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Sandra Bem’s Gender Schema Theory After 34 Years: A Review
of its Reach and Impact
Christine R. Starr
&Eileen L. Zurbriggen
#Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016
Abstract One of Sandra Bem’s important contributions was
the development of gender schema theory (GST; Bem 1981a).
Through an analysis of journal articles referencing GST, we
explored the breadth of the theory’s reach and the ways in
which its use has changed over time. More specifically, we
analyzed how often GST reached journals outside psychology
as well as journals and research populations outside the United
States, even though Bem was a U.S. psychologist whose em-
pirical work was primarily with U.S. populations. We also
assessed the range of research topics that have used a GST
framework. We found that 34 years later, GST continues to be
cited frequently, with a broad reach beyond U.S. psychology,
particularly into international as well as communication and
business journals. We found five primary novel uses of the
theory: development, discrimination/stereotyping, occupa-
tions, historically marginalized populations, and mental health
and trauma. We conclude that GST has been a generative
theory. For the future, we recommend that GST be used to
frame the study of intersectionality, for research-based activ-
ism, and as part of a project of theory-bridging.
Keywords Feminism .Psychological science .History of
psychology .Social-cognitive development .Gender-typing
Sandra Lipsitz Bem was a U.S. psychologist best known for
three distinct yet interrelated intellectual works: the concept of
androgyny and its measurement with the Bem Sex Role
Inventory (BSRI; Bem 1974), the development of gender
schema theory (GST; Bem 1981a), and her densely researched
magnum opus, The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the
Debate on Sexual Inequality (Bem 1993). Each has had a
unique impact. The BSRI Bhas endured as the instrument of
choice^(Hoffman and Borders 2001, p. 39) for researchers
interested in gender-role orientation; however, it has also been
criticized on a variety of grounds with one review concluding
that Bthe usefulness and meaningfulness of the BSRI, both
present and past, are indeed debatable^(Hoffman and
Borders 2001,p.53).The Lenses of Gender is an interdisci-
plinary masterpiece that won multiple awards (Yale
University Press 2015); however, it has a broad and sweeping
focus that is difficult to distill into one concrete theoretical
contribution. For those reasons, we believe that Bem’spremier
theoretical contribution to the field of psychology is the de-
velopment of gender schema theory, as described in her
Psychological Review article: BGender schema theory: A cog-
nitive account of sex typing^(Bem 1981a). In this article we
explore the extent of that contribution, paying special attention
to novel uses of GST and its reach outside the field of psy-
chology and in international literatures.
A search on PsycINFO reveals that Bem (1981a)hasgar-
nered over 1300 citations as of June 2015. Thus, the theory
clearly has had an impact. However, we seek to look beyond
this crude measure of impact to explore the influence of GST,
both within and outside psychology, and within and outside
the United States. Primarily, our exploration takes the form of
a content analysis of journal articles that cite Bem’swritten
work on gender schema theory.
*Eileen L. Zurbriggen
Christine R. Starr
Department of Psychology, University of California, 1156 High
Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA
Gender Schema Theory
Gender schema theory is a social-cognitive theory about how
people in society become gendered from an early age and the
impact of this gendering on their cognitive and categorical pro-
cessing throughout the lifetime. Children develop ideas and the-
ories about what it means to be masculine or feminine (called
gender schemas) from an early age and use these theories to
categorize information, make decisions, and regulate behavior.
According to Bem (1981a), gender-schematic people are more
likely to divide their world and regulate their behavior based on
gender, whereas for gender-aschematic people, gender is a less
important category and thus they are less likely to organize
information or regulate their behavior based on gender.
Bem developed GST in order to investigate and place
greater focus on the ways in which society creates and en-
forces the categories of gender. In her own words, BBy shifting
the focus of my research from androgyny to gender
schematicity, I wanted to establish that masculinity and femi-
ninity were, in my view, cultural constructions^(Bem 1993,p.
126). She further explained gender schema theory as follows:
Specifically, gender schema theory argues that because
American culture is so gender polarizing in its discourse
and its social institutions, children come to be gender
schematic (or gender polarizing) themselves without even
realizing it. Gender schematicity, in turn, helps lead
children to become conventionally sex-typed. That is, in
imposing a gender-based classification on reality, children
evaluate different ways of behaving in terms of the cultural
definitions of gender appropriateness and reject any way of
behaving that does not match their sex. In contrast to
Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental account of why chil-
dren become sex-typed, this alternative account situates the
source of the child’s motivation for a match between sex
and behavior, not in the mind of the child, but in the gender
polarization of the culture. (Bem 1993, pp. 125–126)
Other Scholarship on Gender Schemas
Bem was not the only scholar to theorize about gender
schemas in the early 1980s. Markus et al. (1982)published
an empirical article in the Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology on self-schemas and gender. Liben and Signorella
(1980) published an empirical article in Child Development
about children’s gender schemas and their relationship to
Bconstructive memory.^Finally, Martin and Halverson
(1981) published a paper introducing their schematic process-
ing theory of gender-typing in children, also in Child
Development. What led to this convergence among indepen-
dent investigations? Was there a particular zeitgeist operating?
