Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem:

by Marie Koesterer

"..My central passion has always been to challenge the long-standing cultural belief in some kind of a natural link or match between the sex of one's body and the character of one's psyche and one's sexuality" (Bem, 1995, p.46).

Biography | Psychological Androgyny | Gender Schema Theory
University Affiliations | References | Works Consulted

Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem is a noted psychologist and women's studies professor who pioneered work on psychological androgyny and gender schema theory and has created a substantial body of work regarding the prominence of sex role stereotyping and its effects on Western culture and individual psychology.

Biographical Information

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Childhood and Young Adulthood

In her autobiographical account of her nontraditional marriage, An Unconventional Family, Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem describes her childhood as chaotic and painful (1998). In 1944, she was born Sandra Ruth Lipsitz to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although both of Dr. Bem's parents worked, the family struggled financially and lived in government-subsidized housing for the first eight years of her life. Her mother, Lillian, worked as a highly-regarded executive secretary. Her father, Peter, worked as a mail clerk. Sandra's mother and her mother's family often criticized her father, believing that he was not good enough for her. Sandra's early life was characterized by frequent fights between her parents and her mother's violent and emotional outbursts. Her mother would often have tantrums that involved yelling and destroying family property. She would then sink into a profound depression. Her father often appealed to Sandra to placate and comfort her mother, and her younger sister Beverly (Bem, 1998). Based on these experiences, Dr. Bem believes that she developed the need to always be in control of her emotions and to assume responsibility for herself and others. She dreamed of escaping her unhappy family life and of rescuing herself and her sister. The importance of extended family was also impressed upon Sandra. She was able to briefly escape from the pain at home by spending time at her grandparents' houses where she could experience nurturance and calm.


Because of her family's financial difficulties and her parents' emotional dependence, Sandra lived at home and attended college at Margaret Morrison Carnegie College For Women (Bem, 1998). She found the intellectual climate at Margaret Morrison stifling. She pursued transfer opportunities and was awarded a scholarship to attend Indiana University in her senior year. However, her mother's father died prior to the transfer and Sandra was called home by her parents to alleviate her mother's consuming depression. Shortly after returning home, Sandra decided that she could no longer tolerate the chaos and misery there and moved in with her recently widowed grandmother then, eventually, with a fellow classmate. It is due to the suggestions of this classmate that Sandra met a psychology professor named Daryl Bem.

Marriage and Family Life

During her senior year at Carnegie College For Women, Sandra began an independent reading course on social psychology with a new professor named Daryl Bem who had been highly recommended by her roommate. As Dr. Bem recounts in An Unconventional Family, she became aware of a growing attraction between herself and Daryl as the course progressed (1998). Because of their teacher and student relationship, Daryl was very careful in pursuing a relationship with Sandra. He first invited her to attend a dinner at his apartment with several others, then after she accepted, he casually asked if she'd like to attend a play.

As Sandra Bem (1998) recalls, their relationship quickly and easily grew stronger. Dr. Bem identifies several aspects of their personalities and life situations that combined to fuel the attraction between Daryl and herself. In addition to her appreciation for Daryl's sense of humor and intelligence, Sandra never felt as though she had to play games with Daryl. Neither Sandra nor Daryl conformed to the stereotypical behavior that was thought to be appropriate for their gender, and both had come from gender atypical households where the female parent was dominant (This was true in a different and happier way in Daryl's family than in her own). Because of their differences, both Daryl and Sandra had difficulty finding friends. Furthermore, Daryl supplied the calmness, rationality and consistency that Sandra was looking for after the emotional turmoil of her childhood. Contrarily, Daryl found in Sandra someone to help him become more aware of and receptive to his emotional life.

After several months of spending all their available time with each other, Sandra and Daryl began discussing marriage (Bem, 1998). Sandra knew that she, like her mother, would always want to work outside of the home. Her plan was to pursue a career in psychology. However, she began to realize that she would not have the time (nor the inclination) to make caring for Daryl her top priority, as a wife was traditionally supposed to do. When she realized this, she told Daryl that she could not marry him. Concerned about losing Sandra, and about the inherent unfairness in such a marriage, Daryl suggested that they discuss the possibility of making their marriage as egalitarian as possible.

