Tuesday, October 25, 2011

No boys allowed!

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.


Megan said...

This is interesting in light of the recent efforts in some school districts, to open gender-specific public schools to address the specific needs of sub-groups within the district. I think you are right--that there is value in separation, under the right circumstances. For instance, some school districts have tried to close the African-American male achievement gap by opening boy's academies. The way I see it, however, is that these programs (GirlVentures included) are remedial and address an inequality. I am more skeptical of gender-specific extracurricular/social groups.

KayZee said...

I find non-coed education, camps, societies, etc. to be very confusing. I say that because, I truly do not know what the "right" answer is. I feel like I've met many women who went to single-sex schools (high school and college) and truly loved the experience. At the same time, I can understand Megan's skepticism of gender-specific social groups.

I think that there is a context, however, in which gender-specific groups are beneficial. What comes to mind is a program that two of my college roommates are currently a part of in Cusco, Peru. It's called "GirlSportWorks" and its goal is to empower young women through sports (http://www.girlsportworks.org/). I think that a program such as this, is unique in that this is a specific region in which young women really wouldn't have an opportunity to get an opportunity for individual instruction and participation in sports. In this context, I believe that gender-specific grouping can be an important first step.

S said...

I agree with KayZee: "I truly do not know what the "right" answer is."

I, too, have a number of girlfriends that went to all female schools. In observing their interactions with women, they tend to have a firmer grasp on their thoughts and how best to articulate them. They also appear to have a stronger self-esteem.

However, on the flip-side, I know a number of women who exhibit the same qualities and attribute them to their interactions with boys in their youth. They believe that they learned how to best assert themselves and be comfortable with who they are because of their guy friends.

I think Megan's observation that some of the programs crafted for specific genders (or classes of people for that matter) are remedial in nature is important. We must continue to explore this concept because in doing so, we may be able to identify what is producing the effect the program is intended to remedy.

I also agree with KayZee’s observation that gender-specific groups are beneficial in certain contexts. Specifically, empowering young women through activities that females are often underrepresented in has a great potential to positively impact the lives of the young people participating.

Aside from empowering young women, I think gender specific programming is important in other areas. Where undesirable or negative conduct is being addressed, it is important to consider the risk factors a particular class of people, like women, face. Although slightly dated, the Youth Violence Prevention Conference at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, identified a number risk factors/needs that are more often than not associated with young girls than boys. See http://www.umsl.edu/~ccj/eurogang/YVPC_RFs_and_Programming_by_Sex.pdf. Some include physical and especially sexual abuse, eating disorders and poor self-image. Again, taking gender into consideration to address these issues appears to be a remedial measure. However, it would be unwise and seriously detrimental to not consider these issues when crafting an effective way to reach out to young people in hopes of having a positive impact on their lives.

AMA said...

While I am not convinced that sex-segregated programs and institutions are free from all potential flaws and issues, I believe that for women, they present unique opportunities for lasting empowerment. Looking specifically at women's colleges, for example the Seven Sisters, they offer a unique experience of learning in an atmosphere free from certain societal pressures that are often associated with coeducation. For instance, we're all aware of the studies that report that women speak less in class. Studies report that graduates of women's colleges receive more leadership training and lead to more entrepreneurial careers than women who graduate from coed four year colleges. Indeed, Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters (to name a few) are all graduates of women's colleges. Further, the stereotype that women's colleges are educational convents is certainly not true - most women's colleges are part of greater consortia which allow cross registration with the other coed schools. For instance, a student at Smith can take classes at Amherst.

I liken women's colleges to Historically Black Colleges (HBCs), for which a similar argument can be made. Graduates of HBCs report higher lifetime earnings than their counterparts who graduate from regular four year colleges. They also report feelings of camaraderie, and less racism. I imagine that graduates of women's colleges might report the same (only with less sexism).

All in all, I think that any program geared at bolstering young women's confidence will only serve to help women move forward as they grow into adults.

tomindavis said...

It's true, as has been mentioned above, that some women only schools or programs are remedial in nature -- for those women denied a legitimate chance to participate, such efforts account for imbalances already existing in society.

I also believe that --while the emphasis on difference that single-sex institutions creates (including the Girl Scouts)can provide important character building and camaraderie among a sex that knows it has genuine differences-- it has its limits. If the distinctions are made in ways that perpetuate stereotypes based on generalized assumptions about a woman's mental, biological, or physical abilities, it is a no-no by Supreme Court standards (See: United States v. Virginia Military Institute).

Still, it's hard to say that boy scouts or girl scouts --especially if each one exists-- does that stereotyping. They are not foisted upon all boys and girls, and there is a whole lot to be gained by allowing boys and girls who know they are different overall, to celebrate their own unity by spending quality group time together. Boys only and girls omly schools (as well as historically all-black universities) have done that for quite some time without real negative consequences. Keep in mind also that the need to integrate these institutions may not be necessary. Unlike in the VMI case, or Sweatt v. Painter (the important pre-Brown v Board school segregation case), it's not as if there are no equal options out there for boys and girls in equal institutions. Finally, many boys just don't want to be in an all-girls scout group --"Girls are icky!" they may say. These kinds o groups then may just be a matter of commonsensical self-selecting

Ringo1985 said...

I am still unsure how I feel about single-sex education. I think learning how to interact with the opposite sex is a key component towards successful relations in the future. However, I do see the merits of allowing young girls to flourish in an educational environment where they don't have to deal with distractions or concerns about the opposite sex.

I remember when my brother was younger, my father would not let him join the Boy Scouts because of the organization's policy toward homosexuals. At the time I thought that was an extreme position, but now I understand why he was so offended by the idea.

Friends of mine who have attended all girl schools do not appear to be at a disadvantage then their peers who went through co-ed education. In fact, I think that the positive aspects of an all girl education may limit or minimize some of the daily problems faced at co-ed schools. If girls are allowed to develop and express themselves during their formative years in an environment that is uninhibited by the opposite sex, some probably benefit tremendously from this type of education. What concerns me the most about this single sex education is (1) delayed/limited experience with men, which could possibly be detrimental in the long run; and (2) the implications of single gendered education for those who do not fit the traditional gender binary.

Girl Talk said...

I find the mission of GirlVentures inspiring, and I think what they do is fantastic.

However, I also have concerns about single-sex education. While I agree that there are many benefits, I am unsure about the notion that girls can assert themselves with boys in other environments. Being trained to do something in a safe environment is all good and well, but when exposed to an environment where you aren't safe, where, say, you're outnumbered by boys who are picking on you, I think there is a high risk that a young girl could become overwhelmed because, despite her work in the summer program, she has not had to implement what she's learned in an "unsafe" environment.

I think what might be even more beneficial is to have a program that focuses on both girls and boys and educates both sexes on how to interact with each other. I think boys could greatly benefit from this, and I think girls would benefit even more because they would be applying what they learn on a regular basis.