We believe there was, and that this zeitgeist was brought about
by the fortuitous intersection of the burgeoning second-wave
women’s movement in the United States (Rosen 2000)andthe
cognitive revolution in psychology (Miller 2003). Psychologists
were eager to study and theorize about cognitive structures and
processes, and one of the many areas to which this interest was
applied was in understanding the ways that gender was per-
ceived, encoded, elaborated, and forgotten or recalled.
Although each of these three foundational papers on gender
schemas was similar in some ways to Bem’s work, there were
important differences as well. Beginning with her dissertation,
Markus (1977) had been developing a theory of self-schemas;
her gender schema research was but one application of her
broader theory of self-schemas. Markus and Bem thus had
quite different intellectual projects, with Markus focused more
generally on the self (e.g., Markus and Nurius 1986). In con-
trast, Bem’s scholarly and personal interests were focused
centrally on gender as perhaps the single most important or-
ganizing construct not just for our self-schemas but for many
if not all other schemas.
Despite these differences in the underlying perspectives of the
two theorists, their gender-schematic approaches had many sim-
ilarities. Both scholars brought the concept of schema (that had
been developed by cognitive psychologists and artificial
intelligence researchers; e.g., Bobrow and Norman 1975;
Minsky 1975; Neisser 1976) to bear on questions of interest to
social/personality psychologists. Both assumed that there would
be measurable differences in the extent of gender schematicity
between individuals, and both tested this assumption using data
from reaction time and memory tasks that allowed them to make
inferences about the presence and structure of gender schemas.
But within this shared theoretical and epistemological frame-
work, there were specific differences in their approaches, the
most notable of which was that Bem argued for a gender schema
that encompassed both masculinity and femininity and Markus
argued that there were two separate schemas. In subsequent work
(mostly by other researchers), attempts were made to pit these
two approaches against each other, with some studies supporting
Bem’s conception of schematicity (e.g., Frable and Bem 1985),
some Markus’s (e.g., Payne et al. 1987), and others claiming little
support for the predictions of either theory (e.g., Edwards and
Spence 1987; Lobel 1994).
The other two foundational works on gender schemas
(Liben and Signorella 1980; Martin and Halverson 1981)were
written by developmental psychologists, and this authorship
led to a different orienting framework than that inherent in
Bem’s social/personality approach. The developmental psy-
chologists were positioned within a history of research on
the development of Bsex-typing^(Martin and Halverson
1981, p. 1119) and the understanding of gender in children.
Their goal was to add a cognitive perspective, or to move
beyond the more narrow cognitive perspective of Kohlberg
(1966) which highlighted the importance of gender constancy.
This new work sought to understand how and when gender
schemas develop, as well as how they impact children. In
other words, the focus was mostly on normative development
and, to some extent, it was taken for granted that children
would develop strong gender schemas that had broad-
ranging impact. In contrast to understanding the normative
person, Bem was interested in individual differences, in the
possibility that some individuals were gender aschematic, and
many more people could be if cultural practices and norms
Another important point is that in much of her writing Bem
seemed more interested in macro-level questions (e.g., How
does culture construct gender and gender schemas?) rather
than in intrapsychic questions about the structure of gender
schemas and specific details about process (e.g., How, specif-
ically, do schemas operate and how do they develop in chil-
dren?). In part because of these differences in frameworks and
questions of interest, and in part because of the somewhat
distinct audiences that were exposed to the developmental
versus the social/personality versions of gender schema theo-
ry, there appears to have been relatively little direct critique or
comparison of theories between Bem and Martin/Halverson
Development of Gender Schema Theory
Many influential theories lead fairly quickly to programmatic
follow-up—a series of critiques, tests, refinements, exten-
sions, and applications. Although Bem’sworkongender
schema theory has been widely cited, the type and trajectory
of its influence differ from this prototypical pattern for influ-
ential work. After some immediate criticism, tests, and follow-
up studies, it appears that GST was used mostly in a more
general way as an overarching theoretical framework. In the
following, we describe the response to GST along with possi-
ble explanations for its unusual trajectory in the published
Bem’s(1981a) theory generated immediate criticism. In
fact, when Psychological Review published this article, they
included an accompanying commentary/critique by Spence
and Helmreich (1981) and a response to that critique by
Bem (1981b). In part, the critique was methodological, with
Spence and Helmreich arguing that the BSRI does not
measure masculinity and femininity but instead measures the
orthogonal constructs of instrumentality and expressiveness
and that the scale cannot simultaneously measure a
unidimensional construct such as gender schematicity.
Spence (1993) continued this argument, elaborating a related
theoretical criticism. She stated that the construct of gender
schematicity, as represented by the bipolar unidimensional
construction of masculinity and femininity inherent in the
BSRI, is inconsistent with data from many investigators that
show that gender is multifactorial and that our understandings
of gender are more complex and idiosyncratic than can be
captured in a broad overarching cognitive schema. In
addition to this interchange with Spence and Helmreich,
Bem (1982) also had a published interchange in the Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology with Markus and her
colleagues as part of the publication of Markus et al.’s(1982)
article on gender schemas; this interchange articulated some
of the differences between their theories.