In the type of marriage that Sandra and Daryl decided to begin, neither party would be solely responsible for the household chores or for raising the children (Bem, 1998). Housework would be kept to a minimum and done only when absolutely necessary. Consideration of the marriage partner's outside lives would also be egalitarian. Both partners careers and interests would be considered equally important. Both Daryl and Sandra felt that their relationship with each other and with their children should be more important than their careers. However they also both felt that their commitment to these relationships should be equal and should entail the same benefits and sacrifices for each partner. Their decision to enter an equal partnership came before the advent of the Women's Movement, at a time when "women's issues" were only beginning to be heard. Thus, Sandra and Daryl's unconventional relationship was a source of interest and controversy from its very beginning.

Daryl and Sandra wanted a wedding ceremony that reflected their commitment to each other and the equality of their partnership (Bem, 1998). On June 6, 1965, Daryl Bem and Sandra Lipsitz were married in a simple ceremony, modeled after a Quaker ceremony, in which each professed their love and commitment, and married themselves to each other. Although both families supported their concepts of egalitarianism, Sandra's family was strongly opposed to her non-Jewish wedding ceremony. After making several attempts to change her mind, her mother and several of her relatives decided not to attend.

In addition to the lack of support for their type of marriage, and wedding ceremony, Sandra and Daryl encountered criticism about their decision to live apart after they wed. In An Unconventional Family, Sandra (1998) recalls their first encounter with disapproval from friends and colleagues when she decided not to put her career on hold after marriage. Sandra decided that she wanted the opportunity to chose the graduate school that best fit her intellect and interests, instead of automatically staying in Pittsburgh with Daryl while he taught. Sandra and Daryl decided that Sandra would go to graduate school at the University of Michigan. They would take turns visiting each other on weekends. If possible, Daryl would try to arrange his teaching schedule to be with Sandra for at least one year during her graduate education. Both Sandra and Daryl had to deal with the confusion and concern of others when they realized that Daryl's career was not automatically the only one that mattered.

Sandra never forgot her desire to "rescue" her sister from her family home (Bem, 1998). She and Daryl agreed that she would ask her sister to come live with her in Michigan. Over her parents' objections, Beverly came to live with Sandra in Ann Arbor. Shortly afterward, Daryl was able to rearrange his teaching schedule to be with Sandra most of the week. Beverly was initially jealous about sharing Sandra's time with Daryl, and she stopped going to school. Sandra began to use some behaviorist techniques to help Beverly. She gradually increased Beverly's level of responsibility for herself until Beverly become more self-sufficient and in control of her emotions than she had been able to become in their family home.

Dr. Bem's memories of her early married years highlight how her family with Daryl became the center of a larger community family (1998). After her graduate classes were completed, Sandra moved back to Pittsburgh, so that Daryl could be close to Carnegie Tech, and she completed her dissertation in absentia. During their time in Pittsburgh, Sandra and Daryl were able to heal the rift created with Sandra's relatives because of their nontraditional wedding. The importance of family, and family community continued to be important to the Bem's, regardless of where they lived. Over the years, relatives from both sides of the family came for regular visits or for short stays. The importance of family connection only increased for Sandra with the birth of their first child, Emily, in 1974. Sandra's mother had an immediate and transforming connection to Emily. The close presence of Sandra's parents at this time of her life, and the connection that they had with Emily, and her second child, healed much of the pain of the past.

Sharing Their Solutions

Dr. Bem's contributions to the study of gender theory are not only academic. In 1966, when both Bems were teaching at Carnegie Tech, they received their first invitation to publicly discuss their egalitarian marriage at an honors seminar for women (Bem, 1998). Many more invitations followed. In 1972, the Bems even used a professional booking service to manage their many invitations to speak at colleges around the country. The Bems eventually stopped speaking publicly to allow their young children to live private lives. Following is a summary of the important points about egalitarian marriage and gender aschematic childrearing that they made in their lectures and the important points summarized by Sandra Bem in her academic works on gender schema and childrearing.

Creating And Sustaining An Egalitarian Marriage

Creating an egalitarian marriage, according to the Bems, required looking at the roles that men and women were afforded in contemporary society and being critical of the limitations that are placed on women (1998). One of the ways that the Bems encouraged audiences to explore this dichotomy is through answering the question, "Why is is so difficult to predict what a newborn baby boy will be doing some twenty-five years later, especially if he's white and middle class, but so easy to predict what a newborn baby girl will be doing?" (Bem, 1998, p. 81). The Bem's followed up this thought by noting how women are encouraged to sublimate other desires to accommodate the traditional roles of wife and mother. Once in these roles, their lives were dictated by putting the needs of others first and by a narrow definition of appropriate behavior. Thus, the Bems concluded, the gender discrimination that women face in society is mirrored in the traditional conceptions of wife and motherhood.

