March 17, 2010 / Unity

Dr. Sandra Bem: An Inspiration

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The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Since the beginning of Women’s History Month, I’ve been thinking about the women who have inspired me the most with their drive, intelligence, and accomplishments. I’ve been considering the accomplishments of the incredible women that I know personally, and of the female public and historical figures that I most admire. Many of these women are politicians, or authors, or actresses. Perhaps because of my own interests, one of the women who most inspires me is a psychologist and a scientist: Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem.

Sandra.BemStarting in the early ’70s, Dr. Bem became an enormously influential figure in the world of psychology with her work on gender schema theory and psychological androgyny. She created an instrument that conceptualized and measured gendered characteristics along two separate dimensions (femininity and masculinity), rather than along a single scale. This allowed individuals to be assessed as having a high level of feminine traits without necessarily having a low level of masculine traits (and vice versa). An individual who demonstrated both high masculinity and high femininity was considered psychologically androgynous.

Gender schema theory attempted to explain the cognitive process that occurs as we learn and internalize gender roles. This theory suggests that for most of us, gender becomes a primary lens through which we learn to see the world, understanding people, things, and traits as being inherently masculine or feminine. Much of the danger in this, she warns us, is that viewing the world in this way effectively makes our self-esteem conditional on successful performance of the expected gender role.

These two concepts, gender schematism and psychological androgyny, sparked a flurry of psychological research into gender and how it influences mental health. Much of this research found that psychological androgyny was associated with positive psychological outcomes (especially in women). This line of research continues to this day, and Dr. Bem’s theories have become extremely well-known. Dr.  Bem has permanently influenced the way that the field of psychology looks at gender. More information on her theories are available in her book “The Lenses of Gender.”

Beyond her academic work, she has also led by example in her personal life. Dr. Bem and her husband (Dr. Daryl Bem), have carefully structured their marriage and family life to be as egalitarian as possible, with equal division of parenting and household responsibilities, and equal consideration given to both careers. This family situation was so unique at the time as to be a subject of enormous curiosity, leading the couple to accept several opportunities to publicly speak about their relationship. This relationship is also explored in depth in Dr. Bem’s book “An Unconventional Family.”

As I continue to learn about Dr. Bem’s life and work, I am continually impressed by her intelligence and commitment. She has worked unremittingly for forty years, and in that time she has had an enormous impact on psychological theory and practice. Her theories have impacted the lives of women and men around the world.

Women’s History Month encourages us to remember the accomplishments of women in the past. It also gives us the opportunity to recognize women who are making history today, and to inspire women and girls to make history tomorrow. As I consider the life and work of Dr. Sandra Bem, I hope that I can be part of the next wave of women in psychology who are building on her work, and changing the world ourselves.