In addition to these focused critiques, a number of articles
were published that attempted to replicate Bem’s findings, test
GST using novel methods or measurement techniques, or pit
Bem’s theory against Markus’s self-schema theory or
Spence’s(1993) multifactorial gender identity theory.
Results from these studies were inconsistent. Some authors
reported supporting GST’s predictions (e.g., Forbach et al.
1986;Haaga1990) but others reported data inconsistent with
predictions (e.g., Lobel 1994; Schmitt et al. 1988), even in
some cases when an exact replication was being attempted
(Deaux et al. 1985). Occasionally, some data in a study were
consistent with GST predictions and other data were inconsis-
tent (e.g., Koivula 1995). This may be one reason why studies
directly testing the theory petered out and why further studies
developing, refining, and extending GST in concrete and spe-
cific ways have apparently been relatively infrequent.
Researchers who were generally supportive of the theory
may have been reluctant to conduct additional studies if initial
efforts resulted in null effects. Researchers critical of the the-
ory may have felt that several published failures to replicate
were enough to demonstrate the problems with the theory.
There was an additional reason why focused follow-ups
may have been difficult to conduct: the BSRI. Although
Bem stated that the BSRI was not a measure of gender
schematicity per se (Bem 1981b), she (and other researchers)
nearly always used it as a proxy variable because people who
were Bsex-typed^(Bem 1981b,p.369)wereexpectedtoalso
be gender schematic. In her words, Bthe BSRI is thus not a
measure of gender-schematic processing but a tool for identi-
fying people who ought to be engaging in gender-schematic
processing if the theory is correct^(Bem 1981b,p.369).
Despite this explanation by Bem, we believe there was a chal-
lenging slippage between the constructs sex-typed and gender-
schematic that led to conceptual as well as methodological
problems. It is difficult to programmatically test and advance
a theory if underlying measurement issues are not resolved
Another factor of possible relevance is Bem’s scholarly
style, which appears to have followed the Blone scholar^mod-
el common in humanities fields (including women’s/feminist
studies) more so that it did the Blarge laboratory^model com-
mon in the biological sciences and in much of psychology
(Bakhshi et al. 2008). We suspect that some researchers’the-
ories get widely taken up in part because there is a continuous
stream of graduate students trained by that researcher whose
independent work (beginning with their master’s theses and/or
dissertations) builds on the theory; these students then go on to
train their own students who themselves expand and test the
theory in question. Whether because of personal preference or
for other reasons (e.g., sexism), Bem apparently never had a
large cadre of psychology graduate students and so this path-
way for generating interest in careful development of her the-
ory was not available to her. She also may have been person-
ally more interested in big picture questions than she was in
testing all the mundane details of GST (such as systematically
showing what areas of cognition, perception, memory, and
evaluation are impacted by gender schemas; mapping the con-
tent and structure of schemas; or testing more systematically
the relationship between androgyny and gender schematicity).
This is the nuts-and-bolts work required for theory develop-
ment, but if Bem was not interested in this type of research and
she did not have (many) students who were, it is not surprising
that other researchers did not jump in to fill that gap.
Bem moved to Cornell a few years before her GST the-
ory paper was published; at Cornell she held a dual ap-
pointment in psychology and women’s studies and served
as the director of women’s studies (Bem 1998). She likely
found support from her women’s studies colleagues for her
already nascent penchant for big-picture thinking, interdis-
ciplinary scholarship, and research in the service of social
change. In her autobiography, she described the develop-
ment of the arguments in Lenses of Gender as Bthe work I
did at Cornell that truly satisfied me^(Bem 1998,p.160)
and Lenses of Gender itself as:
the Bbig picture^book that would finally integrate my
long-standing interest in gender with my long-standing
grasp the Bwhole^of what I had been teaching and the-
orizing, both at work and at home, for over 20 years
The Present Study
Our preliminary scan of articles that cite Bem’s gender schema
theory convinced us that rather than being the subject of tra-
ditional programmatic follow-up, GST appears to have been
used as an overarching framework by many of the authors
who cited this work. For example, GST or the mere existence
of gender schemas were often used to motivate a study or a
measurement technique (e.g., a cognitive task). In other arti-
cles, gender schemas were mentioned in the discussion section
as a framework for interpreting findings. For that reason, a
traditional literature review did not seem appropriate.
Instead, we performed a content analysis to assess the range
of influence of GSTover time and to survey the novel uses to
which it has been put. Looking at citations over time is one
way of measuring a theory’s impact; another way is to assess
the breadth of domains to which the theory is applied. We
were especially interested in GST’s reach within and outside
psychology, as well as among international journals and pop-
ulations. Studying populations outside the United States is
especially important, given that a majority of psychology re-
search has been conducted among U.S. and other Western
industrialized populations (Henrich et al. 2010). In addition,
because Bem (1983) drew on GST to espouse gender-neutral
child rearing, we were interested in how many studies had
used children as participants.
