The Problem With Gender Psychology

Before I took a gender psychology class, I assumed that the field was pro-feminist. I was not so pleasantly surprised to learn how little the field has done to promote gender equality. For example, the once often-perpetuated idea that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus,” -- which essentially implies that women and men are completely different and have completely different desire -- has little credibility from a scientific and psychological standpoint today. Yet, the majority of studies conducted and published seem to take this difference for granted. Perpetuating this theory directly affects young men and women by reinforcing stereotypes like, for example, giving credibility to the “boys will be boys” excuse. Additionally, these studies rarely account for non-binary genders. However, I think the real fault doesn’t lie in individual psychologists publishing these papers, but our patriarchal culture -- especially journalism culture.

Despite its lack of credibility, the belief in gender difference -- as opposed to its more controversial challenger, The Gender Similarities Hypothesis – seems to remain predominant. Therefore, psychology journals tend to publish studies that show gender difference, turning away findings that prove similarities, or just leaving those “insignificant” details out of seemingly unrelated studies. Psychologists are therefore more likely to conduct studies that prove difference because that is what will get them published.

Take the Bem Sex Roles Inventory test for example. This is a test that is intended to show similarities by measuring androgyny. The test asks if you have certain characteristics and to what extent but in doing so actually reinforces stereotypes and gender difference by gendering certain traits. For example, the test considers assertiveness to be a male trait and considers compassion to be a female trait. This means that an individual who identifies as female and happens to be assertive should be considered more masculine, an individual who identifies as male who is compassionate should be considered more feminine, and an individual who is both assertive and compassionate is an equal mixture of masculine and feminine (or androgynous). While I believe that the test’s intention to show that most people are androgynous in that that they have both male and female traits is positive, it is, however, inaccurate and misleading because of the way it is scored. Being assertive does not make me manly: it means I’m self-assured and confident. Being compassionate does not make me feminine: it means I show sympathy and concern for others (in other words, it means I’m a decent human being). Being both assertive and compassionate doesn’t make me androgynous. Frankly, all it proves is that I’m a person, and not some weird computer virus or hack. Regardless, Dr. Sandra Lipsitz Bem, the woman who developed the test deserves huge amounts of credit given she did so in 1971, and though outdated for our present standards, the test was actually extremely progressive at the time and effective in shifting the conversation on gender, something few recent studies have been able to accomplish. However, it is high time we move past these stereotypes in this field.

Psychological studies have the power to change the way people think about gender, and instead of reinforcing stereotypes, there should me more effort to conduct and publish new studies that help create a culture that values gender similarities, as well as looks for ways in which our societal expectations of gender are responsible for some of the differences that lead to a “men are from mars” mindset. For this to happen, people have to be willing to read studies that might challenge their beliefs, and that information has to be made available to them. While I know that, as young people, most of us don’t exactly spend our free time reading confusing and complicated lab reports, it is still important for us to be conscious of the influence these findings have on us. No matter what gender you identify with, if you identify with one at all, you should not be placed in a box based on this identity and studies that actively seek difference perpetuate these gender-based boxes. By showing similarities instead, we can blur these strict definitions and expectations of gender and, as a result, eliminate some of these boxes.

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Martine K
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