Defeating Sexism and Gender Inclusion

Okay, forgive my bluntness, but there are some key differences in leading girls vs. boys. In big, general terms that don’t apply to every scout, girls and boys tend to have some differences in where they most need us as leaders to push them along. Part of the challenge of the program we offer, is that we have mixed gender groups. This means we have to consider the needs of all genders at once, which can be both easy and challenging. While nothing about gender make a scout better at setting up a tent, lighting a campfire or leading a patrol, a scout’s life experiences matter. The expectation society has given them for their gender, or the life experiences it has presented, can create gender gaps we have to work with as leaders and help our scouts overcome the damage those can cause.


Girls are generally stronger with their verbal and communication skills. The ability to lead a group or teach a younger scout are skills they may have learned as baby sitters and older sisters. Those skills are encouraged in girls in other settings which enhances natural abilities. This means that team work and being a patrol leader may come easier to girls.

However, society starts telling little girls “don’t be bossy” in preschool, so they may need encouragement to step up and actually lead. Boys, who have been told “don’t be girly” may have a hard time adjusting to following a girl’s lead. But our goal is to create humans who can both lead and follow, so EVERY scout needs the chance to do both.

Where girls often lack, is that they may not have been exposed to actual scouting skills like starting fires, tying knots and sharpening knives. They will generally pick up these skills very quickly once they get a chance to learn them. Girls often have better fine motor skills than boys so knot tying may come more easily to them. Girls are often encouraged to participate in crafts, learning knitting and sewing skills that translate into knot work very well. They may also have been encouraged to create and draw more, making other badge work easier for them.

The big thing to watch for, is if girls have been socialized to hang back and let the boys take the lead. This behavior can be something they learned in school, and as a result, you need to be proactive in making sure your female scouts get every chance to do everything the boys do, even if they need encouragement at first. Girls will sometimes even hold back, so as not to make the boys feel bad about the skills they don’t excel at. You have to make your troop a place where it is safe for the girls to not just participate, but thrive and excel.  Honoring their accomplishments and encouraging them to be patrol leaders is important for both the boys and girls in your troop.


The challenge of leading boys today, is that they may have been exposed to various levels of toxic masculinity or have ideas about gender roles that limit them as people. Rare is the pathfinder age girl who has never cooked something, but the boy this age who has never baked brownies or cooked breakfast is far more common. The boys who have never been allowed or encourage to cook at home, can find a lot of joy in camp cooking.

Boys tend to struggle more with clearly communicating with their group, especially if feelings are involved. In many settings, boys may be discouraged from crying, showing emotions other than anger or expressing fear. Boys are encouraged less to talk in general, and encouraged to babysit far less often than girls, leading them to lack skills from lacks of practice. This means you will need to have the male scoutmaster for your group express emotions and help scouts who need help with expressing themselves and communicating clearly. Scouts is a place where boys can learn skills that will carry them through life, like cooking, cleaning and sewing. It is a place to learn a positive version of manhood that they may not see everywhere and develop strong communication skills.

Finally, you will need to be sure you set the example for the boys that the girls are their equals. One rule every group has is to not name call, but it is especially important that you don’t allow slurs that invoke female as bad. Saying things like “You hit like a girl” or “don’t be a sissy” are ways boys are taught to make being feminine a slur. Putting an end to any talk like that, even if it is only among the boys, is essential to building young men who respect the girls and women of the world and  become whole people themselves.

All Together Now

The real world is not separated by gender, so not separating our scouts that way makes sense. However, creating real equality in our programing can take thoughtfulness. In general, boys tend to be over confident and girls under confident compared to their actual skills levels. It is important to remember this when it comes time to ask your scouts to demonstrate a skill for the troop. When asking for a knot demonstration from a group of 12 year old scouts, the differences may look like the following story. A boy, let’s call him Jimmy, will jump forward saying “I can do it!” and then proceed to take the rope, hold it up, and twist it all wrong, resulting in no knot at all. You turn to a girl in the group, let’s call her Sarah, who you know you have seen tie this knot and ask her to demonstrate. Sarah replies “I’m not sure, but I can try.” She then ties it perfectly.  As scout leaders, we want to praise both scouts appropriately.  When Jimmy fails to tie the knot, we tell him, “Thank you for trying. Now we will let someone else try.”  I find boys actually may need to be told that their turn is over. Sarah on the other hand deserves appropriate praise for her work. “Great job, Sarah! Can you do it again slower for everyone to see what you did?”