We had two main sets of research questions. (a) How broad
was gender schema theory’s reach? Specifically, how often
did GST reach journals outside psychology, and what was its
reach among different sub-disciplines within psychology?
How often did GST reach journals and research populations
outside the United States? How often was GST used in studies
of children? (b) How has the use of gender schema theory
changed throughout the 34 years since its publication?
Specifically, what did the initial work citing GST investigate,
in comparison to later citations? What are some novel uses of
GST? Did researchers studying those topics continue to use
GST as a framework after its initial appearance in that field or
To explore how GST has been used since its introduction in
1981, we looked at two samples of relevant scholarly work.
Each sample was taken by applying specific search criteria to
the academic database PsycINFO in June 2015. The first sam-
ple was intended to be broad. We searched for all works that
cited Bem’s(1981a)Psychological Review article and/or her
1983 Signs article, the latter of which was meant to introduce
GST to gender and women’s studies scholars. This search
returned 1395 citations: 835 (59.9 %) journal articles, 185
(13.3 %) unpublished dissertations, and 375 (26.9 %) books,
book chapters, or manuals. Only 39 (2.8 %) citations cited
both articles; these were only included in our sample once.
For the present study we investigated the 835 journal articles
and excluded the books, book chapters, dissertations, and
manuals. These articles varied in their focus on GST.
Whereas for some, GST was a tangential citation that was
not discussed in any depth; for others, it was central to the
paper’s argument. We refer to this large sample of journal
articles as the Ball citations^or large sample.
Our second sample was meant to focus more narrowly on
works that were centrally connected to GST. To construct this
sample, we searched for all works that included the phrase
Bgender schema theory^in the abstract, limiting this sample
to include only journal articles that PsycINFO labeled as peer-
reviewed. Setting aside Bem (1981a), this resulted in 75 arti-
cles. We additionally limited the sample to articles that cited
one of Bem’s works that discussed gender schema theory: her
1981a Psychological Review article, her 1983 Signs article
(described above), her 1993 book, The Lenses of Gender
(which has a chapter discussing GST), and her Nebraska
Symposium on Motivation article (Bem 1985), which inte-
grated her theory of androgyny with GST. This excluded sev-
en additional articles. We additionally excluded articles in
which Bem was the sole author on the grounds that we were
interested in how she was influencing others; this resulted in
setting aside four additional articles (three commentaries and
her 1983 Signs article). Finally, we removed one reference that
was a correction to a previously published article and one
article in Korean that we could not obtain via interlibrary loan.
This resulted in a final total of 62 articles. Below, we refer to
this as the Bprimary citations^or small sample; see our refer-
ence section for a full list of articles. Some analyses were
conducted on both samples; others were conducted only on
the primary citations sample.
Coding of Journal Articles
Each of the articles in the primary citations sample was coded
for research topics. We began by creating a master list of
topics. These were derived inductively by the first author and
five research assistants free coding the 62 articles. The first
author then determined the most common topics coded, which
were cognition, development, discrimination/stereotypes, oc-
cupations, historically marginalized populations, mental
health/trauma, and media. A coding manual was then created,
with examples of what to look for, for each topic (e.g., if an
abstract contained words such as Bencoding^or Bspatial
performance^the cognition code should be used). The coding
manual was then used by the first author and a new research
assistant to systematically code the 62 articles for presence of
the seven topics (yes or no). Inter-rater reliability (IRR), in the
form of a Cohen’s kappa coefficient, ranged from .70
(cognition) to .80 (occupations). One code (media) was
dropped due to its low kappa (.57). Disagreements were re-
solved by having the second author serve as a tie-breaker by
coding discrepant cases. The final set of codes (with associated
kappas) is listed in Table 1.
Two codes related to study participants were assigned to each
article in the primary citations sample: whether the study
included participants under age 18 (yes/no), and whether the
participant population included participants from a country
outside the United States (yes/no). Information regarding par-
ticipants was gathered from eitherthe PsycINFO subject terms
or from reading the method section and abstract of the article.
If the article was not empirical, Bno^was coded for both these
variables. Coding was performed by the first author and an
undergraduate research assistant; disagreements were re-
solved by having the second author serve as a tie-breaker by
coding discrepant cases.
