with scouting beyond that experience.

I will say this: When I was in the Girl Scouts, they taught a wide range of skills ranging from basic homemaking skills (cooking, sewing, cleaning) to outdoor skills (camping, making fires, cooking outdoors, first aid). As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I learned how to shoot a rifle in Girl Scouts. We learned teamwork and the importance of being prepared for anything. I also sold cookies, door to door, which taught me how to approach strangers and ask them to buy something they didn’t need. (And yes, I know that door-to-door sales by kids is difficult in today’s crazy world, but it’s still possible with supervision.)

My favorite part of Girl Scouts was always the camping trips. Cooking our own meals over hot coals, telling ghost stories, sleeping with a bunch of girls in a platform tent similar to the one I own now, having raccoons run over our feet because someone left a candy bar in their duffle bag. Hiking in the woods, whittling sticks, getting dirty. I loved it all.

And I still cook that aluminum foil chicken and vegetable dinner once in a while when I’m camping with friends.

I suspect Girl Scouts is very different these days. I hope not.

I truly believe that scouting can teach valuable skills to kids. I’m not just talking about the skills I listed above — or those that Stephen Colbert mentioned jokingly in his tweet — I’m talking about social and interpersonal skills. I’m talking about values, like self-reliance and respect for diversity. And perhaps respect for the opposite gender.

And that’s where I was going with my tweet. I don’t see why we need two separate scouting organizations. Why can’t girls and boys play and learn together? Why do we have to stress differences? Why can’t we focus on how we’re the same?

Gender Equality

And all that comes back to what I’ve been saying for years about gender equality:

It’s impossible for women to be treated the same as men if society continues to stress how different they are.

I’m in my third career in a male-dominated field. I’ve had success in all three careers. Could it be, in part, because of the way I think?

I think I’m equal, therefore I am.

On average, I was equal in skills to my male counterparts in every career. Probably better than some and not quite as good as others. But certainly good enough to get the job done in a way that kept me employed and earning a good living.

And has anyone ever heard me whine about equal pay or how hard it is to be a woman?

Maybe it’s the acceptance of society’s “norms” that are keeping women from achieving everything they can?

Maybe it’s the backwards thinking that boys and girls are different so we need to treat them differently from birth. From the toys we offer them to the things we teach them at home, in school, and in organizations like scouting, we are feeding gender inequality.

Maybe it’s time to stop?

18 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Scouting, Gender Differences, and Equality

  1. I was in the Boy Scouts for quite a few years, it was a big part of my childhood. My troop was very active, with regular meetings, frequent camp outs and lots of hikes in New Mexico and Colorado. I went all the way through to Eagle Scout, their highest rank, so I do have some experience to speak from.

    In my opinion, the Boy Scouts are making a mistake by not fully including girls in their program. The organization is in a decades long decline, their demographic is shrinking as the U.S. population gets older and families get smaller. The prevalence (and necessity) of two-income families and the resulting pinch on free time makes it harder for parents to carve out the time needed to support and participate. Like every organization, there will always be some families that contribute a lot more time and resources than others do, but when ALL of the parents are struggling to break free from work it makes it a real uphill battle to organize events like weekend camp out weekends and such.

    The old-school “traditionalists” still have a lot of influence in the national organization of the Boy Scouts, but they are largely from a generation that didn’t face the financial and time challenges of todays families. Trying to act as if this was still the 50’s or 60’s and every family had a stay-at-home parent and plenty of both time and disposable income isn’t going to cut it, no matter how strong the nostalgic appeal. If the organization doesn’t find the flexibility to adapt to the realities of modern family life, it’s not going to matter whether or not they want girls in or not. Without enough kids to keep Scouts a going concern, they’re not going to exist.

    Let the girls in boys, you need them more than you know.

  2. Hey Maria. This is Jim, your long-time Twitter friend. While I disagree with some of what you say, I respect the way you present your ideas.

    On this topic, these two sentences from your post (in back-to-back paragraphs) sum up the discord between you and I:

    “I’m talking about values, like self-reliance and respect for diversity.”

    “Why do we have to stress differences? Why can’t we focus on how we’re the same?”

    Should we respect diversity or focus on how we’re the same? This is also my issue with hiring quotas. If you value having a diverse workforce because different people, different genders, bring different viewpoints, which strengthen the organization then you are acknowledging that genders are inherently different. If you feel that there is no inherit difference between genders then there is no benefit to diversity.

    So which is it?

    • PS: We’re on the same page with equality. But a silver dollar is equal to a dollar bill, despite their differences.

    • Yes. A person is a person. A worker is a worker. Why put labels on people related to gender, religion, skin color, sexual preferences, etc? Don’t compare as if apples and oranges. Compare as if two varieties of apples.

    • You can respect diversity AND focus on how we’re the same. At least I can.

      Take a Muslim woman who chooses to wear a hijab. I’m not a religious person, but I have respect for her decision to not only be Muslim but to follow the customs of her religion in keeping her head covered in public. But, at the same time, she’s still a person who has many things in common with me. Why should I focus on how she’s different and possibly discriminate against her because of that when I can focus on how she’s the same and has the same rights I do?

      Using your example, everyone has a different view point. Gender is only part of the reason. This diversity does add to the workplace and we need to respect that. But again, we’re all people with the same rights and possibly the same knowledge and capabilities as far as the work is concerned. Why not focus on that?

      Or maybe I’m not understanding your question?

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful post. I am in two minds about your remarks. I was an architect in the UK — still a highly male-dominated profession; I was treated well, but many of my women colleagues were not. I never saw a woman architect before going to architecture school, and never (quite) realized women could BE architects, despite my own femininism. So I do think there is a place for all-gal projects and programs, especially when statistics assert that girls in all-girl schools do better than girls in mixed schools.