The Bems also noted that the current ideas about enlightened marriage didn't go far enough. They illustrated this point by having first Daryl, then Sandra read the following passage:

"Both my wife and I earned Ph.D. degrees in our respective disciplines. I turned down a superior job offer in Oregon and accepted a slightly less desirable position in New York where my wife would have more opportunities for part-time work in her specialty. Although I would have preferred to live in a suburb, we purchased a home near my wife's job so that she could have an office at home where she would be when the children returned from school. Because my wife earns a good salary, she can easily afford to pay a housekeeper to do her major household chores. My wife and I share all other tasks around the house equally. For example, she cooks the meals, but I do the laundry for her and help her with many of her other household tasks." (Bem, 1998, p. 83)

Although the paragraph may have seemed to their audience like a script from an equal marriage, they noted how strange it sounded when "wife" was changed to "husband" and read by Sandra. The point, the Bem's said, is that in a truly equal marriage the gender of either speaker wouldn't matter. The problem with the current concept, they believed, was its belief that household maintenance and childrearing were the wife's responsibilities.

Central to their ideas about egalitarian marriage was the concept that fathers could be equal parents and that working motherhood didn't mean inadequate motherhood (Bem, 1998). The Bem's were among the first to publicly support the idea of outside child care. A concept which, Sandra notes, was considered "communist" by their early audiences (Bem, 1998, p. 80). The Bems helped underscore their message about childcare help by noting, "Mary Poppins would not have answered an ad for a cleaning lady." (Bem, 1998, p. 80).

The Bems suggested that married partners measure their equality by using an idea that they called "the roommate test" (Bem, 1998, p. 86.). They suggested that married partners divide housework up the way that same sex college roommates often do: by personal preference, coin toss, alternating chores, and by leaving the chores undone until absolutely necessary. During their lectures, The Bems encouraged audience participants to ask whatever questions they wanted. If the question was too personal, the Bems told audiences that they would just decline to answer (which they rarely did). Sandra Bem details the answers to audience questions, and many of the ways that she and Daryl divided up housework, chores and parenting in An Unconventional Family (Bem, 1998).

The Bem's rules for housework followed their own roommate advice. They divided up chores by preference and fairness, and made changes whenever either party requested (Bem, 1998). Neither party could buy their way out of some chores (like buying dinner). If dinner was eaten out, then whoever was supposed to cook that night, would just cook the next night. Often, the Bems just didn't make housework a priority and ignored the housework that could be ignored. They also both bought themselves out of some of the work, by having someone come in twice a month to do the major cleaning. On a day to day basis, they both cleaned up after themselves. If one or the other had a preference for one chore, they would do it. For example, Daryl preferred the house to be neater, so he picked up more. Sandra was more particular about what they ate, so she cooked more.

In addition to fairly dividing the physical work, the Bems suggest that couples divide up the emotional work of house management (Bem, 1998). This was meant to recognize that remembering which chores need to be done is also a chore and that couples can increase the equality of marriage by sharing this task, and not assuming that it belongs to the wife. Further, the Bems suggest that whoever does a task gets full responsibility for it. In other words, if the husband does a task, then he is in charge of determining how (and how well) it gets done. This was meant to discourage partners (especially wives) from critiquing each others work.

Gender Aschematic Childrearing

Among the important elements in the Bems' attempts at gender schematic childrearing, was the fact that Daryl was heavily and equally involved in the children's care (Bem, 1998). Even during Sandra's pregnancies, the Bems tried to include Daryl as much as possible. Daryl came to each prenatal visit, and baby shower and Daryl assisted with breastfeeding by changing the babies' diapers and putting them to sleep after feedings. Eventually, the Bems employed childcare workers, but before they employed outside help, they both arranged their teaching schedules to be home and parenting half of the time.

The also instituted a policy of having an on-duty parent, or the "parent in charge" (Bem, 1998, p. 95). This role alternated by day or by week. Whoever was the parent in charge was responsible for remembering what needed to be done for the children, and then doing it. The parent in charge was also responsible for making any decisions regarding discipline and for playing with the children, or putting them to sleep, as was requested. The parent who was not in charge, could lovingly direct the child toward the other parent during their "time off". However, the parent who was off duty could also do anything for the children that they wanted to do - play with them, take care of them, as per their desire. Sandra Bem likens the off duty parent role to that of a father in a traditional marriage.