To shed light on the disciplinary reach of GST, both samples
were coded for the discipline of the publication outlet. Ten
journal types (e.g., developmental psychology, gender and
women’s studies) were determined by the first author based
on an assessment of journal types seen in the smaller subset of
62 articles; three more were added in order to gain specificity
(e.g., gender and women’s studies: psychology). See Table 2
for a full list of journal types. There were 428 unique journals
across the 835 large sample and 62 small sample articles. Of
these journals, 420 (those present in the large sample) were
coded by the first author and an undergraduate research assis-
tant using the 13 categories. Coders were instructed to look up
the journal website and code based on the journal description
if journal discipline was unclear. Inter-rater reliability
(Cohen’s kappa) for journal type was .79. The second author
coded all those journals for which the two coders did not
agree. The final code was either the majority vote (if two of
the three coders agreed) or the disagreement was resolved by
discussion between the first and second author. In addition to
type/discipline, journals were coded for having an internation-
al/non-U.S. focus. A journal was coded as international if it
was published in a language other than English or if the jour-
nal had the terminternational or a non-U.S. country or place in
its name (e.g., Canadian Psychology). Cohen’s kappa for this
code was .95. Disagreements were resolved by having the
second author serve as a tie-breaker by coding discrepant
There were eight unique journals present only in the small
sample. These journals were coded by the two authors using
the criteria described above. There was perfect agreement for
both codes on seven (87.5 %) of the journals. The authors
disagreed on both codes for the eighth journal; these disagree-
ments were resolved by discussion.
To examine the two samples of articles, we first plotted histo-
grams by year (Figs. 1and 2). Citations in journal articles to
Bem’s(1981a)Psychological Review article and 1983 Signs
Tabl e 1 Summary of codes assigned to primary citations sample (N=62)
Codes Examples of Keywords n% First Year Coded IRR
Cognition Encoding, word recall, speed of processing 40 64.5 1981 .70
Development Gender acquisition, temperament, raising children 16 25.8 1988 .74
Discrimination/Stereotypes Stereotyped attitudes, social perceptions, sexism 21 33.9 1983 .70
Occupations Careers, vocation, specific career (e.g., flight attendant) 10 16.1 1983 .80
Latino/a, gay men, African-Americans, gender queer 4 6.5 1985 .79
Mental Health and Trauma Clinical interventions, depression, therapeutic writing 8 12.9 1987 .74
Children as Participants Participants under 18 years old (in PsycINFO indexing or method section) 19 30.6 1985 .77
Non-U.S. Participants Participants not from the U.S. (in PsycINFO indexing or method section) 20 32.3 1987 .69
Some articles were assigned more than one code. n= frequency of assignment. IRR = Inter-rater reliability (kappa)
Tabl e 2 Frequency of journal type/discipline and list of journals in primary citations sample
Journal Type/Discipline All Citations Primary Citations Journals in Primary Citations Sample
Social/Personality Psychology 124 14.9 15 24.2 *British Journal of Social Psychology,Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology,Journal of Research in Personality,Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin,Representative Research in Social Psychology,Social
Behavior and Personality
General Psychology 111 13.3 10 16.1 *British Journal of Psychology, Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences,
*Japanese Journal of Psychology,*Japanese Psychological Review,North
American Journal of Psychology,*Przegląd Psychologiczny,*Psychologia:
An International Journal of Psychology in the Orient,Psychological Bulletin,
Psychological Reports,Psychological Review
10913.114 22.6 Journal of Homosexuality,Sex Roles
Mental Health, Trauma, or
89 10.7 2 3.2 Journal of Counseling Psychology
84 10.1 2 3.2 Anthropology and Education Quarterly,*Psychiatria Polska
Developmental Psychology 79 9.5 3 4.8 *British Journal of Developmental Psychology,Developmental Psychology,
Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on HumanDevelopment
Business/Management 73 8.7 4 6.5 Human Resource Development Review,Journal of Business and Psychology,
JournalofConsumerResearch,Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research
Other, Psychology 58 6.9 3 4.8 Annual Review of Sex Research,Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology,Journal
of Sport Behavior
Educational Psychology 42 5.0 4 6.5 *Alberta Journal of Educational Research,Educational Researcher,Journal for
the Education of the Gifted,Reading Psychology
Media Studies, Psychology 32 3.8 4 6.5 Communication Monographs,Communication Research,Human
19 2.3 0 0
Cognitive Psychology 9 1.1 0 0
Women and Gender Studies 6 0.7 1 1.6 Signs
Total 835 100 62 100
All citations= journal articles that cited Bem (1981a)orBem(1983). Primary citations = journal articles that included the phrase Bgender schema theory^
in the abstract and cited one or more of Bem’s works on gender schema theory
*Foreign language, international, or non-U.S. journal
article remained fairly flat for the first 17 years after publica-
tion (1991–1998), but have increased in the subsequent
16 years (1999–2014). Citations in more recent years were
especially numerous, with 517 (61.9 %) citations falling with-
in the past 10 years (2005–2015) and 309 (37.0 %) within the
past 5 years (2010–2015; see Fig. 1). However, when consid-
ering the 62 primary citations, the number of articles appears
to have increased throughout the 1980s and then has been
uneven since that time, with spikes in certain years (e.g.,
2002; see Fig. 2).
