Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bem’s Gender Schema Theory Summarized by Margaret Hsiao

“Indeed, no other dichotomy in human experience appears to have as many entities linked to it as does the distinction between female and male” (Bem, 1983).

Overview of Theory

Bem’s Gender Schema Theory consolidated contemporary theories of sex typing by identifying the values and inherent flaws of psychoanalytic, social learning, and cognitive developmental theories. Bem rejected Freudian beliefs of “anatomy is destiny” and instead proposed that an individual’s gender identification emerged from his or her cognitive development and societal influences. Bem’s publication, The Lenses of Gender, sought to “render those lenses [of stereotypical and socially accepted masculine and feminine traits]visible rather than invisible, to enable us to look at the culture's gender lenses rather than through them” (Bem, 1993, p. 2).

There are three defining features of gender schematics based on Bem’s research:
  1. Gender schemas develop through an individual’s observation of societal classifications of masculinity and femininity, which are evidenced in human anatomy, social roles, and characteristics.
  2. Males and females cognitively process and categorize new information in their environment based on its maleness or femaleness.
  3. Self-authorship is displayed by an individual’s categorization of and conformity to the sets of elements that belong to either definition of masculinity or femininity.
    (Evans, 2010, p. 336)

Bem Sex Role Inventory (1972)

In response to her theory, Bem developed Bem’s Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), which was developed as a means of identifying gender schematic and gender aschematic individuals. Composed of 60 words (which are divided into 20 stereotypically masculine traits, 20 stereotypically feminine traits, or 20 neutral traits), the test asks participants how strongly they identify with a given characteristic. Participants would then be ranked based on the following results:

Unlike other questionnaires, however, the BSRI does not dichotomize masculinity and femininity; a person does not have to be characterized as one or the other in inventory results. In other words, the BSRI ranks masculinity and femininity on a continuum; scores may include evidence of high levels of masculinity and femininity (androgenous) or low levels of both (undifferentiated).

Use in Higher Education

Sandra Bem (1998) stated, “I live my life with little separation between the personal, the professional, and the political. My theory and my practice are thus inextricably intertwined” (p. ix). Likewise, advisors must automatically recognize differences between sex and gender without having to consult theory in their practices. Gender schema theory and the BSRI illuminate cultural influences in student self-perception about gender. Although intertwined with other theories of gender and sexual identity development, Bem underscores the importance of dispelling gender stereotypes in order to prevent self-fulfilling prophecies in student development (e.g., major selection, career goals).

Annotated Bibliography

Vikan, A., Camino, C., & Biaggio, A. (2005). Note on a cross-cultural test of Gilligan’s ethic of care. Journal of Moral Education, 34(1), 107–111.
Vikan and Biaggio conducted a study on Brazilian and Norwegian psychology students to analyze
two student development theories: Gilligan’s ethic of care (and Skoe’s Ethic of Care Interview
[ECI]) and Bem’s Gender Schema Theory (and the Bem Sex Role Inventory [BSRI]). The researchers
found that ECI scores were not noticeably higher in female participants, nor were the students’
correlations higher based on their degree of femininity sex-role scores. From these results,
Gilligan’s ethic of care model corresponded mainly with cultural rather than gender variations;
more specifically, Gilligan’s model focused more on criteria of collectivism and individualism
rather than femininity and masculinity. Their study provides insight to Gilligan’s cultural variance,
though it should also explore the possibility of the BSRI’s cultural influence as well. After all, the
BSRI itself was formed by finding cultural traits of masculinity and femininity.


The official BSRI is available to take at


Bem, S. L. (1983). Gender schema theory and its implications for child development: Raising gender-aschematic children in a gender-schematic society. Signs, 8(4), 598–616.
Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bem, S. L. (1995). An unconventional family. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


  1. This quote from above, "Advisors must automatically recognize differences between sex and gender without having to consult theory in their practices" will need to be addressed today in higher education. I'm sure there are advisor who are much older than us and are caught up in the 1950's where differences of career choices is strong for men and woman. Bem's theory applies to both men and female. I know some men who are feminine or woman who are masculine.

  2. I have been thinking about this sentence: "an individual’s gender identification emerged from his or her cognitive development and societal influences"

    As I am understanding it, one can have a vagina, for instance, and have a set of assumptions about what one with a vagina should do/say/be/act. In north american culture the woman who conforms to female gender stereotypes would be female and one who conforms to male gender stereotypes would be male in gender.

    I am just wondering how she would talk about people from different cultures with different gender notions. Where maleness in Asia is different than maleness in north america and may in a lot of ways resemble femaleness in north america would there be issues using the terms male or female in gender expression when the frame of reference is different?