In addition to making sure that both parents had in equal role in childrearing, it was important to Sandra to try to protect their children against exposure to and inculcation of the culturally predominating limitations and expectations on behavior for males and females. Sandra refers to this process as trying to "inoculate" them against cultural sex role beliefs (Bem, 1998, p.103). The Bems used a two part plan to do this. Their plan was based on (and reflected in) Sandra's "gender schema" theory and her writings on how to raise children in a gender aschematic way (Bem, 1985). The first part of this plan consisted of making sure that the children were educated about their bodies and sexuality, but that they were unaware of the cultural expectations and taboos related to being male or female. Their egalitarian household management and parenting practices obviously supported this.

The Bems also tried to raise their children without gender bias (Bem, 1998). They encouraged both children to play with a variety of toys. They made sure that the children saw males and females performing the same jobs. They even restricted the books that their children read and the television shows that they watched so that they wouldn't be exposed to gender-biased influences. Sandra and Daryl used whiteout and markers to change the gender of some of the characters in the children's books, so that female characters would be much more fairly represented. Not only did the Bems try to convey that toys and jobs were gender neutral, they even encouraged their children to view clothing as gender neutral. Their son even wore barrettes to school on one occasion. The message that the Bems conveyed to their children was that the only thing that makes someone or something a male or female is their genitalia. Thus, neither a toy truck, a task or profession, or even an outfit could be "male" or "female".

The Bems knew that their children would eventually be exposed to sex biases present in the larger culture, so Sandra also wanted to provide the children with the ability to critique these biases (Bem, 1998). Thus, the second part of their childrearing plan involved teaching the children about diversity as a foundation for criticizing sexist beliefs. The recognition of diversity came up naturally when the children would wonder why things were done differently at their friend's houses. The children also had homosexual aunts and uncles who helped to influence their recognition that all families, and all people weren't alike and that this diversity helped make the world a more interesting and pleasant place. Sandra also helped the children to understand that some people would mistakenly believe that they should behave in certain ways because of their sex. The children's realization of this and their personal experiences with gender flexibility helped them to see other people's views about sex roles as reflecting the holder's bias and not reality. Sandra wanted her children to understand that "..it's not males and females who are different from each other. It's people who are different from each other" (Bem, 1998, p. 117).


Dr. Sandra Bem writes about the start of her career in the context of the time in which she left graduate school (Bem, 1998). At that time, academic jobs were not advertised. To get a job at a university, you had to be recommended by a highly regarded academic. Even though she already had published an article (an unusual occurrence for the time), and her graduate advisor wrote letters of recommendation to several schools, none were interested in hiring her. In retrospect, Dr. Bem and her advisor think that it might be because he mentioned that she was married to another psychologist and that the universities didn't want to hire a dual career couple.

Shortly after her graduation, a full-time tenure track job opened up at Carnegie Tech (Bem, 1998). Sandra applied for the job and was able to get it despite Daryl's current presence on staff. She immensely enjoyed teaching and advising, but she wasn't sure if she wanted to be a research scientist. None of the research that she was familiar with was interesting to her. During the time she taught at Carnegie Tech it became Carnegie-Mellon University. Around this time, she realized that she could focus her research on testing her feminist beliefs. According to current psychological thought, psychological health consisted of men adopting "male" psychological traits and women adopting "female" psychological traits. Dr. Bem believed that possessing a combination of these traits would be healthier and wanted to test this theory. She became excited about research and started reading everything that she could find on gender and psychology.

If being married to Daryl was a problem when Sandra first tried to get work, it became a career benefit when Stanford became interested in hiring Daryl (Bem, 1998). As Sandra started exploring the idea of doing feminist research, the Bems received a proposal to be visiting faculty for a year at Stanford. Stanford was, at that time, one of the top three psychology programs in the country. Stanford knew that Daryl wouldn't leave Carnegie-Mellon, if it meant that moving would hurt Sandra's career. Stanford wanted the Bems to come as visiting faculty, to see if having a married faculty couple would pose a problem. If all went well after a year, they would offer jobs to both Bems.