Breadth of Influence
Tab le 2presents frequencies by type of publication outlet for
both samples of articles. Among the 835 published journal
articles that cited Bem (1981a or 1983), the largest number
(about 15 %) were published in social/personality psychology
journals (e.g., Journal of Applied Social Psychology,Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology). The next two largest
categories (about 13 % each) were for general psychology
(e.g., Psychological Reports, American Psychologist), and
women/gender studies psychology journals (e.g., Sex Roles,
Psychology of Women Quarterly). Surprisingly, gender and
women’s studies journals (e.g., Signs, Journal of Gender
Studies) or non-psychology disciplinary or interdisciplinary
gender and women’s studies journals (e.g., Feminist
Criminology) accounted for only 0.7 and 2.3 % of all citations,
respectively. On the other hand, the journal with the highest
number of citations was Sex Roles, accounting for 68.8 %
(n= 75) of all gender and women’s studies psychology cita-
tions and 9.0 % of all total citations. Demonstrating GST’s
reach outside psychology, the fifth-largest number of citations
was in non-psychology/interdisciplinary journals. These
journals ranged from interdisciplinary journals such as
Society and Animals: Journal of Human and Animal
Studies to journals from non-psychology fields, such as
Sociological Forum,Political Research Quarterly,and
Pain (a medical journal).
Fig. 1 Number of 835 journal
articles citing Bem (1981a)or
(1983) by year of publication
Fig. 2 Number of 62 journal
articles referencing Bgender
schema theory^in the abstract or
title by year of publication
International Reach and Child Populations
International or non-English journals made up 18.4 % of the
835 journal articles in the large sample and 16.1 % of the 62
journal articles in the small sample. Moreover, an impressive
32.3 % (n= 20) of the small sample articles included non-U.S.
participants. In spite of feminist (e.g., Schnabel 2014) and
mainstream (Henrich et al. 2010) critiques concerning an
over-reliance on U.S. participants, it is rare to see such a large
focus on non-U.S. participants, often conducted by non-U.S.
researchers and published in international journals.
Additionally, because gender schemas develop in childhood,
we were interested in the proportion of studies with child
participants. The first such study was published in 1985, and
overall 30.6 % (n=19) of small sample articles included stud-
ies conducted with children.
Change Over Time
Initial Work Compared to Later Work
Using the primary citations sample, we looked quantitatively
at how early articles differed from later articles by conducting
t-tests with year as the outcome variable. Although GST ini-
tially had a cognitive focus, this focus lessened over the years,
and articles with Bcognition^coded as a key term had an
earlier mean year of publication (M= 1992) than did articles
not related to cognition (M=2003),t(60) = 4.88, p<.0001. In
contrast, articles with a developmental focus were, on average,
published more recently (M= 2001) than those not related to
development (M= 1995), t(38.2) = −2.49, p= .017.
Congruently, there was a marginally significant trend for more
recent publication of articles with children as participants
(M= 2000) than for those without child participants
(M=1995),t(60) = −1.95, p= .056. There was not a significant
change in mean year of publication for articles focused on
non-U.S. populations, discrimination/stereotypes, mental
health/trauma, or occupations. There were not enough articles
which focused on historically marginalized populations to do
this analysis; however, three of the four articles focusing on
this topic were published in the last 20 years.
One indication of the usefulness of Bem’stheoryisthatitwas
quickly taken up by other researchers addressing a diverse
array of research topics. In the first decade after GST was
introduced, it was applied to a number of novel research areas
(beyond social cognition, the original focus of GST). Below,
we provide a qualitative analysis of five of the most prominent
of these categories: development, discrimination/stereotyping,
occupations, historically marginalized populations, and men-
tal health and trauma (see Table 1). The majority of these
novel uses were seen shortly after GST was first introduced,
but many became a common topic for research in the ensuing
years. Unless otherwise indicated, studies were conducted in
the United States with U.S. participants.
Development Although Bem’s GST was situated within an
individual differences perspective (more so than was the gen-
der schema theorizing of the developmental psychologists
discussed earlier), it nevertheless deeply implicates develop-
mental processes. Bem addressed GST’s application toward
children very soon after her original publication introducing
GST with her conceptual paper in Signs (Bem 1983). This
article introduced GST to the field of gender and women’s
studies and simultaneously laid out its implications for child
development. Bem advocated that feminist parents could
work to raise gender-aschematic children both by teaching
children to identify gender-linked biological characteristics
and also by teaching them an alternative schemata to use to
interpret and resist society’s sexist gender stereotypes. Thus, it
is not surprising that a large proportion of articles (25.8 %;
n= 16) in our primary citations sample focused on develop-
ment. Recent articles have touched on subjects such as gender
bias in ratings of children’s aggression (Pellegrini 2011).