I once heard one of our boys say “I know girls can do anything boys can do because at scouts Anna can do everything better than all the boys.” While this was a testament to Anna’s skills, it also shows the value in having a multi-gender troop. Anna is not only having success, but she is helping the boys in the group grow up to be men who are comfortable having a female boss and working with women as equals. Anna grew up in our group, and was never told she couldn’t do something because she is a girl. Not all girls have that experience.

One other thing to watch for, is that your scouts aren’t talking over or ignoring the ideas one of their members. In the adult world, women are often ignored and talked over by male co-workers. This horrible practice starts in childhood, when boys get the message that their ideas are better, usually because they are louder or teachers give them more attention. Create a space where all your scouts can be heard and make sure you give them equal time and opportunities to speak. Correct scouts who interrupt and make sure that your scouts all listen to good ideas when they are presented and don’t ignore the girls.  Not all girls are comfortable telling the boys to shut up and listen, the way Anna is.

Leaders Set the Standards

If you are leading a group with two or more genders, it is ideal to have adult scout leaders of the same. And one of the most important things you can do, is make sure that your leadership team demonstrates working together and listening to each other. As scout leaders, we need to demonstrate and discuss breaking gender barriers with our scouts. Male leaders who mention cooking dinner for the family and female leaders who share about changing their car tire, break down stereotypes for all scouts. Both female and male leaders need to take turns instructing scouts and teaching skills, so that your scouts don’t come to believe that there are gender roles in the group. There is nothing wrong with dividing work in a way that makes sense, but telling your scouts the female leader is teaching first aid because she is an EMT and has experience is an important part of the lesson. We let those with the expertise teach the skill.

Adult women often have to second an ideas one of them says to have their idea heard by the men in their group of co-workers. It shouldn’t take 2 women to have the voice of one be heard. Fight this problem by making sure the female Rovers in your group are listened to with equal respect as the men at every meeting or campout. Create specific times for the women to speak to the group instead of a male leader, at the start or end of meetings.  Correct boys about interrupting female leaders and female scouts. If you catch a boy repeating what a girl just said as though the idea is his, be sure to give credit to the girl. All too often, men can be inclined to take credit for women’s ideas and work. Be sure that the men in your group don’t do this, and that the boys don’t either. Always give credit where it is due.

Personal History Matters

Beyond all of this, you need to acknowledge that some of the girls and LGBTQ kids who join your group may have the baggage of having been sexually harassed at school.  Personally, I know how old I was when I first changed my behavior because of being sexually harassed at school. I stopped wearing dressed because they boys would try to raise up my skirt to see my panties. I wanted the harassment to stop, so I stopped wearing dresses. I was six. By the time I was a teen, the clothes didn’t matter, and the harassment had escalated in an assortment of ways. At every step the school was like “boys will be boys.” It is essential we make sure the boys in our programs aren’t allowed to act like that, and that the girls KNOW they are safe and won’t be harassed at scouts. However, the emotional toll of being harrassed elsewhere can come with a child to scouts, so it is important that you realize this is an issue kids face far younger than you may realize.

You will need to address any sexual harassment head on and not take a “wait and see” attitude. Scouts should never be asked to tolerate inappropriate behavior from another scout. Wipe the phrase “boys will be boys” from your lexicon. All scouts treat all scouts with respect. Period. Be aware, that if a scout comes to you about a behavior problem, it may not be the first time it has happened, just the first time the victim felt brave enough or strong enough to bring it up. Depending on the transgression, having the scout who transgressed go beyond an apology may be appropriate. Acts of service, giving a presentation to the group about “what is sexual harassment and why I will never do it again” or being required to stay physically away from the scout who they harassed are all possibilities to consider. I also recommend speaking to a scout’s parents about this kind of problem behavior and being clear that your group doesn’t tolerate it.

ALWAYS be Prepared for the Needs of your Scouts

One last issue with co-ed scouting, make sure that you DO accommodate having young women in the group. Always pack an assortment of mensural products in your first aid kit for scouts who need them.  If you are looking into backpacking, girls may need different packs to accommodate their figures. Chest straps don’t fit right over boobs, they go above on the flat part of the chest. And when weighing packs for scouts, remember that smaller scouts can carry less gear safely without injury.  A scout shouldn’t carry more than 20% of their body weight. So remember, if some of your scouts are smaller, they can carry less gear.

The smallest female pathfinder I’ve known, chose to do her First Class Journey by bike, because it gave her the ability to actually haul enough gear for the weekend. As a person who weighed less than 100 pounds, there wasn’t a realistic way for her to backpack with all she would need for a weekend.  

Being a tiny female didn’t stop her from her achievements as a scout, it just caused her to evaluate how she could best achieve her goals. This requirement to think about how to excel when her own physical attributes were not on her side caused her to become a better scout, not a lesser one.

