KeywordsGender Role Gender Schema Feminine Trait Gender Schema Theory Compulsory Heterosexuality
Sandra Lipsitz Bem (1944–2014) was an American feminist psychologist.
Sandra Bem, feminist psychologist, died in 2014, leaving a legacy of scholarship which challenged us to (re)conceptualize gender and consider how gender prescriptions impact our lives and relationships (Golden and McHugh 2015). Sandra Bem presented ideas that challenged established notions of gender and sexuality. For example, Sandra Bem (1974) challenged the traditional position that masculinity and femininity were bipolar opposites and that being sex typed (expressing characteristics thought to be consistent with one’s biological sex) is mentally healthy. She introduced a theory of androgyny in which masculinity and femininity are conceptualized and measured independently. In her theory, an individual who enacts high levels of positive masculine and feminine characteristics is androgynous. She also detailed the concepts of gender schemas and androcentrism and critiqued biological essentialism and gender role restrictions. Her work has transformed psychological approaches to gender and gender roles.
Sandra’s publications won her enduring recognition and several important awards, including The American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution (1976), Distinguished Publication Awards from the Association for Women in Psychology (in 1977 and again in 1994), The Young Scholar Award from the American Association of University Women (1980), designation as an eminent woman in psychology (1995), and most recently, the posthumous Distinguished Career Award (AWP, 2014).
Bem’s life story, summarized here, is detailed in her own words (Bem 1998) and by Golden and McHugh (2016); Bem is also included in Psychology’s Feminist Voices Multimedia Internet Archive (George 2012).
Sandra Lipsitz was born in Pittsburgh on June 22, 1944. She lived with her working-class Jewish family – her parents, Peter and Lilian Lipsitz, and a sister. Sandra Bem enrolled as an undergraduate student at Margaret Morison College, a part of Carnegie Tech, because it adjoined her neighborhood. In her senior year of college, Sandra met Daryl Bem, an assistant professor of psychology, and they subsequently became romantically involved. After discussing her objections to traditional family roles and marriage, Sandra and Daryl wrote a marriage contract that pledged an egalitarian marriage; they married shortly after Sandra’s graduation. Bem enrolled in a PhD program at University of Michigan and completed her PhD in developmental psychology in 1968. After graduate school, Sandra Bem moved back to Pittsburgh and got a job teaching at Carnegie Tech (soon to become Carnegie-Mellon University) where Daryl also had a faculty appointment. It was at this time that Bem became professionally interested in gender and sex roles (Bem 1998). Her early research on sex-biased job ads and labor force recruitment had an activist approach.
The Bems left Pittsburgh in 1971 when Daryl was offered a position at Stanford University, and Sandra obtained a position there as well. It was at Stanford that Sandra Bem began her work on androgyny by constructing the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI). Despite the increasing visibility of Bem’s work on psychological androgyny, and at least seven journal publications related to it during the years she was at Stanford (1971–1978), Bem was denied tenure there. In 1978, she was invited to become the Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Cornell University, and Daryl joined her there. Within 3 years of arriving at Cornell, Sandy was promoted to Full Professor in 1981. She served as Director of the Women’s Studies Program until 1985 and did a second stint as Director of the renamed Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program from 2000 to 2004. During this period she developed the concept of gender schemas and wrote The Lenses of Gender (Bem 1993). Her memoir, An Unconventional Family (Bem 1998), is a frankly detailed portrait of her own family life and how she and Daryl raised their two children.
In 1997, when she was in her early 50s, Bem reduced her teaching to half-time and enrolled in the Psy. D. program at Rutgers University. Her 2 years of training and her PhD in psychology allowed her to earn a NY State psychologist license. She opened a private practice in Ithaca in 2000, while continuing to teach part-time at Cornell. Between 2004 and 2010, she initiated a phased retirement plan with the university, teaching part-time and doing clinical work part-time. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she made plans to take her own life before she became someone unrecognizable to herself. She committed suicide in 2014.