Pellegrini hypothesized that adults’gender schemas influence
attributions of aggression, specifically arguing that observers
will over-attribute boys’behavior as aggressive more often
than girls’behavior due to relying on the stereotype that boys
are more aggressive. He argued that school personnel should
be aware of this potential bias so that when assessing a child’s
aggression and conduct problems, they should rely on trained
raters using multiple assessments so as to be as unbiased as
Discrimination and Stereotypes Although Bem (1981a)did
not explicitly discuss discrimination and stereotypes, this
theme was implicitly present in that she discussed her vision
of a world free from gender stereotypes. She called for society
to stop placing such importance on the gender dichotomy,
stating that Bhuman behaviors and personality attributes
should cease to have gender, and society should stop
projecting gender into situations irrelevant to genitalia^
(Bem 1981a, p. 363). Given the clear relevance of gender
stereotyping to Bem’s concept of gender schematicity, it
makes sense that discrimination and stereotyping was a fre-
quent topic, with a total of 33.9 % (n= 21) articles. One such
study looked at contemporary children’s coloring books
(Fitzpatrick and McPherson 2010). The study found that
gender-stereotyped behaviors were prevalent among coloring
books and that male characters were more common and were
represented as more active than female characters. These re-
sults were interpreted using GST. The authors concluded that
coloring books give children an unrealistic view of the world
and work to cement gendered stereotypes, making more chil-
Occupations The first article in our sample that focused on
occupations (Jackson 1983) centered on perceived occupa-
tional success among androgynous and gender-typed individ-
uals and the influence gender schematicity had on a partici-
pant’s rating of these individuals. Occupations continued to be
a popular topic among the articles in the primary citations
sample, with 16.1 % (n= 10) focusing on careers or occupa-
tions in some way. Later studies have branched away from
career cognition tasks and are more likely to use GSTas a lens
to look at a variety of topics and issues within the workplace.
These topics range from gender typicality and work adjust-
ment to gender-atypical careers (such as male flight
attendants; Chen et al. 2014), to understanding how voters
evaluate female political candidates (Chang and Hitchon
2004), and to discrimination toward women in technology
fields (Lemons and Parzinger 2007). This last study found that
women in information technology (IT) were significantly less
gender schematic than men in IT, which may result in a clash
of values. Since most IT workers are men, women entering IT
may be viewed as a deviation or inferior, which may contrib-
ute to dissatisfaction and high turnover among women in tech-
Historically Marginalized Populations As was the case for
many White feminists in the 1970s, Bem did not initially take
up race as a central topic of interest, and it was not investigated
in her 1981a article. Although studies conducted more recent-
ly tend to contain a more diverse set of participants, including
many international and non-Western samples, research among
historically marginalized populations (such as people of color
and queer identifying people) is still not a common focus of
articles citing GST, and only 6.5 % (n=4)ofarticlesinthe
primary citations sample were coded as looking at other de-
mographic topics intersecting with GST. The ones that have,
however, are interesting in both questions and results.
Among a sample of Latino men in the United States, a GST
framework was used to theorize and write clinical recommen-
dations for how gender and racial identity might intersect and
lead into unique health related behaviors (e.g., lowered use of
mental health resources) and outcomes (e.g., insomnia; Casas
et al. 1994). Among Italian lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB)
individuals, GST was used to investigate the relationship be-
tween androgyny and internalized homophobia (Ciliberto and
Ferrari 2009). Surprisingly, these researchers did not find ev-
idence for their hypothesis that androgyny would relate to a
decrease in internalized homophobia, although they did find
that many participants classified as androgynous and that this
gender category might be more socially available to them.
Mental Health and Trauma The topic of mental health was
first explored using GST by Bernstein et al. (1987) in a study
relating gender role with preference for a male or female coun-
selor. Mental health continued to be a topic explored in the
context of GST, comprising 12.9 % (n= 8) of the primary
citations. Recent studies have looked at healing after trauma
through a GST framework. For example, a theoretical paper
explored how GST might inform clinicians and researchers
who use expressive writing to help their clients work through
trauma (Range and Jenkins 2010). Based on GST, gender-
typed men might have a harder time acknowledging trauma
because being expressive is incongruent with masculinity;
thus, they might benefit more from writing exercises than do
gender-typed women. Feminine gender-typed individuals are
likely already expressive regarding their traumas, but they
might benefit from writing about emotions (such as anger)
that are not congruent with traditional femininity.
Overall, gender schema theory has succeeded in reaching a
large audience, both internationally and across disciplines.
The kinds of topics using GST as a framework have also
broadened, although many recent citations address similar
topics as did early studies. Perhaps reflecting the fact that
GST has mostly been used as a general theoretical framework
rather than the source of programmatic efforts to refine the
theory, the topic of cognition among GST citations has de-
clined over the years. On the other hand, citations focusing
on development are more common, perhaps reflecting that
GST is a useful framework for understanding why children
engage in stereotyped behaviors. One limitation of our study
is that inter-rater reliability, although within the acceptable
range, was low.
Recommendations for the Future
One area missing from the literature are studies about GSTand
intersectionality, particularly looking at straight individuals in
comparison to queer or genderqueer people. These popula-
tions have a culture of challenging gender roles, and given
that most participants in the studies we reviewed have been
heterosexual, it would be interesting to branch off of an earlier
study with queer Italian participants (Ciliberto and Ferrari
2009) to see how queer youth might work to create a third
gender for themselves or otherwise subvert gender roles. GST
may also add to our understanding of heterosexism and
transphobia, given recent findings that transphobia is associ-
ated with adherence to masculine norms (Watjen and Mitchell
2013) and that reading a vignette that blurred gender led to
greater acceptance of bisexuality and bi-individuals, suggest-
ing that society’s binary gender construct leads to more bi-
negativity and discrimination (Rubinstein et al. 2013). Given
that Bem (1981a) also discussed (although did not test for) the
prevalence of a heterosexuality subschema which is tightly
linked to gender schemas, it makes sense to investigate the
experiences of queer individuals using GST.