One other bit of advice from that pathfinder, if you ever get to walk into a patrol of pathfinders that are not your own, don’t assume who is the patrol leader. A pet peeve of hers was that Rovers have walked into her camp, assumed that her second, the “big tall boy” was the patrol leader and spoken to him as such. This gender and size7 based assumption actually is offensive. Always ask who is in charge of the patrol, and treat the patrol leader with respect.


**Non-masked pictures were taken pre-Covid.

***While the scout in the last paragraph now prefers they/them pronouns, permission was given to use she/her for this article as gender is the point here, and that was how they identified at the time of the story.

6 Responses

  1. Marc says:

    I really like this approach and is the very reason I have my daughter in BP instead of Boy Scouts. The only constructive feedback I would like to offer is the term “toxic masculinity” is not a good or helpful term. It is toxic behavior, regardless of the sex of the person who is performing it. Ascribing a bad trait literally to an entire gender is no more fair or constructive that “throws like a girl”. It matters not how many people of that gender perform the action or behavior it is still unhelpful and stigmatizing. It does not matter if the vast majority of boys can throw better than the vast majority of girls, the tirm should not be as ribed to the entire gender any more than “toxic masculinity”. You also don’t want to give boys the excuse that it is naturally baked into them to be a certain way and that term certanly suggests that. Thank you.

    • Laura Sowdon says:

      Hi Marc, I think it is actually very important to talk about the difference between toxic masculinity and positive masculinity. Your comment leads me to believe that you don’t understand the context of the term “toxic masculinity” and that it refers to very specific behaviors and beliefs that cause men to not be able to be whole and complete people, because they fear being ostracized for not acting “manly enough.”

      Let me give you a few examples of what toxic masculinity actually is and isn’t. Due to toxic masculinity, my father never held me in public when I was an infant. He had a high stress job as the foreman of a coal mine, and he feared that if the men who worked for him, saw him holding a cute baby girl, they wouldn’t respect him at work. He was also too manly to change diapers, feed his own kids or read bedtime stories, those were “women’s work.” (If it matters at all this was in the late 70’s and early 80’s). Positive masculinity is men being parents to their own children- which doesn’t have to look like how mom does things- but it also isn’t ignoring your kids until they are big enough to play catch.

      Another challenge of toxic masculinity is that is says that some colors aren’t okay for boys. You know which colors I mean. And yes, this is a problem I see all the time, as the craft group I’m in constantly has posts asking about a multi-colored handmade blanket “is this okay for a boy”? How on earth is a little pink or purple going to hurt the masculinity of a tiny infant? How does that work? But if you’d like to freak people out, wrap your son in a pink blanket… see how that goes. On the other hand, my daughter can enjoy any and all colors. Her favorite shirt for a while was black with a skull and cross bones. No one said a word about whether she was dressing feminine enough. But boys don’t have that luxury. Positive masculinity says that colors and clothes don’t define your gender identity, your sexual orientation or your manliness.

      At the heart of this ‘toxic masculinity” is a fear of being gay- as far as I can tell. The fear of a boy being gay… the teasing… all of it is ridiculous. Boys who take ballet get all kinds of this kind of baggage thrown at them. On the other hand, my daughter played soft ball on season, and no one suggested it would make her a lesbian. Not once. Girls don’t face this same kind of pressure to present as a certain kind of feminine. It is fine for them to explore and learn things that have traditionally been masculine in our culture. However, boys have been boxed out of many things, because they were labeled “feminine” or “women’s work.”

      And as long as I am on this soap box, there is nothing about how masculine or feminine you are that has anything to do with who you love or find attractive. Manly men with beard and motorcycles can be gay… and men who love folding napkins and going to Broadway shows can be straight. The issue of toxic masculinity, is that it tries to put men in tiny boxes and tell them there is only one way to be a “good man.” Positive masculinity says that there are a multitude of ways to be a good man, and that liking pink, being nurturing and learning to cook are all good things. There is also nothing wrong with throwing the sport ball, hunting, fishing, hiking, using power tools, or whatever other activities you associate with manhood. Those activities themselves are great things. The challenge that is presented is to make sure that boys and men know that they can do those things AND other things too.