Early Work on Gender Roles and Gender Discrimination
The Bems worked with the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1969 to challenge gender-segregated job advertisements in a lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Press. Sandra provided expert testimony by reporting the results of their research which demonstrated that women were unlikely to apply for jobs listed under the heading “Male Help Wanted” (Bem and Bem 1973). The case was heard by the US Supreme Court, which ruled against the Pittsburgh Press in 1973. This decision was important in effecting gender desegregation of the workplace, changing not only how newspapers across the country listed job ads but also how employers and employees constructed employment positions. The Bems also confronted sex discrimination in the workplace by serving as expert witnesses in Federal Communication Commission hearings regarding discrimination against women at AT&T. The Bems provided evidence of the differential impact of sexist vs. gender-neutral ads. In the publicly announced settlement, AT&T agreed to modify its recruiting and hiring practices.
The Bems were featured for their newsworthy egalitarian marriage in the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine in 1970, and they lectured widely on this topic since having an equal marriage was such a radical idea at the time. In Pittsburgh, the Bems gave community lectures on gender roles, egalitarian marriage, and how they shared housework. In discussion of Sandra’s resistance to gendered divisions of domestic responsibilities, the Bems composed an article entitled Training the woman to know her place: The power of a nonconscious ideology (Bem and Bem 1970). This monograph was distributed in pamphlet style through women’s study courses in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was reprinted in anthologies. In this groundbreaking article, the Bems critiqued gendered assumptions about men and women’s roles in relationships. The article cleverly reveals to readers their own nonconscious assumptions that housework is the responsibility of the wife and a husband who helps her with this job is an admirable partner. The article included one of the earliest uses of the term “sexism.” The Bems argued that the internalization of gender stereotypes is responsible for the maintenance of gender differences and inequalities. In doing so, the Bems challenged the ideas that sex differences are biological and that gender inequality is inevitable. These themes repeat throughout Bem’s scholarship.
In her work, Sandra Bem sought to expose the detrimental effects of traditional gender roles. She is best known for her work on androgyny, which impacted the conceptualization of masculinity and femininity within US Psychology. Bem challenged the traditional position that masculinity and femininity were bipolar opposites and that being sex typed was mentally healthy (Bem 1975). At the time she was writing, the term “sex typed” referred to a person whose behavioral characteristics were consistent with their biological sex; a biological male was supposed to be masculine, and a biological female was supposed to be feminine. In her approach, masculinity and femininity were measured independently (Bem 1974). Taking a more context-dependent view of human behavior, Bem contended that masculine characteristics and feminine characteristics could coexist together in the individual. For example, a person could be a leader in one context and be a follower in another. A person could be self-reliant and still rely on the help of others in certain situations. Bem argued that individuals who possessed the skills and positive attributes associated with both men and women were more flexible and performed well across a variety of contexts. Individuals with positive masculine and feminine traits were classified as androgynous and had the skills – and the advantage – to perform well in a variety of situations. In Bem’s theory, a combination of masculinity and femininity was considered ideal and an indicator of mental health. In contrast, sex-typed individuals who were previously viewed as mentally healthy were in Bem’s theory viewed as rigid and restricted by gender rules and norms.
In order to research her theory of androgyny, Bem created the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI) and conducted research showing that conventional gender typing was not necessarily correlated with psychological adjustment or behavioral flexibility (Bem 1974; Bem 1975). The Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI) was a self-report inventory that departed in important ways from preceding measures of masculinity and femininity. Previous M-F scales were based on the model of masculinity and femininity as bipolar opposites. They typically involved a series of forced choice items regarding preferences and activities that were selected for inclusion based on the (differentiated) responses of men and women or on the differentiated responses of homosexual and heterosexual men. The early M-F scales were developed in part to identify pathology in the form of cross sex typing in the respondents (i.e., people whose expressions of masculinity and femininity were at odds with their biological sex).
