Gender inclusion in outdoor youth programs has been a topic of discussion among organizations, communities and families for years. The conversation bubbled up again in May when the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) announced plans to change the name of its Boy Scouts program to Scouts BSA in February 2019, following a decision by the board of directors last fall to expand programs to girls.
“This decision is true to the BSA’s mission and core values outlined in the Scout Oath and Law. The values of Scouting—trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, brave and reverent, for example—are important for both young men and women,” said Michael Surbaugh, the BSA’s Chief Scout Executive, in a press release.
Ahead of the Scouts BSA launch, we were curious about the benefits and limitations of both all-gender and single-gender groups of young people exploring the outdoors. So, we talked with other outdoor organizations to find out more. Unsurprisingly, we got a variety of answers.
The YMCA’s BOLD & GOLD organization believes in the power of single-gender experiences. In the ’90s, a study, commissioned by the American Association of University Women, showed a drop in confidence and corresponding academic achievement for girls starting in middle school. Around the same time, GOLD (Girls Outdoor Leadership Development), then called Passages Northwest, began as a way to promote courage in young women. A few years later, BOLD (Boys Outdoor Leadership Development) began, based on the success of the young women’s program.
Courtney Aber, national BOLD & GOLD director, has seen the difference it makes to have young people gather in single-gender groups. She’s observed that boys are more likely to show their vulnerability and talk about societal pressures, and girls are more likely to challenge themselves and beauty standards and discuss what it means to be a woman. Conversations around body image, confidence, masculinity and femininity tend to happen more freely and comfortably in single-gender settings, Aber explained. It’s also a place to reflect on societal standards that put pressure on girls to always be feminine and boys to always be masculine. When placed in a setting outside of rigid gender roles, BOLD & GOLD believes it may be easier for young people to unpack those standards and see whether they want to subscribe to them.
Jason Schmidt, associate program director of Outward Bound California, an organization that provides experience-based outdoor learning and leadership programs, has observed that without young men around to hang the bear bag each night, young women easily and assertively step up to do the job. He’s also seen that without young women to take on the traditionally feminine role of cooking, young men learn making food together is fun.
“I think that as we understand that this is not a binary world, it will create more space for conversations,” Aber said. “But as far as I can tell, until the media isn’t telling us that there isn’t a difference [between genders], there is going to be a need for single-gender programs. And I don’t see that stopping any time soon.”
Some LGBTQ people and allies worry single-gender programming isn’t inclusive of those who fall outside of the binary gender scheme. However, organizations like GirlVentures are broadening the definition. The group says girls refers to “gender expansive youth (cis girls, trans girls, non-binary youth, gender non-conforming youth, gender queer youth and any girl-identified youth).”
“What it means to be single gender has changed. An environment where it’s girls and gender expansive youth ... is important because it provides a foundation of trust. It’s a brave space for young people to try new things and feel more free from the gendered experience in their daily lives,” said Emily Teitsworth, executive director of GirlVentures.
Other organizations advocate for all-gender programming, steering clear of single-gender trips. Simulating real-world interactions, all-gender programs can teach young people how to interact together in a collaborative setting. “They experience these really physical wilderness skills like making fires and carrying a lot of weight. It’s important for coed groups to do those roles equally, to see that they’re both equally competent,” said Juliet Ramirez, assistant program director for Lasting Adventures, a Yosemite-based guiding service for young adults.
In these settings, there may be less room to discuss the intricacies of gender norms, but more opportunities to break down stereotypes in an organic fashion. “The outdoors is the ultimate equalizer, in my opinion. People don’t know what their ability [is] in the outdoors most of the time. It’s great for that macho guy [to] see this girl run a rapid or climb a hard route,” said Adam Yarnes, director and owner of Backcountry Unlimited, an Arizona-based adventure travel organization. “It’s reinforced that girls can do what guys can do and guys can do what girls can do. There are no gender roles in the outdoors.”
There are even some organizations, like Outward Bound, that understand the importance of both single- and all-gender programs. Schmidt believes both types of programming have their benefits and downsides. In single-gender courses, he said, girls have more chances to be courageous and boys have more chances to be vulnerable. However, these courses don’t mimic real-world scenarios, where genders are mixed.
In all-gender courses, Schmidt said, there is a greater chance to see the strength across genders and translate that to the real world. Yet, “I might see young men and women falling into these societal traps—for example young men wanting to help the young women with a hard section of off-trail scrambling. … When it appears to take on a gender bias of who you help and who does the helping, I wonder about the hidden messages that are being reinforced if it is not used as a learning opportunity,” he said.
So should you choose a single-gender or all-gender trip? Ultimately, the choice is up to young people and their families. “It will depend on your child and where you think they will flourish the best. That’s so individual,” Schmidt said.
Editor's note: YMCA’s BOLD & GOLD has been a nonprofit partner of REI since 2012. An REI contribution totaling $525,000 has helped support BOLD & GOLD's efforts over the years. Outward Bound has been a nonprofit partner of REI since 2002. An REI contribution totaling over $56,500 has helped support Outward Bound's efforts over the years.