      • Marc says:

        Thank you for the reply. Many of the behaviors you are giving as examples I have witnessed in women many times in my life. Not wanting to hold babies and be seen as a “mom”, something seen by many as non glamorous, and being over a particular point in life that is less desireable. These are “toxic behaviors that are merely being driven by several societal expectations of gender and status and, in my oppinion, are muddied by attributing them to the gender. As a heterosexual man I can assure you the the behaviors you are attributing to not wanting to be seen as gay have nothing to do with that. They are due to not wanting to be seen as weak. There is not a single man that thinks holding a baby is a trait of homosexual men. We, as boys, are traditionally trained to value agressively trying to achive goals. We are dissuaded from showing weakens in any way because this can be exploited by our adversaries in success. Women are traditionally trained to avoid conflict and not to stiffle emotion. Both of these lessons pushed to the extreme are harmful to both boys and girls. Boys learn to try to achieve and find a way to win at the expense of their emotional health and connections to others. Girls are too focused on their own image to others and are not taught the drive to compete and win that would serve them as it does many men. In my oppition, both sexes can be well served by being taught to balance both philosophies so that boys can better deal with tenderness and emotion and women are better prepared to deal with the darwinian nature of life.

        The color bit is merely a cultural tradition that I reject but actually supports my point exactly. Women are just as “toxic” as men when it comes to colors. You should hear how women shopkeepers treat me when I was buying clothes for my daughter. The were condescending and rude and often told me “I was buying the wrong clothes in the wrong colors”. This was not bad female behavior just because a female was doing it. It was bad regardless and despite the sex of the offender. Ironically, in the US, pink use to be for little boys and baby blue for little girls.

        The most telling personal experience I can give you to refute this concept is that in the 9 years I have been a father to a daughter I have strived to give her activities and experiences that I considered healthy and constructive regardless of what gender tradition subcribes them to. Sailing, tree climbing, dancing, music, Jiu Jitsu, scouting, cooking, etc. etc. I limmited the pink in her life to “no more than any other color” and never bought her unnesesarily gendered toys. Throughout these nine years, at every step, in every enviroment, i was, without fail, women who were most critical, dismissive, and condescending about my choices. The men, almost all got it, rarely any told me I was harming my daughter for eschewing gender roles/colors, quite the contrary. Should I attribute this bad behavior to the gender or the people? I attribute it to the individual and how they were raised, I will no more attribute it to a gender than I would to a race.

        Regardless of what gender is more likely to exhibit a certain behavior, I believe it is counter productive, divisive, and prejudicial to label it and therefore attribute it to an entire gender. Specially when there is no lack of that same behavior with slight variations in both sexes. Just like it was counter productive to call it “The China Virus” it is equally so to call it Toxic Masculinity. It’s just plain toxic, regardless of what reproductive organs the perpetrator has or what gender they identify as.

        • Laura Sowdon says:

          Let me rephrase- Toxic Masculinity is a word, like racism, or sexism. It is a cultural attitude and no, it isn’t limited to only men to present it, but it is generally felt by men as a negative experience that limits them, even if women are the ones encouraging/presenting this negative stereotyping behavior. It sounds like you are a very lucky person who hasn’t had much experience with it. My personal experiences indicate that your local culture, your community’s history and even your religion, may play into how much or how little you experience toxic masculinity. The place I live now, has blessedly little gender stereotyping of any kind compared to the place I grew up. I grew up with boys who were bullied mercilessly for not conforming to the local definition of masculine. That bullying, and the fact that it was not only expected but allowed by the adults (both men and women), was all part of toxic masculinity. My kids haven’t experienced that. They are growing up in a community that doesn’t tolerate bullying of any kind.

          My point of bringing this up in the post, is that you don’t know what your scouts are hearing at home or at school or at other places they visit. They may have been bullied for not living up to some masculine ideas, and need a scout leader who creates a safe place for them. Just because this hasn’t been your life experience, that doesn’t mean other people haven’t lived it.

          • Marc says:

            Thank you for your reply. Unfortunately, instead of engaging my points you seem to want to assume that I am either ignorant or dense. I grew up in South America, rest assured that I not only understand what you mean but experienced it personally and acutely. I hope this will help you understand that my points are not based on ignorance but spring from experience, observation, and care.
            Attributing negative behavior through language to an entire gender when it exists in all genders, even when it is predominately exhibited in one, is prejudicial and sexist. I’m not sure how else to put it.

            It is akin to using the term “Femenine Hyper Vanity” to describe the fenomenon where people obsess over their apperance, and societal perception of them on social media and in person to the point where they will disfigure themselves with surgery. The inclusion of the word Femenine here is sexist because not all women are this way, and not all that are this way are women, even if most of them are.

            If you have a reason to attribute a negative behavior to an entire gender on the planet simply because many exhibit it to varied degrees, and somehow, defend how doing so is not sexist, I am eager to understand.

            This is from a father who has always told their daughter “the only thing boys can do that you can not is pee standing up”.

  1. April 7, 2021

    […] a fully inclusive program of all genders, scout leaders need to be knowledgeable about menstruation and provide appropriate support for […]

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