Sandra Bem & Gender Psychology

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Even if you’re not familiar with the name Sandra Bem, you may have already been exposed to her ideas without realizing it. In short, Sandra Bem was a woman who contributed much to her chosen field of clinical psychology and influenced American culture dramatically, particularly in our understanding of gender issues.

Sandra Bem was a gifted psychologist and developmental psychology researcher who changed the way many researchers look at gender issues. Throughout her life, Sandra Bem sought independence, equality, and self-direction.

Early life

Born Sandra Ruth Lipsitz in 1944, Bem was the child of Lilian, a secretary, and Peter, a mail clerk. Although her home life was turbulent, Sandra and her younger sister became very close early on. Bem’s career in social psychology would partially be shaped by her early experiences and views on traditional sex roles and gender stereotypes. While attending an Orthodox Jewish school, Sandra refused to wear a skirt, opting instead to wear pants. At home, Sandra's mother despised doing household chores and warned Sandra that her life would always be difficult because she was a woman.

Sandra Bem had her own ideas of what a woman should be. When she thought of a happy marriage, she thought of one that was healthy, stable, and based on respect; a vision far removed from that of her parents' tumultuous relationship.

Marriage and family

When Sandra Bem was going to college at Carnegie Institute of Technology, which later became Carnegie-Mellon University, she met a professor named Daryl Bem. While Daryl was six years older than Sandra, the two quickly developed a close relationship. She married Daryl and changed her last name to Bem when she was only 20 years old.

Sandra Bem eventually had two children. She and Daryl raised their children in a gender-neutral home environment where chores, personal expressions, and acceptable behavior weren't based on predefined gender roles. For the time period, this was a highly unconventional family dynamic as members of the opposite sex typically fell into specific societal roles.

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Once the children were in their teens, Daryl began to leave the parenting responsibilities to Sandra. Sandra wasn't willing to change their agreement, which many historians see as the root of their separation. However, they never divorced, and the two raised their children cooperatively.

As a scholar

After getting her undergraduate degree from Carnegie Tech in 1965 in psychology, Bem went on to graduate studies at the University of Michigan. She then went back to Carnegie Tech to teach and started focusing on gender studies—specifically, sex roles. In 1968, she received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

After extensive research on job ads and their reliance on gender bias, Bem developed a scale to rate sex roles. She called the scale the “Bem Sex Role Inventory.” It was then that she coined the term “androgynous” and included it in her four sex role categories which solidified her early career contribution to psychology. It was during this time when Bem looked at cross sex behavior and found that some individuals would prefer to make less money working a job that fit their traditional gender role rather than perform a task that was out of their traditional gender role. 

Bem also wrote a groundbreaking book on gender issues, The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality which looked at gender through four lenses, including gender polarization and how it impacts individuals. Other important works by Bem include An Unconventional Family, a book about her marriage and family life; “Gender Schema Theory: A Cognitive Account of Sex Typing”, an article outlining her beliefs regarding the origins of sex typing; and “Does sex-biased job advertising ‘aid and abet’ sex discrimination?” which examined the above-mentioned reliance on gender bias and sex role stereotypes in job postings.  

After years of being a professor of psychology at Stanford University, she added a women's studies program to her repertoire. She served as Director of the Women's Studies programs at Cornell University from 1978 until she retired in 2010.

As an activist

Sandra Bem didn't stop at an academic understanding of the issues she discovered in her gender and sex research. She also brought her viewpoint to business leaders, inspiring changes in the ways people are perceived in marketing and hiring based on gender. Her testimony figured heavily in several court cases fighting gender discrimination and sex biased job advertising. She was also a highly sought-after speaker on these subjects as one psychology’s feminist voices.

Death

When Sandra Bem was about 65, she discovered she was having trouble with her memory and other cognitive functions. After receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, she said she would end her own life before she lost the mental ability to do it. On May 20, 2014, after telling her husband and children for years that this was her plan, and with Daryl by her side, she made the final choice to die on her terms.

If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, reach out to 911 or call a suicide hotline. In the U.S., you can dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or use the webchat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.

Bem's contributions to psychology

Many believe that Sandra Bem's contributions to the field of psychology have fostered new views on the intersection of gender and mental health, including assessing psychological androgyny. Through her academic life, she presented novel concepts and measurements for the emerging interest in changing the way psychologists and others think of gender roles and won psychology’s Distinguished Publication Award in 1977 and in 1980 for her work. In 1995 she was named an “Eminent Woman in Psychology” by the APA’s Divisions of General Psychology and History of Psychology. 

Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI)

As mentioned, Sandra Bem developed the Bem Sex-Role Inventory as a part of her scientific studies on current gender roles. The BSRI was meant to classify individuals according to the gender characteristics they most identified with on the 50-question test.

Sandra Bem assumed that individuals could have both masculine and feminine traits. The test, then, determines your gender role on a scale rather than an absolute value. People of either sex can be rated as being mostly feminine or masculine or having equal traits of both sex roles (Bem called this “androgyny”), or not identifying strongly with either role (Sandra Bem used the term “undifferentiated” here).

