Sex Roles

, Volume 76, Issue 9–10, pp 566–578 | Cite as

Sandra Bem’s Gender Schema Theory After 34 Years: A Review of its Reach and Impact

Original Article


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 empirical 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, occupations, 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 activism, and as part of a project of theory-bridging.


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 “has 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 “the 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 interdisciplinary 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’s premier theoretical contribution to the field of psychology is the development of gender schema theory, as described in her Psychological Review article: “Gender schema theory: A cognitive 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 psychology and in international literatures.

A search on PsycINFO reveals that Bem (1981a) has garnered 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’s written work on gender schema theory.

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 processing throughout the lifetime. Children develop ideas and theories 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 enforces the categories of gender. In her own words, “By shifting the focus of my research from androgyny to gender schematicity, I wanted to establish that masculinity and femininity 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 children 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 “constructive memory.” Finally, Martin and Halverson (1981) published a paper introducing their schematic processing theory of gender-typing in children, also in Child Development. What led to this convergence among independent 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) and the 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 perceived, 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 contrast, Bem’s scholarly and personal interests were focused centrally on gender as perhaps the single most important organizing 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 similarities. 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 framework, 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 psychologists were positioned within a history of research on the development of “sex-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 changed.

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, specifically, do schemas operate and how do they develop in children?). 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 theory, there appears to have been relatively little direct critique or comparison of theories between Bem and Martin/Halverson or Liben/Signorella.

Development of Gender Schema Theory

Many influential theories lead fairly quickly to programmatic follow-up—a series of critiques, tests, refinements, extensions, and applications. Although Bem’s work on gender schema theory has been widely cited, the type and trajectory of its influence differ from this prototypical pattern for influential 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 possible explanations for its unusual trajectory in the published literature.

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; Haaga 1990) 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 inconsistent (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 specific 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 theory 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 “sex-typed” (Bem 1981b, p. 369) were expected to also be gender schematic. In her words, “the BSRI is thus not a measure of gender-schematic processing but a tool for identifying 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 challenging 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 first.

Another factor of possible relevance is Bem’s scholarly style, which appears to have followed the “lone scholar” model common in humanities fields (including women’s/feminist studies) more so that it did the “large laboratory” model common in the biological sciences and in much of psychology (Bakhshi et al. 2008). We suspect that some researchers’ theories 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 pathway for generating interest in careful development of her theory was not available to her. She also may have been personally 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 content 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 development, 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 theory paper was published; at Cornell she held a dual appointment 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, interdisciplinary scholarship, and research in the service of social change. In her autobiography, she described the development of the arguments in Lenses of Gender as “the work I did at Cornell that truly satisfied me” (Bem 1998, p. 160) and Lenses of Gender itself as:

the “big picture” book that would finally integrate my long-standing interest in gender with my long-standing interest in sex and sexual orientation . . . and allow me to grasp the “whole” of what I had been teaching and theorizing, both at work and at home, for over 20 years (Bem 1998, p. 160).

The Present Study

Our preliminary scan of articles that cite Bem’s gender schema theory convinced us that rather than being the subject of traditional 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 articles, 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 GST over 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 populations. Studying populations outside the United States is especially important, given that a majority of psychology research 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 subfield?


Article Sampling

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 sample 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 “all 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 “gender 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 articles. 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 integrated her theory of androgyny with GST. This excluded seven 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 “primary citations” or small sample; see our reference 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

Research Topic

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, occupations, 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 “encoding” or “spatial 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 resolved 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.
Table 1

Summary of codes assigned to primary citations sample (N = 62)


Examples of Keywords



First Year Coded


Research Topics


Encoding, word recall, speed of processing






Gender acquisition, temperament, raising children






Stereotyped attitudes, social perceptions, sexism






Careers, vocation, specific career (e.g., flight attendant)





 Historically Marginalized Populations

Latino/a, gay men, African-Americans, gender queer





 Mental Health and Trauma

Clinical interventions, depression, therapeutic writing





Participant Populations

 Children as Participants

Participants under 18 years old (in PsycINFO indexing or method section)





 Non-U.S. Participants

Participants not from the U.S. (in PsycINFO indexing or method section)





Some articles were assigned more than one code. n = frequency of assignment. IRR = Inter-rater reliability (kappa)


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 participants was gathered from either the PsycINFO subject terms or from reading the method section and abstract of the article. If the article was not empirical, “no” was coded for both these variables. Coding was performed by the first author and an undergraduate research assistant; disagreements were resolved by having the second author serve as a tie-breaker by coding discrepant cases.