Once at Stanford, Sandra realized that she had entered a high stakes academic community and that the only way to get tenure at Stanford would be to become a psychologist who was recognized as leading her field (Bem, 1998). This, and her own increasing desire to do research that appealed to her political and personal ideologies convinced her to undertake research on what she called "psychological androgyny" rather than playing it safe by furthering existing research tracks.

During their later years at Carnegie-Mellon and early years at Stanford, Sandra and Daryl started collecting data about sexually based job discrimination (Bem, 1998). The data that the Bems collected on job discrimination was used in a lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Press for segregating its Help Wanted section into "Male Help Wanted" and "Female Help Wanted" sections. They also published two related studies on the effects of gender-specific job advertisements in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 1973 as "Does sex-biased job advertising 'aid and abet' sex discrimination?". The results of this study (which found that sex biased advertisements do result in less hiring interest in opposite-sexed participants), along with the testimony of Daryl and Sandra, was successfully used in a lawsuit that found AT&T guilty of sex and race discrimination and required changes in its job advertising and hiring practices (Bem, 1998).

In 1971, Sandra Lipsitz Bem created a test to measure psychological gender and psychological androgyny, the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). Despite her creation of a new psychological measurement, and her further publications regarding its efficacy and application, Dr. Bem was denied tenure at Stanford (Bem, 1998). Although the faculty vote was unanimously in her favor, it was overturned by the dean and her denial of tenure was upheld by the provost and the president on appeal. Dr. Bem feels that this was because she was doing original research and because the direction of her research was not meaningful to the overall academic community at Stanford. Even if her research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, her award from the APA for an early contribution to psychology, and the Association of Women in Psychology's Distinguished Publication Award were not enough to impress Stanford, it provided Sandra with significant recognition in the psychological community. This time, it was Sandra's professional contacts that created the next joint job opportunity for Sandra and Daryl.

Sandra was offered the Directorship of Women's Studies at Cornell and both she and Daryl were offered tenured associate professor positions, per her request (Bem, 1998). Sandra and Daryl began working at Cornell in August, 1978. During her time as Director of Women's Studies, she recruited and supported several talented feminist professors who successfully obtained tenure, and she oversaw the harmonious incorporation of lesbian, bisexual and gay studies into the Women's Studies program (Bem, 1998).

In 1981, Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem became a full professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at Cornell. During her years at Cornell, she also refined her ideas about sex-role acquisition into her gender schema theory and conducted research supporting its validity. In 1993, she published The Lenses of Gender. The Lenses of Gender represents the culmination of her lifetime of research and ideas about gender polarization and disparity in Western culture. It contains information from the disciplines of theology, biology and philosophy. It won four book awards, including the Best Book in Psychology Award from the Association of American Publishers (Bem, 1998). In 1995, her years of work on gender and psychology led to her selection as an "Eminent Women In Psychology" by the Divisions of General Psychology and History of Psychology of the APA.

Dr. Bem's work has continued to evolve and provide significant contributions. In 1997, she began doctoral studies in Clinical Psychology. She completed her practicum and internship requirements, and became a licensed clinical psychologist in 2000 (Sandra Lipsitz Bem, date unknown). Her training in clinical psychology lead to the introspection and self-awareness behind her writing of An Unconventional Family (Bem, 1998). An Unconventional Family, published in 1998, does more than detail her emotional life and her experiences as a gender nonconformist. It also evaluates the "experiment" that she undertook with Daryl Bem to have an equal partnership and raise their children to be unrestricted by gender. Although Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem and Dr. Daryl Bem are now separated, they remain co-parents, good friends, and colleagues at Cornell. Throughout An Unconventional Family, Sandra emphasizes Daryl's role as supporter and sounding board for her life's work (1998). Both Bems feel that their "experiment" was a success. In the final chapters of An Unconventional Family, the Bem's children also give their reactions to the way that they were raised and the successes and failures of their parent's approach.

Reflecting on her life and work thus far in An Unconventional Family, Dr. Bem shares her pride in the work that she accomplished and states that she is satisfied with the whole of her past and the direction of her career, noting that she probably would never have had the nerve or the inclination to write The Lenses of Gender or An Unconventional Family if she had been given tenure at Stanford (1998).

Psychological Androgyny

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Dr. Sandra Bem's initial work regarding sex roles and sex typing focused on her concept of psychological androgyny. Psychological androgyny was conceived to be a contradiction to the sex role and psychological health correlates that existed at the time, specifically the idea that healthy sex-role identity should consist of the adoption of behaviors and attitudes that were culturally consistent with one's sex (Bem, 1976).

