Dr. Sandra Bem (1944-2014) devised the gender schema theory to explain gender development and the Bem Sex Role Inventory to measure traits of masculinity, femininity, and androgyny. Learn more about her and her work in this lesson.
Have you ever wondered what makes you male or female, aside from your anatomy? Social expectations play a large part in how you express your identity as a male or female. However, in recent decades, scholars have been challenging the traditional binary of 'maleness' and 'femaleness' and the gender roles that help to construct it.
In this lesson, we will look at the work of one such scholar, Dr. Sandra Bem, who was born in 1944 and lived to 2014. Dr. Bem was a psychologist known for her gender schema theory and the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). In this lesson, we'll discuss each of these contributions in detail.
Gender Schema Theory
When you hear the word 'gender,' what comes to mind? You probably conjure images of newborns swaddled in blue or pink blankets, toy soldiers vs. dolls, and possibly anatomical differences. However, gender is more complex than we might think. In order to illuminate this complexity, it would be helpful to distinguish it from 'sex,' another term we associate with maleness and femaleness.
- Sex is the biological male, female, or intersex (a combination of both sexes) category we are assigned at birth based on our chromosomes and reproductive organs
- Gender refers to socially created roles, feelings, and behaviors that society deems appropriate for men and women
Dr. Bem argued that gender roles are based on cultural stereotypes. She accepted these masculine and feminine stereotypes as part of society and did not advocate challenging or changing them. Rather, she suggested that healthy human beings should exhibit combinations of both masculine and feminine stereotypes, which is known as androgyny. This allows for greater flexibility in thought and behavior and makes people more adaptable to different life circumstances.
Dr. Bem formally developed her gender schema theory in 1981 to explain how gender develops through socialization in a given culture. Gender-related information is passed through the generations in the form of gender schemas. These schemas are mental patterns that allow children to categorize and organize gender-related behaviors. Dr. Bem based her ideas on social learning theory, which holds that children acquire gender roles through observation, reward, and punishment.
For example, boys are often rewarded for pursuing interests that society and culture have deemed appropriate for them. They may be praised for imitating their fathers, playing with toy trucks, and participating in sports. On the other hand, they may be punished or shamed for playing with makeup or dolls. According to Dr. Bem, children receive this information and use it to organize and understand themselves and others in comparison.
Early in their development, children view characteristics, such as strength, as existing in both sexes to varying degrees. As they grow older, however, these characteristics shift in one direction or another. Children begin to attribute strength to boys and weakness to girls, further emphasizing the differences between them. However, Dr. Bem argued that gender schemas are not necessarily fixed - we can actually change them. In order to confirm this theory, she created a psychological test to determine whether people used gender schemas.
Bem Sex Role Inventory
Dr. Bem surmised that healthy functioning required both masculine and feminine psychological characteristics. She found that existing tests presented masculinity and femininity as opposites, which made it impossible for results to show the presence of both traits at once. These tests also cast feminine traits in a negative light, so Dr. Bem created the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) to test a person's adherence to gender schemas and the possibility of psychological androgyny.
The BSRI is comprised of questions that measure sixty traits. Twenty of these are stereotypically masculine, such as aggression, dominance, and self-reliance. Twenty are stereotypically feminine, such as warmth, compassion, and sympathy. There are also twenty neutral traits.
People taking the test are asked to rate how much they feel each trait fits their personalities. When the test is scored, they can be rated as sex-typed, sex-reversed, androgynous, or undifferentiated.
- A sex-typed person is someone whose gender identity matches his or her sex
- A sex-reversed person is one whose gender identity opposes his or her sex
- An androgynous person would possess both masculine and feminine traits
- An undifferentiated person would score low on both types of traits
Dr. Bem posited that people who scored as androgynous were more likely to be adaptive, healthy, and competent. For instance, it is adaptive to be assertive in some situations and yielding in others.
While the original BSRI contained sixty questions, there are now shorter versions that have showed even greater reliability in gender research. The BSRI-12, which contains only twelve questions, has gained popularity in recent years.
Dr. Sandra Bem (1944-2014) was a psychologist known for her gender schema theory, which explains how gender develops through socialization, reward, and punishment. She also designed the Bem Sex Role Inventory to measure affiliation with traits of masculinity, femininity, and androgyny (a combination of both). Dr. Bem argued that androgyny allows for greater adaptability and flexibility.
Dr. Bem has left an impressive legacy since she first began her studies several decades ago. Her BSRI is still the most commonly used test of gender roles, identity, and characteristics, and her gender schema theory is still widely studied.