    • I never saw a woman architect before going to architecture school, and never (quite) realized women could BE architects, despite my own femininism.

      This says a lot. I’m hoping you’re the same generation as me (or around there) because this kind of thinking was common when I was growing up. I wanted to be an architect when I was 13 — I was designing home on graph paper back then. But that was absurd! I was a girl. So my highest aspirations were to become a florist. It was only when the possibility of college became a reality that I started thinking beyond that. And even then, I deferred to the advice of family members and wound up going into accounting.

      The truth of the matter is that women can do anything. Their limitations have nothing to do with their brains or intelligence but more to do with physical capabilities — I’m thinking heavy lifting — and many women who really want to can overcome those.

      Yes, there is a place for all-girl or all-boy programs. But it should not be forced upon us. We — and I’m referring to both boys and girls here — should have a choice.

      I got scolded and lectured for playing with my sister’s friend’s brother’s Hot Wheels that day when I “should have been playing with the girls.” That’s wrong. A kid should learn and explore whatever they want to fuel their imagination. Who’s to say that the girl playing with the toolbox in preschool (that was me, too, according to my mother) won’t be an amazing mechanic or inventor some day? Who’s to say that the boy playing with Barbie dolls won’t become a fashion designer or costume director for the movies? How many kids are steered away from the things they really love because it’s not “gender appropriate”? When is it going to stop?

      And how has society’s forcing of accepted gender roles hurt the chances of women (or men, for that matter) from succeeding in careers dominated by the other gender?

      A side note here: I was threatened with an all-girls Catholic (of all things) high school when I was a kid. I swore I’d flunk out in a month. I couldn’t imagine anything more restrictive than being one of a bunch of uniformed teenage girls lectured by nuns. I think I did pretty good with my mixed gender education.

  4. Maria, I agree with you and Colbert and like our analysis. There will need to be some fine tuning down the line, and some adjustment, but doing what you suggest goes beyond experimental and deserves implementation.

    • I wish. Sadly, American has to step into the 21st Century before something like that could happen. Right now, we’ve got too many forces trying to drag us back into the Dark Ages.

  5. Personally, I think that girls and boys scouting together is a great idea. Firstly because their opportunities will be equal, and not “separate but equal”. Some boys and some girls don’t get to socialize with the opposite sex and don’t really get to see what constitutes a nice guy/girl and what constitutes a jerk in the safety of a group setting. And it gives the “jerks” in the group the opportunity to see what they’re doing wrong and adjust their attitudes. In other words it gives kids the opportunity to question and correct things learned from dysfunctional parents instead of growing up with the same screwed up attitudes they learned at home. Some kids really need a social place of normalcy. Also, boys need to learn more about girls than what they learn about them from other boys.

  6. There is a vast literature on this topic. It ranges from ‘Biology Is Destiny’ studies (you will not like these) to the the more nuanced work of Sandra and Daryl Bem on ‘androgyny’ . I think you might like Sandra Bem’s work.

    An Unconventional Family (1998), New Haven YUP. Is an easy read but you might prefer her discussion of the concept of ‘androgyny’ which in essence is a measure of how much a person has escaped adopting gender stereotypes. Your self description above implies a high level of androgyny. You have successfully adopted both masculine and feminine interests in your identity. This is far more common these days than when Bem started her work in the 1970’s.

    See Wikki for her full publication list.

    • I think you’re right about my adoption of both feminine and masculine interests. And I think my problem — or perhaps the problem of most other people? — is that I don’t see why interests need to be assigned a gender.

  7. Ms. Langer, thank you again for using your voice to speak up! I relate to you as a woman in the USA and no matter how many times somebody calls me a libtard or tries to invalidate my experience I find that what I am persists. I am a woman, an artist, an aspiring academic, and a single mom to a special needs kid- in spite of being called “too masculine” or too smart or presumed gay or ungrateful or worse by the patriarchal and most sexist among them. I don’t usually engage with the sleepy-headed old-timer (“fundamentalist”) types in these fights, because I simply don’t have time. I feel that me being my weird, “queer” self and pursuing happiness is a greater value to the fight. Thinking of it as a fight is even wrong, because gender equality is a win-win. What have we got to lose? A few women might let their arm-pit hair grow in. More than a few boys will have to grow up…
    I find that, as I pursue my dreams, more and more people are coming to the right side of history on this. Especially the younger generations.
    I was about 15 years older than my classmates as I received my BFA (lib-tard educamation!), and the women and men growing up in this world today are learning to operate outside the spheres of these issues in as much as is possible. True, that in a sense, that we are inexorably part-and-parcel to this society, but I have hope that the old attitudes die out as human beings are born into less repressive situations.
    Have you ever read Rebecca Solnit?
    Love from the south-east,
    s

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think we’re making great strides in equality, but not by whining about inequality. We all bring our own strengths to every situation, we just need to prove what we can do.

      Don’t let the right wingers get you down. Let them raise their children to be uneducated entitled whiners with a dark ages mentality. Those of us who know the value of education and aren’t afraid to work hard and smart to get ahead will leave them in the dust.

      And no, I haven’t read Rebecca Solnit. I’ll look her up. But I don’t consider myself a “feminist” and have very little patience for radical feminist writing; I hope that’s not what she does. Thanks for the suggestion.

  8. One more thing, Some people have penises and some people don’t eat meat, some have curly hair, Some can run fast and some can knit and some can fly helicopters. We are all the same in that we are all different. Within these groups (m/f) we are different than each other in ways, and at the same time overlap in countless, complex ways. That is why we have to stop lumping people into two genders. It is really simple.

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