The BSRI was comprised of 60 pretested (and socially desirable) items on which people could rate themselves on a Likert scale. Twenty items were considered feminine (e.g., affectionate, sympathetic, gentle); 20 were considered masculine (e.g., independent, forceful, dominant); and 20 were considered neutral (e.g., conscientious, reliable, unpredictable). People taking the inventory receive a masculinity score and a separate femininity score; androgyny is measured by the ratio of masculine to feminine items. Scores close to zero represent a balance of masculine and feminine traits, and high negative or positive scores represent conventional gender typing. More detailed considerations of how the BSRI was scored (in both its original and short forms) can be found in Bem (1977, 1979, 1981a). There are four possible outcomes for a person’s BSRI score: high masculinity, high femininity, high in both (androgyny), and low in both (undifferentiated). The BSRI has been widely used in gender research, and the article in which it was first proposed has been cited thousands of times (Golden and McHugh 2016; Hoffman and Borders 2001).
Bem employed the BSRI to empirically examine both the flexibility of androgynous individuals and the rigidity of conventionally gender-typed men and women. She and her colleagues hypothesized that gender-typed individuals are likely to prefer gender-conforming activities (i.e., activities said to be consistent with their biological sex and associated gender role) and that cross-gender behavior would be motivationally problematic for them. Their studies demonstrated that gender-typed individuals actively avoid and resist gender nonconforming activities and are uncomfortable when performing cross-gender tasks (Bem and Lenney 1976; Bem et al. 1976).
There were serious criticisms of the BSRI as a measure (Hoffman and Borders 2001). For example, the BSRI was designed to measure positive aspects of femininity and masculinity, yet some of the items on the femininity scale such as naïve and gullible are not socially desirable or positive characteristics. Others questioned whether the scale measured characteristics of femininity at all! Bem herself eventually moved away from the use of the scale because she felt it reinforced the idea that there were essential and inherent characteristics of femininity and masculinity.
Bem’s research on psychological androgyny has had tremendous impact in the USA and internationally. Attention has been strong notwithstanding serious criticisms of the BSRI as a measure and despite the fact that research did not generally confirm the androgyny model of mental health which Bem had proposed. For example, comprehensive reviews of the literature from the 1980s found that when psychological well-being was measured by scales of general adjustment, or self-esteem, or depression, it was masculinity that was correlated with well-being, not androgyny or femininity (Whitley 1984, 1988).
Gender Schema Theory
By the early 1980s, Sandra Bem had moved away from the study of androgyny. She realized that the focus on masculinity and femininity maintained rather than transcended gender roles and gender polarization. She focused her attention on gender schema theory – a social cognitive theory about how people become gendered and how gendered cognitive processing impacts our perceptions, decisions, judgements, and memories (Bem 1981b). Drawing from social, cognitive, and developmental psychologies, she proposed that gender schemas get incorporated (or not) into our conceptual frameworks, shaping how people see themselves and the world. She argued that some individuals are gender schematic, using gender schemas to process and regulate behavior, while others are gender aschematic. Such people do not process information primarily in terms of gender. This theoretical framework had significant implications for theories of gender development. Through her research on gender schemas and gender aschematic people, Bem attempted to shift the dominant paradigm within psychology. Her research emphasized the way in which social norms and gender polarization create and enforce the categories of gender. Bem attempted to explain to the professional and the lay person that masculinity and femininity are not biologically determined but rather are social constructions. Gender schema theory was one of the most important contributions of Sandra Bem; it is still cited extensively 34 years after she introduced it (Starr and Zurbriggen 2016).
Lenses of Gender
In her third important contribution, The Lenses of Gender, Bem (1993) outlined three cultural lenses through which people come to understand gender: androcentrism, gender polarization, and biological essentialism and demonstrated how they work together to shape cultural discourses, social institutions, and the psyche itself. The Lenses of Gender argues that male dominance and power get reproduced psychologically as well as systemically. Whereas in her prior work (e.g., on androgyny) Bem challenged the assumed link between the sex of the body and a person’s psychological attributes, in The Lenses of Gender, she extends this by challenging the link between the sex of the body and one’s sexuality, thus showing how heterosexism and compulsory heterosexuality are reproduced.
