Now that there has been a new wave of media coverage on the first female Eagle Scouts, this lack of awareness of—and respect for—Girl Scouting and the Gold Award is on full display.
This spring, the first class of young women to earn the rank of Eagle Scout has been making national news. It’s a major accomplishment for them, and at least on the surface, a major step for gender equality. The response however, reveals just how much pervasive sexism still exists in our society.
Eagle Scout has been awarded under one name or another since 1911. Approximately 8 percent of Boy Scouts earn this highest rank. The Girl Scout Gold Award has existed under one name or another since 1916 and is earned by just over 5 percent of Girl Scouts—including U.S. Senator and Veteran Tammy Duckworth. Both require months if not years of commitment, leadership and significant service to the community. Both are deserving of equal recognition and respect, but they don’t get it.
This was acknowledged in one of the most popular articles covering the announcement that girls would be allowed to earn the designation of Eagle Scout (from CNN, dated 12 October 2017):
“The rank of Eagle Scout is a prestigious and widely recognized achievement, one that can have long-term benefits in academic, professional and even military spheres. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Neil Armstrong and Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are just a few notable men who have attained the rank of Eagle Scout.
“While there is a rough equivalent in the Girl Scouts—the Gold Award—the honor is not nearly as well-known as the Eagle Scout distinction.”
For those who aren’t familiar, the Girl Scout Gold Award requires a minimum of 80 hours of work by the Gold Award Candidate identifying an issue, investigating it thoroughly, getting help and building a team, creating and presenting a project plan, gathering feedback, taking action, and educating and inspiring others. Gold Award projects must be sustainable and have a connection to the community, either globally or nationally. The Gold Award Project may only be undertaken after the required prerequisites are completed in full and only when the Girl Scout is in High School.
Now that there has been a new wave of media coverage on these first female Eagle Scouts, this lack of awareness of—and respect for—Girl Scouting and the Gold Award is on full display. As a woman in a male-dominated field who has studied societal gender issues at the graduate level and as a troop leader for a dozen ambitious and compassionate kindergarten Daisy Girl Scouts, this is infuriating; I want us to think about why.
My first thought as to why was to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Girl Scout organization and their PR team. So much energy goes into promoting cookies (a severely misunderstood program that maybe will get another piece someday), it’s easy to blame them for not giving the Gold Award its due. The reality is, however, that anything GSUSA could do is being done on an uneven playing field.
Just this week, Girl Scouts released a study highly relevant to this conversation: The Girl Scout Alum Difference: A Lifetime of Courage, Confidence, and Character. It is full of data-driven proof of how Girl Scouting impacts girls and young women in a constructive way, showing that Gold Girl Scouts pursue higher education and volunteer in their community at rates over 2.5 times that of their peers and continue in leadership roles throughout their lives. But is that huge amount of data enough to overcome the perception and respect gap that we’ve seen on display recently? Maybe it can be a start.
The assumption that male is the default, normal, better gender is so pervasive in our society that it’s almost impossible to see without deliberately looking. But once you start looking, you can see it everywhere. Even the World Economic Forum published a piece with Yale News on this: “Why male is our default gender.” We see this popping up in how we gender inanimate objects, how modern medicine has developed and is often still practiced, and in the pervasive assumptions that all-female institutions must by definition be worse than all male ones.
The idea of binary genders, of which one is better, is hugely problematic, and not just in the discussion of Eagle Scout vs. Gold Award—but this is a conversation on which we can shine a light today, and we have an obligation to do so. The effort and accomplishment of young women is just as worthy of our respect as that of young men. The institutions that have been built to serve women and girls are just as valuable to society as those built to serve boys and men.
Is there a problem with exclusive organizations? In many ways yes—but the bigger problem that we’re seeing manifested in the discussion of Scouting is that “feminine” isn’t respected as much as “masculine.” (And anything that doesn’t cleanly fit into one or the other isn’t often respected societally at all.) Sexist assumptions about what girls like versus what boys like manifests not only in our toy aisles with seas of pink and blue but also our assumptions about scouting, about which organization is “fluffy” and which is “real,” about which program and its accompanying years of hard work is more worthy of recognition. As one gentleman told a troop of girls: “Boy Scouts tie knots; Girl Scouts tie bows.”
For those wanting to argue that this doesn’t exist, I ask you: Why is it so much more socially acceptable for women to wear pants (the historically male norm) than for men to wear dresses (the historically female norm)? Why is “like a girl” still an insult? Why would an award that is arguably harder to earn, and is held by an even smaller and more elite group of people, be so much less known than its rough male equivalent? Why can’t the more prestigious institution—whether it be a university, a club, or a scouting organization, be the female one?