Journal Type/Discipline

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 assistant 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 international/non-U.S. focus. A journal was coded as international if it was published in a language other than English or if the journal had the term international 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 cases.
Table 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





*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





*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

Gender/Women’s Studies: Psychology





Journal of Homosexuality, Sex Roles

Mental Health, Trauma, or Clinical Psychology





Journal of Counseling Psychology

Other (Non-Psychology/Interdisciplinary)





Anthropology and Education Quarterly, *Psychiatria Polska

Developmental Psychology





*British Journal of Developmental Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development






Human Resource Development Review, Journal of Business and Psychology, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research

Other, Psychology





Annual Review of Sex Research, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Journal of Sport Behavior

Educational Psychology





*Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Educational Researcher, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, Reading Psychology

Media Studies, Psychology





Communication Monographs, Communication Research, Human Communication Research

Gender/Women’s Studies, Other







Cognitive Psychology






Women and Gender Studies












All citations = journal articles that cited Bem (1981a) or Bem (1983). Primary citations = journal articles that included the phrase “gender 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

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 disagreements were resolved by discussion.


To examine the two samples of articles, we first plotted histograms by year (Figs. 1 and 2). Citations in journal articles to Bem’s (1981a) Psychological Review article and 1983 Signs article remained fairly flat for the first 17 years after publication (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 within the past 10 years (2005–2015) and 309 (37.0 %) within the past 5 years (2010–2015; see Fig. 1). However, when considering 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).
Fig. 1

Number of 835 journal articles citing Bem (1981a) or (1983) by year of publication

Fig. 2

Number of 62 journal articles referencing “gender schema theory” in the abstract or title by year of publication

Breadth of Influence

Disciplinary Reach

Table 2 presents 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 citations 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).

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 studies 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 initially had a cognitive focus, this focus lessened over the years, and articles with “cognition” 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.

Novel Applications

One indication of the usefulness of Bem’s theory is that it was 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 mental 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.


Although Bem’s GST was situated within an individual differences perspective (more so than was the gender schema theorizing of the developmental psychologists discussed earlier), it nevertheless deeply implicates developmental 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 development. 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 possible.

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 “human 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 frequent 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 results 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 children gender-schematic.


The first article in our sample that focused on occupations (Jackson 1983) centered on perceived occupational success among androgynous and gender-typed individuals and the influence gender schematicity had on a participant’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 occupations in some way. Later studies have branched away from career cognition tasks and are more likely to use GST as a lens to look at a variety of topics and issues within the workplace. These topics range from gender typicality and work adjustment 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 contribute to dissatisfaction and high turnover among women in technology fields.

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 recently 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) of articles in the primary citations sample were coded as looking at other demographic 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 recommendations 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 between androgyny and internalized homophobia (Ciliberto and Ferrari 2009). Surprisingly, these researchers did not find evidence 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 counselor. 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 declined 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 GST and intersectionality, particularly looking at straight individuals in comparison to queer or genderqueer people. These populations 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 associated 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, suggesting 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 and schools can work to mitigate stereotypical gender schemas that form throughout childhood. In particular, media literacy/mediation may be a fruitful avenue to explore in relation 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’s gender 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 stereotypes and schemas among children is needed if we are to become a less gender-dichotomous society.

Theory Bridging

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 theory (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 blending 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 during 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 internalize an objectified and sexualized view of themselves, leading to negative outcomes such as depression. Although objectification theory has mostly been developed for and tested among adult (and sometimes adolescent) women, the way it explains how women are socialized to internalize an observer’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) account of how girls become socialized into femininity by our gendered society, thus creating an internalized gender schema that allows girls to process information and make faster decisions about themselves and their world. GST gives additional explanation for how processing objectifying stimuli may be different 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 cultural 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 negative 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 order 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 and girls.


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’s studies, 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 review 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 continue to have an impact for decades to come.



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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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA

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