Does Boy Scouts’ Decision to Accept Girls Spell Doom for Girl Scouts?

The Girl Scouts are not happy that the BSA has come out with a promise to serve girls, but no strong specifics on how they'll do so. And it could impact their ability to stay in business.

A detial view of a Boy Scout uniform. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

I’m a Girl Scout. I was one as a child, earning my Gold Award as a 16-year-old by coordinating a county-wide canned food drive to stock a local food bank. I’ve been an adult volunteer for years: I’ve taken a pack of first graders camping and gotten them to calm down before bed by doing yoga; I had cases of Thin Mints piled in my living room when I was the booth sales coordinator for my niece’s troop; I’m currently pulling together an alternate meeting for my daughter’s Daisy troop because our weekend camping plans have been scuttled by the Napa wildfires. I’m stating all this up front because the news that the Boy Scouts of the U.S.A. will be admitting girls is news that affects me personally.

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For those of you who are all, “The Boy Scouts did what now?” here’s the scoop: On Wednesday, the board of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) unanimously approved a plan that would allow little girls into Cub Scouts; craft a scouting program for older girls; and let young women earn the rank of Eagle Scout. The change is expected to take effect in the 2018-2019 scouting year. The BSA has offered co-ed programs for years, including its Sea Scout program, but allowing girls the opportunity to earn the BSA’s highest honor is new.

So what? One notable thing about how the Boy Scouts are positioning this: They’re openly acknowledging the realities of the modern American family. In an August 2017 video, “Making Scouting Accessible,” the national commissioner of the BSA, Charles W. Dahlquist II, broached the issue the BSA is hoping to address with this change:

As life gets busier and busier, we’ve heard from families and scouting leaders throughout this BSA that there is also a need to help make scouting more accessible. When we speak of accessibility, it not only means convenience for families balancing jobs, school schedules and extracurricular activities, but it’s also a matter of cultural access, realizing that many of our communities and younger parents we are just beginning to serve prefer to do things as a whole family unit. As such, accessibility means we need to address how we consider the daughters in the families whose sons we’ve traditionally sought to serve.

He’s not kidding about those busier lives. A solid majority (61 percent) of two-parent American homes have both parents working. And as Brigid Schulte reported in her 2014 book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, the ways American families spend their time has changed too:

While leisure time for men and fathers remained relatively unchanged until recently, once mothers went to work, they sacrificed virtually every scrap of what had once been personal leisure time in order to spend it with their children. Gone is the “pure” leisure of the adults-only coffee klatches, bridge parties, and cocktail and dinner parties of the 1960s. Gone, too, is much of the civic volunteering. Weekend activities often center on kids’ sports, cheering on the sidelines, or educationally enriching activities, like trips to the museum or zoo or schlepping them to cello lessons. More than ever, families socialize together: Going out to dinner usually means bringing the whole family along.

If the BSA is pitching themselves as the one-stop shop for family extracurriculars, they’ll seem like the best option for time-crunched families who don’t want to have to figure out which parent is schlepping which child to which one of two activities that have been simultaneously scheduled.

Who cares? The Girl Scouts sure do. They are not happy that the BSA has come out with a promise to serve girls, but no strong specifics on how they’ll do so. And yet, and like the BSA, they have been struggling with declining membership.

They’re also concerned with how girls would fare in a mixed-gender scouting environmentresearch shows that in single-sex programs, girls are more likely to speak up, tackle challenging situations or tasks, and assume leadership roles.

The Girl Scouts have also been eying the gender gap in outdoorsy activities among adolescents: teen girls are 12 percent less likely than their male counterparts to go cycling, running, fishing, camping and hiking. And Girl Scouts are often the entry point into the great outdoors for lots of girls. So the organization’s solution has been to roll out new outdoor activity badges and encourage different local councils to try out activity programs aimed at giving girls hands-on experience in field archery, wilderness food prep, winter outdoors survival, and whitewater rafting.

The question is whether those initiatives will be enough to compete against the Boy Scouts’ new promise to simplify your family’s schedule.

(It’s also notable that the Girl Scouts have not, as an organization, come out swinging against the BSA’s proposition that they have the handle on work-life issues. You’d think that since women are disproportionately affected by the lack of leisure time and have greater work-life time management issues, this would actually be something GSUSA would want to get out in front of by pointing out how family friendly their troops are—if that is actually the case.)

To close this as I began, on a personal note, you all know I love the outdoors and I do credit scouting. I was lucky enough to spend my formative scouting years in a troop run by dads who were also active duty in the U.S. Army; their idea of taking a bunch of middle-schoolers camping included letting us forage in the woods for our meals and an “easy day” entailed shooting class III whitewater rapids. Scouting is as much a product of the people who volunteer their time and talent as it is of the organizations that provide the structure for these activities. A real and critical factor in the survival of the BSA and GSUSA will come down to which organization can tap into the increasingly limited time and boundless talents of today’s families.


Lisa Schmeiser has been reporting on and writing about tech, business and culture since the dot-com days. Find her on Twitter at @lschmeiser or subscribe to So What, Who Cares.

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Does Boy Scouts’ Decision to Accept Girls Spell Doom for Girl Scouts?