Cookies or Careers? Gender Biases in Scouting

job interview You see those adorable little Girl Scouts selling cookies outside your local supermarket, and you'd think they might be getting some job skills that will be useful in the future. That may be true, but a recent study of the official Boy Scout and Girl Scout manuals show that boys and girls are being prepared in very different ways for very different types of jobs. Distinct gender biases in the two organizations were revealed.

Girl Scouts, for example, are steered away from scientific pursuits while Boy Scouts are discouraged from pursuing artistic interests. Kathleen Denny, a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park, analyzed scouting manuals and found that, despite the positive aspects of the two scouting organizations, today's scouts are being fed stereotypical ideas about femininity and masculinity. Her findings were recently published in Gender & Society, the highly-ranked journal of Sociologists for Women in Society.

"The disproportionate and gendered distribution of art and science projects aligns with the large body of research that finds girls being systematically derailed from scientific and mathematical pursuits and professions due to cultural beliefs and stereotypes about their relative ineptitude in these areas," says Denny.

Denny also found:

  • Girls are more likely than the boys to be offered activities involving art projects; Girls' art activities make up 11 percent of their total activities.
  • Scientifically-oriented activities make up only 2 percent of all girls' activities, but boys science activities take up 6 percent of their scouting time.
  • Despite her findings of stereotypical notions of femininity, Denny found that the girls' handbook "fosters intellectual dependence and passivity." Girls are routinely instructed to look for answers in the back of their guide, while boys are encouraged to do original research.
  • The names of Scout badges convey strong messages about gender. Stereotypical ideas about "embellished femininity and stoic masculinity" are communicated in the level of playfulness (and the lack thereof) that characterize the different badge titles.
  • Some 27 percent of girls' badge titles use playful literary techniques such as alliteration and puns, while 0 percent of boys' badge titles do so. The boys' badge dealing with rocks and geology, for example, is called the "Geologist" badge, while the comparable girls' badge is called the "Rocks Rock" badge.
  • Boys' badge titles use more career-oriented language (such as Engineer, Craftsman, and Scientist), whereas girls' badge titles consistently use more playful language with less of a career orientation. (Instead of the boy's "Astronomer," the comparable girls badge is called "Sky Search." Instead of "Mechanic," a similar girl badge is called "Car Care.")

"When boys speak to others about their Geologist badge, they have a legitimate career title to use and are likely to be taken more seriously in conversations than girls discussing their achievement of a 'Rocks Rock' badge," Denny says.

She also found that the types of activities the badges entail are "the most explicitly gendered dimensions in the girls' handbook." Examples of badges that have to do with stereotypically feminine activities include: Caring for Children, Looking Your Best, and Sew Simple. In addition to activities about personal hygiene and healthy eating, the Looking Your Best badge offers activities such as a "Color Party" that asks the girls to "take turns holding different colors up to your face [to] decide which colors look best on each of you." That same badge also offers the activity option of an "Accessory Party" where the girls "experiment to see how accessories highlight your features and your outfit."

These badges are not offered to Boy Scouts; the boys' Fitness badge, the only one approximating a personal-style badge, offers activities such as completing a week-long food diary and telling a family member about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Speaking of gender disparity in the scouting programs, did you ever wonder why there's no prestigious equivalent of the Eagle Scot program for girls? Most employers see the Eagle Scout designation on a young applicant's resume as a distinct advantage, but they are unaware of any similar distinction for girls.

Denny's point is not that boys' and girls' scouting programs should be exactly the same, just that the boys' program seems far more career-oriented than the girls'. By bringing the situation to light, perhaps it can be rectified.

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