On This Day … 20 May

People (Deaths)

  • 2014 – Sandra Bem, American psychologist and academic (b. 1944).

Sandra Bem

Sandra Ruth Lipsitz Bem (22 June 1944 to 20 May 2014) was an American psychologist known for her works in androgyny and gender studies. Her pioneering work on gender roles, gender polarisation and gender stereotypes led directly to more equal employment opportunities for women in the United States.

Education and Career

Bem attended Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, now known as Carnegie-Mellon University, and majored in psychology. She recalls the head of the counselling centre, Bob Morgan, encouraging her to study to become a psychiatrist. This was the first time such a high-status career had ever been suggested to her. Subsequently, she entered the University of Michigan in 1965 and obtained her Ph.D. in developmental psychology in 1968. Her dissertation focused primarily on cognitive processing and problem solving with young children. Her main influence while at the University of Michigan was experimental psychologist David Birch. Her early work focused on the behaviour of young children and their ability to solve problems, and utilize self-control and instruction.

After obtaining her Ph.D., Bem got a full-time tenure-track position as a professor at Carnegie-Mellon for three years and then moved on to work at Stanford University, where she worked until 1978. She left Stanford University because her application for tenure was denied. She and husband Daryl Bem both took tenured teaching positions at Cornell University in 1978, where she became a psychology professor and the director of the women’s studies programme. While at Cornell, Bem focused research on gender schema theory, sexuality, and clinical psychology until she retired in 2010.

Influences on the Field of Psychology

Bem was an American psychologist known for her works in androgyny and gender studies. Bem and her husband Daryl Bem advocated egalitarian marriage. The husband-wife team became highly demanded as speakers on the negative impacts of sex role stereotypes on individuals and society. At the time, there was a lack of empirical evidence to support their assertions because this was uncharted territory, and so Sandra Bem became very interested and determined to gather data that would support the detrimental and limiting effects of traditional sex roles. In her early career, she was heavily involved in women’s liberation movement, and she did work on sex-biased job advertising. Her involvement led to being a contributor to landmark cases concerning recruitment of women in the work force against companies such as AT&T and the Pittsburgh Press.

Early on in Bem’s career she created the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI), which is an inventory that acknowledges that individuals may exhibit both male and female characteristics. The BSRI is a scale developed to determine what kind of sex role an individual fulfils. It is a self-report inventory that asks participants how well 60 different attributes describe themselves by using a seven-point scale. These attributes reflect the definition of masculinity (20 questions) and femininity (20 questions), and the remaining 20 questions were merely filler questions (Bem, 1993). In this inventory the feminine and masculine items were chosen on what was culturally appropriate for males and females at that time in the early 1970s. The BSRI was later used to measure psychological flexibility and behavioural indicators. Bem also developed the gender schema theory. According to the gender schema theory, “the child learns to evaluate his or her adequacy as a person in terms of the gender schema, to match his or her preferences, attitudes, behaviours, and personal attributes against the prototypes stored within it.” This theory states that an individual uses gender as a way to organize various things in a person’s life into categories. Her research questioned the social beliefs and assumptions that sex roles are opposite, bipolar, and mutually exclusive. The data she collected were supportive of a merging of male and female traits to enable a person to be a fully functioning, adaptive human over an emphasis on gender stereotypes.

She asserted that masculine and feminine dimensions could be divided into two spheres, rather than one: A person with high masculine and low feminine identification would be categorised as “masculine”. A person with high feminine identification and low masculine identification, would be categorised as “feminine”. A person who had high identification with both characteristics would be categorised as “androgynous”. A person who has low identification with both dimensions would be considered “undifferentiated”.

One of Bem’s main arguments was that traditional gender roles are restrictive for both men and women, and can have negative consequences for individuals as well as society as a whole.

As previously mentioned, a person could be categorised as “androgynous” when taking the BSRI. Androgyny is defined as “the integration of both masculinity and femininity in a single individual”. Androgyny allows one to freely engage in both masculine and feminine behaviours. According to Bem, people’s behaviour can demonstrate what she defined as situational appropriateness. Situational appropriateness is demonstrated when behaviour is reflective of one’s environment. For example, a woman demonstrating knowledge of sports at a basketball game is appropriate. Androgyny may also blend modalities. An example of androgyny blending modalities would be a woman being both assertive and compassionate when firing someone from a job.

Awards and Honours

Sandra Bem received many awards for her research. Her first was the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career contribution to Psychology in 1976. In 1977 she was awarded the Distinguished Publication Award of the Association of Women in Psychology and in 1980 she received the Young Scholar Award of the American Association of University Women (Makosky, 1990). In 1995, she was selected as an “Eminent Woman in Psychology” by the Divisions of General Psychology and History of Psychology of the American Psychological Association. Critics of Bem’s work generally argued against the political nature of her theories and her objectivity in the material which she studied.

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