Deborah Hearn Smith: Boy Scouts’ decision to add girls is all business

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The one question I am asked daily—given my former position with the Girl Scouts—is my take on the decision of the Boy Scouts to include girls in their membership. My answer has been always diplomatic.

Over this past weekend, I was able to finally travel to Chicago to see the highly rated “Hamilton.” The musical lives up to all its hype. There are so many points to ponder and lessons to be learned. Maybe not the most important—but the most relevant to this article—is the contrast between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Burr values not sharing your opinion and Hamilton says he is unable to be quiet in the face of controversy. I have been more Burr than Hamilton in my response. I never want to offend or harm the organization I have given much of my life to. However, now is not the time for silence or neutrality.

Let me state clearly that the decision to include girls in the membership of the Boy Scouts is not in the best interest of girls—nor is it the goal. The decision at its core is a good business decision. Based on any basic business principle, when a business is declining in its customer base, the first step is to increase the base.

Both the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have had a declining membership for several years. Currently, both organizations have turned the tide and membership is stable and growing in many communities across the county. The difference is how this happened and why.

The Girl Scouts returned to the mission to check if it was still relevant to girls today. The answer was a resounding yes. The next step was to retool the program in design, content and delivery to match the needs of girls in today’s world. Focusing on the developmental needs, social skills and educational needs that would best meet the interest of girls and move girls toward responsible adulthood has worked—and membership is moving up.

Girl Scouts did a deep dive into new populations to understand their wants and goals for their girls. It was found that these families all want their girls to have a better life in America. Many have left countries where their girls had very limited opportunities. Girl Scouting is a way to give their daughters this chance.

The Boy Scouts took a different approach. They had significant decline when the Mormon Church pulled all their boys out of the program. Before this move, Boy Scout membership was a part of every young Mormon boy’s life. The social controversies in recent years drew attention from membership and program development.

So, from a practical business prospective, to grow the membership without over-extending limited resources, the low-hanging fruit was girls. Notice that no study on the needs of girls was undertaken. No pretense that the program design was developed for a coed membership.

A key difference between the organizations can be seen in the tagline of Girl Scouting: “the Girl comes first in Girl Scouting.” In all the press and internal discussions, the Boy Scouts maintain their value of a single-gender experience for boys.

So where do girls fit in Scouting BSA? They are relegated to a separate but equal space. Where have we heard this before?

So, the answer to how I feel about girls in Boy Scouting? I am all about the girl. It is my belief after more than five decades at all levels, from Brownie to CEO, that a girl’s best interest is served in a single-gender, research-based, outcome-driven organization that values the total girl. Girl Scouting is for girls!•

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Smith is former CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana. Send comments

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