Healthy functioning in contemporary society, according to Bem (1976), required both psychological traits that were considered masculine and those that were considered feminine. She argued that it was tragic for society to inhibit the development of half of the necessary psychological traits in each individual, and that an individual's overreliance on either stereotypically masculine or feminine traits could be dangerous to the individual and to society. Therefore, the equal combination of these traits, psychological androgyny, should be predictive of the best psychological adjustment and flexibility.

In order to test this theory, Bem needed to devise a psychological measurement that could assess an individual's adherence to sex typed personality traits and account for the possibility of psychological androgyny (Bem, 1976). At the time, other measures of psychological masculinity or femininity existed. However, no measurement tool existed that treated masculinity and femininity as separate scales. Masculinity and femininity were treated as opposite poles of the same scale, thus making it impossible for a respondent to score as equally having traits from both the masculine and feminine sides. Additionally, Bem felt that most existing scales assessed only negative aspects of femininity. Dr. Bem wanted to create a scale that treated masculinity and femininity equally.

The scale that she developed, The Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), contains questions related to 60 traits (Bem, 1976). Twenty of the traits are stereotypically feminine, twenty are stereotypically masculine and twenty are neutral, filler items. Respondents rate the degree to which they feel each trait applies to them. After the test is scored, a respondent could be rated as sex-typed, sex-reversed, androgynous or undifferentiated. A sex-typed individual would be one who's psychological gender matches their physical sex. A sex-reversed individual would be the opposite: a person whose psychological gender is the opposite of their physical sex. An androgynous individual scores at the midpoint or above as possessing both masculine and feminine traits. An undifferentiated individual scores below the midpoint on both masculine and feminine traits.

After creating the BSRI and testing its validity, Dr. Bem applied the BSRI experimentally to measure the behavioral indicators and psychological flexibility of the various rated groups (Bem, 1976). In a study conducted to see how psychological androgynous subjects would compare to sex-typed subjects when given the chance to perform either a stereotypical or a nonstereotypical activity, Dr. Bem found that sex-typed individuals were more likely to choose the stereotypical activity, even when doing so cost them money. Additionally, sex-typed subjects were more likely to report feelings of displeasure when performing non-stereotypical activities than were androgynous subjects.

Further studies were done to assess the differences between psychologically masculine subjects, psychologically feminine subjects and androgynous subjects on specific characteristics (Bem, 1976). One study measured the ability of subjects to present a minority opinion, an ability that was considered culturally masculine. Both the psychologically masculine and psychologically androgynous subjects scored higher than the psychologically feminine subjects. On studies designed to compare the nurturant behaviors exhibited by the various groups (a culturally feminine behavior), Bem found that psychologically androgynous individuals displayed the same amount of nurturant behavior, and sometimes more nurturant behavior than psychologically feminine subjects. This surprising finding was tested further, and it was found that while psychologically androgynous subjects display consistent amounts of nurturant behavior, psychologically feminine subjects showed more nurturant behaviors in a situation where there was very little ambiguity about the way that nurturant behavior could be shown and when showing nurturant behavior would not require them to take a perceived risk.

From these early findings, Dr. Bem concluded that psychological androgyny provided the best flexibility of behavior and thought, allowing for the adoption of the combination of psychological traits and behaviors that best suited a situation (Bem, 1976). Therefore, psychological androgyny was the healthiest representation of psychological gender (or absence of psychological gender) that could be developed in people of any sex.

Gender Schema Theory

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As her theories about gender and behavior evolved, Dr. Bem re-evaluated the concept of psychological androgyny (Bem, 1985). Instead of promising liberation from the cultural stereotypes for people of their sex, she came to see it as suggesting that individuals actually incorporate both sets of cultural stereotypes. She also felt that the concept of psychological androgyny reinforced the idea that gender roles were innate and obscured the true basis of gender liberation: the idea of not using gender as an organizing category beyond the description of genitalia. Gender Schema theory attempts to explain how individuals come to use gender as an organizing category in all aspects of life. It is based on the combination of aspects of the social learning theory and the cognitive-development theory of sex role acquisition.

