So what about all the female psychologists?: Sandra Bem


Sandra Bem (1944-) is a contemporary psychologist best known for her contribution to the field of genderShe developed the Bem Sex Role inventory (BSRI), measuring how well a person fits into traditional gender roles, characterising masculinity, femininity and androgyny.

She suggested that androgynous people, who showed a mixture of masculine and feminine traits, were more psychologically healthier that people who only showed masculine or only feminine traits.

To develop the BSRI, 100 judges were asked to give ratings on a seven-point scale to 200 personality traits. The scale asked them to determine how desirable each trait was for either men or women. On the basis of these ratings, Bem chose 20 traits that the judges had rate as most desirable for males than for females, and 20 traits that they had rated as more desirable for females than for males. A further 20 neutral traits that had not been identified as particularly desirable for for one sex but not the other were also chosen for the scale.

Below are some examples of some of these characteristics:

Masculine: forceful; aggressive; independent.

Feminine: warm; affectionate; gentle.

Neutral: friendly; loyal; theatrical.


  • Bem’s scale has been found to have good test-retest reliability, producing similar results if used on more than one occasion with the same sample.
  • Bem (1974) suggested that people with high androgyny scores are psychologically healthier than people who show more conventionally differentiated male or female traits. However, other researchers have suggested that it is the high masculinity score which is important for psychological well being (Whitely, 1983).
  • Reducing the concepts of masculinity and femininity to a single score may be an oversimplification.
  • The inventory is based on what American students assessed as desirable traits for men and women in the 1970s. Thus the BSRI, like nearly all significant psychological research, lacks temporal validity as well as limited generalisability in all societies and at all times. Despite this, other and more recent studies have found that gender is consistent across a range of cultures, such as the 37 different cultures investigated by Buss et al (1990).
  • Human biases such as social desirability may produce artificial or distorted data, though the inventory was completed confidentially and was tested on over 1,000 students so it is more likely to have high internal validity.

Other contributions to psychology:

  • Sandra and her husband formulated a revolutionary concept of egalitarian marriage. The husband-wife team became extremely demanded for as speakers on the negative impacts of sex role stereotypes on individuals and society. However, the lack of empirical evidence supporting their assertions limited their research as this was uncharted territory. Subsequently, Sandra became very interested and determined to gather data in support of the detrimental and limiting effects of traditional sex roles.

Social context of Bem’s work:

The 1960’s and 70’s, in which “sexism” was not a word that existed yet, and women were expected to follow the expectations of their gender – agreeable, kind, supportive, domestic, and setting aside everything for their husband. However, the beliefs were not only how it should be, but there was widespread opinion that these traditional sex roles were innate and unchangeable. Women admired the idea of equality, but Bem was told that she would be unable to uphold her ideal of egalitarianism once she had children. She challenged not only the norms of  her immediate life, but also the norms of the wider society. In addition, she was working in a university setting dominated by white men, far from a ring of liberal women bent on busting through patriarchy. This only makes Bem’s contribution more significant and illustrates the glass ceiling between women and an important voice heard in psychology.

Bem’s legacy:

  • Sandra Bem received many awards for her work. Her first award 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. 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 research broadly argued against the political nature of her theories and the objectivity of the material that she studied. – for a timeline of some of the other significant female voices in psychology.


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