Research Based Activism
Another area that warrants further exploration is how parents
schemas that form throughout childhood. In particular, media
literacy/mediation may be a fruitful avenue to explore in rela-
tion to GST. Bem was committed to providing her children
with non-stereotyped media that encouraged them to resist
forming schemas on the basis of gender (Bem 1998). A study
by Nathanson et al. (2002) which draws on the concept of
gender schematicity to develop a short media literacy program
found that it was successful in reducing gender stereotypes in
the short term among kindergarten–6th graders. This research
could be expanded to form longer intervention/prevention
programs that might have lasting effects on children’sgender
stereotyping, encouraging them to see the world through a
lens besides gender. More work using theories such as GST
as a basis for research-based activism to decrease gender ste-
reotypes and schemas among children is needed if we are to
become a less gender-dichotomous society.
GST may also be a good candidate for theory bridging, or
combining with other theories to create a stronger theory that
better explains human behavior (Leaper 2011). GST may knit
well with other feminist theories, such as objectification the-
ory (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997). It has the potential to add
a deeper developmental and cognitive component to explain
how self-objectification begins and why some women might
be more prone to self-objectification than others. This blend-
ing also adds a theoretical intrapsychic component to early
objectification and sexualization work. In turn, objectification
theory could give GST a lifespan development perspective,
including associated negative outcomes for gender typing dur-
ing teenage years and adulthood.
Objectification theory posits that, because Western culture
and media are so sexualizing and because so many women go
through objectifying experiences, many women begin to in-
ternalize an objectified and sexualized view of themselves,
leading to negative outcomes such as depression. Although
objectification theory has mostly been developed for and test-
ed among adult (and sometimes adolescent) women, the way
it explains how women are socialized to internalize an ob-
server’s perspective works well within a developmental
framework, and many researchers have suggested that the
process likely unfolds similarly for girls (e.g., Starr and
Ferguson 2012; Zurbriggen and Roberts 2013). The process
of socialization which is internalized over time described in
objectification theory is similar to Bem’s(1981a)accountof
how girls become socialized into femininity by our gendered
society, thus creating an internalized gender schema that al-
lows girls to process information and make faster decisions
about themselves and their world. GST gives additional ex-
planation for how processing objectifying stimuli may be dif-
ferent for different individuals. Feminine gender-typed girls
find gendered information more salient and thus may be more
attuned to sexualizing and objectifying media and other cul-
tural or interpersonal factors (such as peers and family). Thus,
they might consume more of it and find it more self-relevant,
adding it to their own gender and self-schemas with the result
that they self-sexualize and self-objectify more often than
gender-aschematic girls. This is done not due to self-directed
sexual desire or desire to look good for men, but rather in an
effort to be more feminine and gender-congruent, which in
gender-typed individuals may lead to higher self-esteem for
conforming to cultural definitions of femininity.
Thus, early sexualization and objectification may be self-
reinforcing, and girls who are socialized early on to be more
gender-typed may continue to reinforce these traits throughout
development through mechanisms such as increased salience
of gender-typed information, choice of media, and self-
evaluation and regulation based on gender-typed behaviors
(Bem 1981a). However, as predicted by objectification theory,
this early and continued self-objectification may lead to neg-
ative outcomes over the life course, such as higher rates of
depression and disordered eating. Many of these issues may
not arise until the teenage years, long after sexualizing and
objectifying gender schemas have been formed.
Paradoxically, in an age in which occupational roles
and division of labor in the home have become less
rigid, pressures for women to fit their appearance to
unrealistic standards, to appear sexually available in or-
der to be popular among both men and women, and to
strive for the thin ideal have increased (Forbes et al.
2001;Zurbriggen and Roberts 2013). Thus, 34 years
later, Sandra Bem’s call for a gender aschematic society
is just as relevant—we still organize and stereotype our
world based on gender, and this gendered organization
still has serious consequences, particularly for women
Bem was a wide-ranging thinker and scholar and in the end,
historians of social science may determine that her largest and
most lasting contributions were to the field of women’sstud-
ies, to feminist scholars, and to individual women and men
struggling to eliminate sexism and gender stereotyping from
inside their heads and from the world around them. Our re-
view has shown, however, that her development of gender
schema theory was a major contribution to psychology and
that its generative reach extended well beyond the boundaries
of our field. We expect that gender schema theory will con-
tinue to have an impact for decades to come.
Acknowledgments The authors are grateful to Ella Ben Hagai,
Brandon Balzer Carr, Sona Kaur, Christine Rosales, and Sarah Harsey
for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
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