Social learning theory, according to Dr. Bem (1985), says that children learn gender roles by being rewarded for some behaviors, punished for other behaviors, and by watching others perform gender (modeling). Although Dr. Bem agrees that gender roles are learned, she believes that children are not only passively receiving the information about gender roles, but are then actively using that information to organize and comprehend the larger world.

Cognitive-development theory says that children learn to recognize properties about themselves and then recognize those properties in others, thus evaluating others in terms of their similarity or difference. They perform behaviors of those that they perceive to be similar and they shun the behaviors and attributes of those that they perceive as dissimilar. Dr. Bem sees cognitive-development theory as insufficiently able to explain why children would divide the world by gender when other categories of similarity and difference are just as likely. She points out that other cultures have social categories that create as important a distinction as sex does in Western culture. She argues that an accurate theory of sex role acquisition would have to explain both how children learn about gender and how they come to view it as a central cognitive organizing principle.

Gender schema theory (1985) holds that children learn conceptions of appropriate gender behavior and the network of gender related associations from their culture and then they learn to apply this network as they evaluate and incorporate new information. The child's preexisting views about gender will impact how new information is perceived. Initially, a child learns to assess attributes differently for different genders (For example, the child sees boys as stronger than girls). Eventually, the child sees dimensions as belonging entirely to one sex and not the other. The dimension is completely removed from the schema that they apply to one gender. (The concept of "strong" is no longer applied to girls in any degree. Instead girls are viewed as the opposite: "weak".). The outcome is that the sexes become different to the child, "not only..in degree, but... in kind." (Bem, 1985, p. 188). Fortunately, the process of developing a gender schema is not finite or immutable. Because gender schema theory sees gender schemas as learned and dynamically constructed, it provides for the possibility of change.

Empirical testing done on Dr. Bem's gender schema theory used the BSRI as an indicator to deterimine whether individuals did or did not use a gender schema (Bem, 1985). In this new interpretation of the BSRI, individuals who would have previously been categorized as sex-typed or reverse sex-typed, would now be considered to be gender schematic. Individuals who were previously designated as androgynous or undifferentiated would now be considered gender aschematic. As reported by Dr. Bem, when asked to indicate by pressing a button whether individual traits were like or dislike them, gender schematic individuals were shown to take less time determining that an opposite sex attribute did not apply to them than did gender aschematic individuals (1985). The implication is that when asked whether or not the attribute applied to them, gender schematic individuals did not pause to consider life evidence, but instead relied on their gender schema to determine whether or not the attribute fit with their gender. Gender schematic individuals also were shown to use gender as an organizing principle for remembering a series of words, and to confuse members of the opposite sex more than members of their same sex. Gender schematic individuals were also shown to have a greater tendency to evaluate members of the opposite sex by their physical attractiveness.

Based on the evidence of relevant differences between those who were determined to be gender schematic and gender aschematic, Dr. Bem concludes that those who have a gender schema create self-fulfilling sexual stereotypes. She suggests that attempts be made to eliminate the current elaborate cultural associations regarding the concepts of "male" and "female" to subsequently allow individuals greater freedom in expressing their individuality and in conceptualizing reality.

Education & University Affiliations

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1961-1965: B.A in Psychology, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
1965-1968: Ph.D. in Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
1997-1999: Clinical Psychology Psy.D. Program, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ.
(completed all requirements except dissertation)

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Carnegie-Mellon University (1968-1971)
Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University (1971-1978)
Associate Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies, Cornell University (1978-1981)
Director of Women's Studies, Cornell University (1978-1985)
Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies, Cornell University (1981-present)


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Bem, S. L. (1976) Yes: Probing the Promise of Androgyny. In M. R. Walsh (ed.), The Psychology

of Women: Ongoing Debates.
New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press.


Bem, S. L. (1985) Androgyny and gender schema theory: A conceptual and empirical

integration. In T.B. Sonderegger (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1984: Psychology

and Gender.
Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press.


Bem, S. L. (1995) Working on gender as a gender nonconformist.

Women and therapy: A feminist journal, 17,


Bem, S. L. (1998) An Unconventional Family.

New Haven, CT: Yale Univesity Press.

Sandra Lipsitz Bem. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2000,

from Cornell University Web site: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/lbg/bem.pdf

Works Consulted

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Bem, S. L. (1993) The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality.

New Haven, CT: Yale Univesity Press.


Bem, S. L. (1993) Is there a place in psychology for a feminist analysis of the social context?

Feminism & psychology, 3,

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