Androcentrism refers to the privileging of males, male experience, and the male perspective and to a pervasive male centeredness that holds men to be the standard and the norm and women as the “other” (Bem 1993). Bem’s work on androcentrism as a nonconscious ideology is an elaboration of her early work on training women to know their place. Gender polarization refers to the way that society is organized around the distinction between man and woman, with the assumption that they are bipolar opposites. She argues that gender is imposed on every aspect of the human experience such that men and women are expected to behave differently in terms of how they dress, work, play, express emotion, and have sex. Bem critiques pervasive gender expectations that are based on the view that women and men are in all ways bipolar opposites.
Biological essentialism refers to the belief that differences between men and women are the inevitable result of fundamental, biological sex differences. Bem claimed she was agnostic with regard to whether biological differences exist. However, she argued that our ideas about male-female difference have been transformed into disadvantage for women and further that the belief in intrinsic differences serves to legitimize the other two cultural lenses, androcentrism and gender polarization. Bem’s elucidation of the lenses of gender remains an important conceptualization of how gender inequality is reproduced in contemporary society. Bem’s analysis of how the lenses of gender insidiously infect our minds as well as cultural discourses shows how male dominance and power get reproduced psychologically as well as systemically. By offering an enculturated lens theory of development, Bem illustrated how the process of internalization works on children to the point where most become gender conformists. In Lenses, Bem extended the analysis to (hetero)sexuality as well, showing how heterosexism and compulsory heterosexuality serve to reproduce normative sexualities in women and men. The Lenses of Gender won a Distinguished Publication Award from the Association for Women in Psychology in 1994 in recognition of the way she explicitly addressed issues of power and inequality, arguing for their centrality in any serious psychology of women.
Throughout her career, Bem challenged the relation between sex and gender, gender roles, and psychological theories of gender. She attempted to make visible the gendered lenses through which we view the world, often without conscious knowledge of doing so. She wanted people to “look at the culture’s gender lenses rather than through them” (Bem 1993, p. 2). Bem summarized her argument from The Lenses of Gender in an essay Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality: From Biological Difference to Institutionalized Androcentrism (Bem 1996). Her key insight was that these biases were not simply “out there” but inside our heads as well; according to Bem, gender inequality is not the result of a few powerful sexists who control the media but is implicit and engrained in most people’s constructions of gender. Bem articulated some strategies for dismantling androcentrism and for envisioning a future unrestricted by rigid gender norms. Her work on gender continues to inform the work of scholars today (Keener and Mehta 2017a, b).
- Bem, S. L. (1981a). Bem sex role inventory professional manual. Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press.Google Scholar
- Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
- Bem, S. L. (1996). Transforming the debate on sexual inequality: From biological difference to institutionalized androcentrism. In J. C. Chrisler, C. Golden, & P. D. Rozee (Eds.), Lectures on the psychology of women (pp. 9–21). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
- Bem, S. L. (1998). An unconventional family. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
- Bem, S. L., & Bem, D. J. (1970). Training the woman to know her place: The power of a nonconscious ideology. In S. Cox (Ed.), Female psychology: The emerging self (pp. 180–191). Chicago: SRA Associates.Google Scholar
- George, M. (2012). Profile Sandra Bem. In A. Rutherford (Ed.), Psychology’s feminist voices multimedia internet archive. Retrieved from http://www.feministvoices.com/sandrabem.
- Golden, C. R., & McHugh, M. C. (2016). Sandra Bem: Challenging constructions of gender and sex. Sex Roles. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11199-016-0674-2.Google Scholar
- Hoffman, R. M., & Borders, L. D. (2001). Twenty-five years after the Bem sex-role inventory: A reassessment and new issues regarding classification variability. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 34, 39–55.Google Scholar
- Keener, E., & Mehta, C. M. (Eds.). (2017a). The past, present, and future of masculinity, femininity and gender: Honoring feminist scholar Sandra L. Bem (1944–2014), Part 1. Sex Roles. Google Scholar
- Keener, E., & Mehta, C. M. (Eds.). (2017b). The past, present, and future of masculinity, femininity and gender: Honoring feminist scholar Sandra L. Bem (1944–2014), Part 2. Sex Roles. Google Scholar
- Starr, C. B., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2016). Sandra Bem’s gender schema theory after 34 years: A review of its reach and impact. Sex Roles. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11199-016-0591-4.Google Scholar