The BSRI is a popular measurement tool, but it hasn't been without criticism. Some have said that Bem's results with the scale were hard to replicate, and the test was invalid. Others have argued that the theory behind the BSRI (gender schema theory) was flawed.

Androgyny

Sandra Bem used the term “androgyny” as a label for people who scored high on both feminine and masculine traits. With this definition in mind, she argued that androgyny was the best sex role orientation to have, both for the individual and for society as a whole.

While many have taken the word “androgyny” to mean “neither,” when Bem set forth this new sex role orientation label, she really meant “both,” which makes sense as the Greek word refers to both “man” (andros) and “woman” (gynos). Thus, this term defines someone with varied strengths rather than someone with only strengths related to their gender.

Gender schema theory

In 1981, Sandra Lipsitz Bem introduced gender schema theory in her scholarly article published in Psychological Review, “Gender Schema Theory: A Cognitive Account of Sex Typing.” Bem's theory assumed that some people categorize gender-oriented roles typically, while others didn't seem to see their lives solely through the lens of their gender. Her gender schema theory explained how individuals develop their gender role orientation during childhood by responding to their environment.

Bem’s article addressed the concept that, through child development, all societies encourage children to do gender-specific tasks and identify with the culturally assigned sex roles for their biological gender. Like other scientists before her, Bem called this process of societal shaping of gender roles “sex typing.”

Bem's work included subjects as diverse as cross-gendered people (those who identify with the sex roles considered opposite of their biological sex), heterosexuality, and how we develop our sex-role identity. The gender schema describes the child's system of labeling their world and nearly all its constituent parts as either “male” or “female.” Bem's recommendation for societal change was that the best solution to gender inequality is to stop our labeling of everything in this way in order to challenge traditional gender roles.

Since Bem's work in the 1980s on gender schemas, other psychologists have evaluated her work and found it helpful. Some have gone on beyond her original theory to develop additional concepts regarding sex roles and gender identity. They've done work on how children develop along cultural lines within what's considered acceptable where they are and in their historical time.

Bem's work toward gender equality

Bem was known to greet life with an enthusiastic commitment to making the world a better place for people of all genders. She started out with what many would consider a well-defined egalitarian marriage. Later, she influenced the way businesses advertise and employers find workers.

In marriage

At the outset, Sandra and Daryl agreed that they would have equality in their marriage. They were even on the cover of the first Ms. Magazine as an example of how equal marriages could work.

Later in life, however, Sandra decided to separate from Daryl, citing his decision to avoid his parenting duties. Even during separation, they maintained their close relationship. They worked together to provide a strong family for their teen children. And at the end of Sandra’s life, although Daryl didn't want her to die, he gave his support for her to do as she wished, thus honoring her as an equal.

In advertising

Sandra and Daryl's studies reported in their journal article, “Does Sex-biased Job Advertising 'Aid and Abet' Sex Discrimination,” were presented as a part of their expert testimony in court cases of the day. This allowed the couple to influence the lives of people beyond the academic setting.

Are gender roles influencing you and your relationship?

In employment

After several court cases punished businesses for adopting practices that discriminated based on sex, Bem's work began to influence the corporate world. In the past, job ads were aimed at one sex or another. Afterwards, and in large part due to Bem’s influence, things began to change. Traditionally “women's” jobs and traditionally “men's” jobs are now advertised together, with considerably more gender neutrality.

Bem, as a talented therapist

Aside from all of her studies, her work to change the politics of gender, and her intense focus on having a gender-neutral family environment, Sandra Bem was a gifted therapist. Bem was a pioneer for women in therapy and she wrote an article for the publication Women in Therapy: A Feminist Journal in 1995.Even when Alzheimer’s began to diminish her cognitive function, she was consistently effective and accurate in treating people with gender issues.

Since her time, therapists interested in gender and sex-role identification have studied her impressive body of work. As a feminist psychologist, Sandra Bem's discoveries contributed to today's feminist therapy. If you would like to talk to a therapist about these subjects, you can connect with a licensed counselor for online therapy at BetterHelp.

Takeaway

Sandra Bem proved that gender equality is possible and described a world in which people of all genders could reach a higher potential. Located in New Haven CT, Yale University Press published many of Bem’s works, including The Lenses of Gender Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality.

Are you ready to leave behind the gender biases that have held you back? Would you like to learn more about who you are and who you want to be regarding gender? If so, talking to a certified counselor can help.

Online counselors don’t just partake in individual therapy, but also in couples and family therapy. A study showed that 95% of couples who engage in online therapy find it helpful. Another set of surveys demonstrated that many couples felt they could impart more honest, personal, and intimate details about their lives and relationships because they were doing so via an online medium as opposed to in-person. 

If you want to talk about gender equality and if you want to know more about how gender roles may be influencing your relationship, consider reaching out to BetterHelp to take a short survey and get matched with a therapist who suits your preferences and needs.

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