Girl Scouts: Building Up Diversity and Female Leadership

January 18, 2013  |  

GSUSA CEO Anna Maria Chavez celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Girl Scouting with members.

In 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) as “a force for desegregation.” As we honor Dr. King this weekend, not much has changed for the Girl Scouts.

Currently, there are 2.3 million girl members (and 890,000 adult members) of the Girl Scouts, with 11.3 percent of girls identifying as black or African-American and 11.6 percent as Hispanic, according to membership data from GSUSA.

Diversity within Girl Scouts has been around since founder Juliette Gordon Low started the organization in 1912, said Michelle Tompkins, media manager for GSUSA, and diversity included girls from different socio-economic backgrounds, religions, and girls with disabilities.

“The first troop itself had girls who were orphans and were from the local synagogue,” Tompkins added. “We like to say the Girl Scouts has a history of diversity and inclusion that has been in our DNA.”

Additionally, leadership at the organization also reflects a more diverse country, with current CEO Anna Maria Chavez, a Latina, and national president of the board Connie Lindsey, an African-American.

Attracting a Diverse Membership

“All of our national programming is girl driven and we take program ideas to the girls themselves so they can inform them,” explained Andrea Bastiani Archibald, a developmental psychologist and senior researcher of field-testing for GSUSA. “When we are developing a new national program, we will over-index in girls of color and other segments we are not reaching,” to help understand more of what would attract them to Girl Scouting.

The organization works hard to not only attract girls from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, but also different socio-economic statuses and from both rural and urban areas.

“We’ve created a lot of membership resources, program resources, and marketing resources that are specifically targeting underserved populations, including Hispanics, African-Americans, and in some cases Asian and Native American girls,” added Gregory Jackson, implementation consultant with the Girl Scouts.

He also noted that GSUSA partners with organizations such as the historically black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho or the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to provide volunteers and role models who represent the underserved populations and come from similar communities. The sorority, he said, is a great example of showing younger Girl Scouts how they can grow up to attend college and study courses including STEM programs, and the church has offered to let local troops meet at their buildings, connecting the community.

Sometimes this diversity has been a challenge to the Girl Scouts, as when transgender girl Bobby Montoya wanted to join a troop in Colorado in early 2012.

Archibald said each recent situation is different and the organization handles each individually, while leaving the final decision to the local council: “If the child is living culturally as a girl, for example, and has been going to school as a girl, we would welcome and want to place them in the best possible situation.”

Diversity Benefits Students in School and in Scouts

In November 2012, research from the National Coalition on School Diversity found that diverse schools provide benefits for students of all races and socio-economic backgrounds.

“Wide-ranging and probing discussions occur in diverse classrooms that help generate creative, high-quality solutions to problems,” the Coalition wrote in a press release about the findings. “Racially integrated schools are associated with reduced prejudice among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, a diminished likelihood of stereotyping, and more friendships across racial lines and higher levels of cultural competence.”

The Girl Scouts provide a similar atmosphere for encouraging growth in diversity. In a recent survey from the Girl Scout Research Institute, girls were willing to talk about and promote diversity among their friends and families. In the survey, 58 percent of girls said they try to listen to and value other people’s ideas, 49 percent said they try to make friends from different backgrounds, and 43 percent said they speak up when they hear someone being picked on because of their differences.

“Through our program experiences, girls come to value diversity and different ideas and different background and different experiences because it is built right in,” Archibald said. She spoke of a very diverse Brownie troop she visited recently, which she described as “a force to be reckoned with in their community. You could see they embrace differences and they appreciate differences and approaching problems differently. They came to work effectively on a team and take on different roles.”

Leading Girls Into the Future

The Girl Scouts are also working on getting diversity in the workforce, by preparing girls for leadership roles. Archibald said that GSUSA has been working to get more systematic with its leadership programs and help make the programs fit with a more modern leader.

“We try to tailor the leadership experiences we offer to what girls need for life skills—healthy relationships, advocacy, in tackling challenges in their community, in their ability to identify community needs and create sustainable solutions to problems,” she said. “Skills that they can use today, in age appropriate way, as well as take with them for tomorrow.”

Michael Watson, SVP of human resources and diversity for GSUSA, looks at the long-term effects of getting girls and young women ready for careers and leadership positions: “We are a pipeline of talent for the nation. One of the critical issues that this nation will face over the next 10-15 years is ‘will we have the talent needed to provide the engineers, the doctors, the nurses, the welders and the like? And if we don’t have enough women in that pipeline, from every different background, we are not going to be able to compete internationally and that is going to hurt our entire economy. What we do in Girl Scouts is very important in terms of preparing girls from all backgrounds and preparing them for all careers.”

What do you think? Were you a Girl Scout? How did that experience shape who you became as an adult?

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