A week and a half ago, I criticized the Girl Scouts of the USA for continuing gender stereotypes. Despite my criticism, I do believe in their mission and ability to empower young girls. When I discussed the topic with friends, my belief in the good of the Girl Scouts required us to ask a larger question: should youth organizations be gendered at all? While we did not come to a consensus, my opinion is that gendered youth programs can be beneficial.
Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to gender bias. The media bombards girls with feminine stereotypes, particularly that their physical appearance defines their worth. MISS REPRESENTATION (Girls’ Club Entertainment 2011). Additionally, school teachers treat boys and girls differently, encouraging girls to be passive and diminishing their independence and self-esteem. Sherry Lynn Owens et al., Are Girls Victims of Gender Bias in Our Nation’s Schools?, 30 J. INSTRUCTIONAL PSYCHOL. 131, 133 (2003).
Over a decade ago, two teachers, Elizabeth McLeod and Megan Armstrong, saw what was happening to girls in the classroom. They found girls were losing confidence and self-esteem as they entered adolescence. To counteract this loss, the two women began GirlVentures, a San Francisco-based, girl-only outdoor summer program.
At a small charity event a month ago, I listened to Taara Hoffman, the current Executive Director of GirlVentures, talk about the organization’s mission and its benefits. It seeks to help “girls sustain the clarity, voice and self-confidence that they risk losing during the transition to adolescence.” The organization uses outdoor adventure education to provide a setting where girls can take healthy risks, overcome challenges, learn leadership and communication skills, and develop a self and group care ethic.
Studies show benefits to single-sex education. Instructors can break down gender stereotypes that arise during girls’ adolescence. Girls can freely discover themselves without the feelings of self-consciousness and intimidation that come from co-ed groups. Also, girls can learn in an environment where they are players, not spectators. Moving the single-sex education outdoors facilitates greater participation and increases the likelihood girls will share feelings and talk openly. Girls will have a safe space to take physical and emotional risks.
My friends expressed legitimate concerns against single-gendered organizations, but I think all-girl organizations are still worthwhile. They suggested that separating boys and girls will inherently create dichotomies between the two sexes and negatively affect their ability to relate to each other. First, I do not agree that all differential treatment is bad. Treating different people the same could still create inequality. Unfortunately, popular culture pressures girls into a different mold than boys, one focused on image and self-doubt. Single-gendered organizations offer an opposing force that releases the girls from cultural binds. Second, single-gendered organizations, like GirlVentures, only temporarily isolate girls. During that time, they strengthen girls so they can assert themselves when interacting with boys in other environments, like in school or at home.
When Taara Hoffman finished her presentation about GirlVentures, unlike the end of the Girl Scouts’ story on NPR, I felt encouraged. Through GirlVentures, girls from all walks of life come together in a safe and supportive environment. They emerge from their time together equipped for the immediate struggles of adolescence and the future challenges of adulthood. For one girl, as she puts it, “GirlVentures got me to find a voice I didn’t know I had; one that allows me to stand up for what I think is right and for myself.”