Traditional Sex Roles Are Too Restrictive by Sandra L Bem (1974)

In American society, men are supposed to be masculine, women are supposed to be feminine, and neither sex is supposed to be much like the other, If men are independent, tough and assertive, women should be dependent, sweet and retiring. A womanly woman may be tender and nurturant, but no manly man may be so.

For years we have taken these polar opposites as evidence of psychological health. Even our psychological tests of masculinity and femininity reflect this bias: a person scores as either masculine or feminine, but the tests do not allow a person to say that he or she is both.

I have come to believe that we need a new standard of psychological health for the sexes, one that removes the burden of stereotype and allows people to feel free to express the best traits of men and women. As many feminists have argued, freeing people from rigid sex roles and allowing them to be androgynous (from ‘andro’, male, and ‘gyne’, female), should make them more flexible in meeting new situations, and less restricted in what they can do and how they can express themselves.

In fact, there is already considerable evidence that traditional sex typing is unhealthy. For example, high femininity in females consistently correlates with high anxiety, low self-esteem, and low self-acceptance. And although high masculinity in males has been related to better psychological adjustment during adolescence, it is often accompanied during adulthood by high anxiety, high neuroticism, and low self-acceptance. Further, greater intellectual development has quite consistently correlated with cross-sex typing (masculinity in girls, femininity in boys). Boys who are strongly masculine and girls who are strongly feminine tend to have lower overall intelligence, lower spatial ability, and show lower creativity.

In addition, it seems to me that traditional sex typing necessarily restricts behavior. Because people learn, during their formative years, to suppress any behavior that might be considered undesirable or inappropriate for their sex, men are afraid to do ‘women’s work’, and women are afraid to enter a ‘man’s world’. Men are reluctant to be gentle, and women to be assertive. In contrast, androgynous people are not limited by labels. They are able to do whatever they want, both in their behavior and their feelings.

Measuring androgeny

I decided to study this question, to see whether sex-typed people really were more restricted and androgynous people more adaptable. Because I needed a way to measure how masculine, feminine, or androgynous a person was, I developed the Beim Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), which consists of a list of 60 personality characteristics: 20 traditionally masculine (ambitious, self-reliant, independent, assertive); 20 traditionally feminine (affectionate, gentle, understanding, sensitive to the needs of others); and 20 neutral (truthful, friendly, likable)…

My colleagues and I have given the BSRI to more than 1,500 undergraduates at Standford University. Semester after semester, we find that about 50 percent of the students adhere to ‘appropriate’ sex roles, about 15 percent are cross sex typed, and about 35 percent are androgynous.

With this BSRI in hand, we were in a position to find out whether sex typed people really were restricted and androgynous people really more adaptable. Our strategy was to measure a number of behaviours that were stereotypically either masculine or feminine. We selected these particular actions to represent the very best of what masculinity and femininity have come to stand for, and we felt that any healthy adult should be capable of them. We predicted that sex-typed people would do well only when the behavior was traditionally considered appropriate for his or her sex, whereas those who were androgynous would do well regardless of the sex-role stereotype attached to the particular action.

The masculine behaviours that we selected were independence and assertiveness…

The feminine behaviours that we selected all measured the extent to which a person was willing to be responsible for or helpful toward another living creature…

Restrictive sex roles

The pattern of results for these experiments suggests that rigid sex roles can seriously restrict behavior. This is especially the case for men. The masculine men did masculine things very well, but they did not do feminine things. They were independent and assertive when they needed to be, but they … lacked the ability to express warmth, playfulness and concern, important human – if traditionally feminine – traits.

Similarly, the feminine women were restricted in their ability to express masculine characteristics. They did feminine things… but they weren’t independent in judgment or assertive of their own preferences…

In contrast, the androgynous men and women did just about everything. They could be independent and assertive when they needed to be, and warm and responsive in appropriate situations. It didn’t matter, in other words, whether a behavior was stereotypically masculine or feminine; they did equally well on both…

We went one step further, because we wondered how sex-typed people would feel about themselves if they had to carry out an opposite-sex activity. We asked all the students to perform three masculine, three feminine, and three neutral activities while we photographed them, and then they indicated on a series of scales how each activity make them feel about themselves. Masculine men and feminine women felt much worse than androgynous people about doing a cross-sex task. Traditional men felt less masculine if they had to, say, prepare a baby bottle and a traditional women felt less feminine if they had to nail boards together. When the experimenter was a member of the opposite sex, sex-typed students were especially upset about acting out of role. They felt less attractive and likable, more nervous and peculiar, less masculine or feminine, and didn’t particularly enjoy the experience.

This research persuades me that traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity do restrict a person’s behavior in important ways. In a modern complex society like ours, an adult has to be assertive, independent and self-reliant, but traditional femininity makes many women unable to behave in these ways. On the other hand, an adult must also be able to relate to other people, to be sensitive to their needs and concerned about their welfare, as well as to be able to depend on them for emotional support. But traditional masculinity keeps men from responding in such supposedly feminine ways.

Androgyny, in contrast, allows an individual to be both independent and tender, assertive and yielding, masculine and feminine. Thus androgyny greatly expands the range of behavior open to everyone, permitting people to cope more effectively with diverse situations. As such, I hope that androgyny will some day come to define a new and more human standard of psychological health.

Article taken from GP Matters by Robert Wilks


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