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.