    1. Thanks Kath for your question.just trying to answer,gender identity is an individual self-concept of being masculine or feminine and this is based on the association with masculine or feminine gender might be a male and because he is born in a family with females or that he is the only one in the family,he will have to perform all the domestic chores and end up associating with feminine gender roles and this is basically what he will adopt,femininity.
      Gender roles and rules differs across cultures in the sense that what a particular culture accept as masculine role might not be a big issue if a feminine gender do it in another different culture.

  3. I thought of the world of sports as we discussed Bem's Gender Schema Theory. Why does it seem more interesting to our society to value men much more highly in sports than we do with women? For example: NBA vs. WNBA. From my observations, there is the lack of publicity for women in sports and the promotions in sports are mainly geared towards men. In education, according to 2009 census data, the gender gap is narrowing for college majors that were once dominated by men (i.e., science, engineering) the effort to promote more women into these fields is started to pay off. But are we just calling these fields "manly" because of the dominance of men in the field or because women were told that it is not for them?

  4. I thought the story told in class about Bem's son was interesting. It really exemplifies that gender roles and ideals start at such a young age. Society places such a high role of biological genetics influencing behavior and traits. It is unfortunate to think about how hard it is for some people to behave opposite of what society wants, because people can be ostracized because of it, and this can make it difficult for some to be who they really are.
    Growing up, I didn't have as many girls around, so I just learned how to interact with the boys in the neighborhood. Because of that, I feel like I have an easier time connecting with males than I do females sometimes, which I think isn't idealistic in today's society.

  5. First of all, this presentation was very well done, excellent job Margaret! I enjoyed the class discussion about gender roles. I found it particularly interesting when we talked about how gender roles in "conservative" versus "liberal" communities may or may not be all that different. Intellectualizing issues does not always mean that indiviuals, communities, liberals or conservatives are internalizing them. Based on my own experience being raised in Utah, most of my childhood was spent with a single mother pursuing a dual masters degree while working full-time as a librarian. I guess what I am saying is that liberals may not be as progressive and conservatives may not be as traditional as we might think.

  6. This reminds me of an undergraduate group project I did, researching the frequency of male and female traits in Disney movies. 4 of us coded segments of movies including: The Incredibles, Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast. We found that in the older Disney movies, the female protagonists consistently displayed traditionally female traits (empathy, caring, nurturing) while males displayed stereotypically masculine traits (competition, power). In more recent films, such as The Incredibles, the females become more androgynous, personifying both "strong superhero" as well as "damsel in distress". We maintained reliability and validity and conducted ANOVAs on the data, it was really interesting!

  7. Working within engineering it is definitely a struggle to get past the old notion that engineering occupations are only for men. Our college has different outreach programs aimed specifically at high school girls that are interested in engineering. These types of programs are especially important to help increase the numbers of women within these fields. Even though there is still more work to be done, I am excited to see more women entering this major and eventually this field.

  8. Great presentation, Margaret! What I find interesting about this theory are how the traits are categorized as either masculine, feminine, or neutral. It's intersting that a trait like assertive is masculine, while a trait like soft-spoken is feminine, and a trait like likeable is neutral. My question is...what defines masculinity and femininity? I've always had been assertive and highly motivated in my work and leadership roles. I've had people tell me that I "think and act like a man." What exactly entitles them to degrade my hard work in that manner just because they assume I should act differently based on my gender. What about men that choose careers that society assumes as feminine career fields like teaching or nursing. People feel a need to put their gender in front of their profession such as "male nurse" or "male teacher" or "female politician". As student affairs professionals, it is our responsibility to support our students in their career choices so we must be mindful of our word choices to make sure we're not stereotyping them based on their gender.

  9. I loved the discussion we had in class. It was eye-opening to hear Jen talk about her personality being disparaged simply because it did not fit with societal roles. Although I found Bem rather extreme (I had forgotten to mention that Bem had drawn over some picture books so that the characters would look androgynous), I do think that it takes extreme cases to bring us back to the middle ground.

    For more food for thought, you can read this article on CNN:

  10. Margaret, I love this presentation because it helps to open our eyes to the different identities many people today are going through. I am sure when our parents were in our positions they were told you are a girl and you are a boy so act like one. I don't agree with this statement anymore because I have seen so many students who haven't identified who they are because of what the social norm tells them is okay.

    Bem's son is a great example of this. I am glad I read the story out loud for everyone....was taken aback for a second but then realized this is what students go through on a daily basis.

  11. Check out these two videos by The Harvard Sailing Sketch Team (they're funny!). Men and women reverse roles to emphasize the specific gender roles and traits that each gender is expected to display in today's culture. Even their body language and tone of voice can be categorized as masculine or feminine.

    Boys Acting Like Girls:

    Girls Acting Like Boys (in response to the first video):

  12. does anyone help in my article which is based on this theory?