Smart Cookies: A Century of Girl Scouts Cultivating Women Who Lead

by Joycelyn James on April 20, 2012

Last month, the Girl Scouts of the USA achieved a major milestone, turning 100 years old.  Boasting a membership of more than 3.2 million, it is the largest organization for girls in the world.  Since its inception by Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low in 1912, more than 50 million women in our country have participated in Girl Scouts.  I am proud to be one of those women.

Cookies to Careers:  To Get Her There

Girl Scouts is not just about selling cookies, camping, and earning patches for those really cute uniforms.  Girl Scouts is about empowering girls and teaching them to lead.  As the former top-cookie-seller in my troop, I can attest that my scout skills have come in handy at various points in my career.  The Cookie Program is the Girl Scouts’ most visible effort to teach business fundamentals such as setting goals, managing money, and learning to interact with people in a professional manner, all of which are essential to leadership and planning.

As a proud Girl Scout Alumnae, I was disheartened to discover that over half of the girls in our country do not care about leadership positions.  While they understand what it takes to lead, only 21 percent of girls believe they have the qualities to be a good leader.  The dearth of women role models in business and technology are causing otherwise capable girls to bypass opportunities to reach their full potential.

In response, as part of its centennial celebration, Girl Scouts launched ToGetHerThere.org, celebrating the Year of the Girl.  This initiative is designed to get girls thinking about taking on leadership roles now in order to develop skills that they can use throughout their chosen careers.  ToGetHerThere.org, is a play on words, emphasizing that, “Together, we can get her there.”

ToGetHerThere.org points out that while the levels of participation by women in various industries are low, the general public’s perception of women acting as capable, skilled leaders is high.  This initiative works to bridge the gap between perception and reality.  For example, while three-quarters of teen girls express interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEM”) fields, women make up only 6.5 percent of advisory boards at high-tech firms.  Similar gaps exist in media, finance, and politics as well, all of which can be bridged if we work now to equip girls for the jobs of the future.

Focus on the Future: Girls in STEM

As MMTC reported last summer, women’s participation in STEM fields has declined significantly in the past few years.  While girls achieve higher GPAs than boys in math & science, this level of achievement is not reflected in Advance Placement exams in STEM subjects or in college where men outnumber women in STEM majors.  Computer science degrees earned by women declined over the past two decades, from 35.8 percent in 1986 to 20.5 percent in 2006.

One of Girl Scouts’ first goals was to expose girls to non-traditional activities for women.  Badges for aviation and circuitry debuted in 1913, over 20 years before pioneers like Amelia Earhart attempted to fly around the world.  It’s no surprise that one primary focus of today’s Girl Scouts is to prepare girls for the tech jobs of the future.  In 2012, over 200 Girl Scout teams will enter the FIRST LEGO® League, a partnership between FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and LEGO designed to introduce students to engineering through using LEGO-based robots.  These programs are essential to getting students of all backgrounds engaged in hands-on tech activities, and reflect the Girl Scouts’ goals of preparing girls for their future careers.

Alumnae in Action: Once a Scout, Always a Scout

While girls may not run the world (at least not yet, Beyoncé), many women in leadership roles were Girl Scouts.  In February, Girl Scouts highlighted alumnae on Capitol Hill, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Md.); Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.); and Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), Donna Edwards (D-Md.), and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.).  Currently, ten of the seventeen women (59 percent) in the United States Senate are former Girl Scouts.  Forty-five of the seventy-five women (60 percent) in the House of Representatives are former Girl Scouts.  Fifty-three percent of all women business owners are former Girl Scouts.

While attending the Congressional event, I identified with the experiences of the legislative alumnae in how Girl Scouts empowered them, not only as women, but instilled values that continue to help them professionally.  After 100 years, Girl Scouts remains an important and valuable organization, one well equipped to prepare our girls for careers in business, technology, and beyond!

  • Joycelyn F. James

    Joycelyn F. James, Esq. is a graduate of the Institute for Communications Law Studies at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. She currently serves as the Cathy Hughes Fellow for the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council, where she works on matters that focus on the advancement of minority and women’s entrepreneurship in the nation’s media and telecommunications industries.

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