The Psychology of Women and Gender: Half the Human Experience + - Nicole M. Else-Quest, Janet Shibley Hyde 2018


Pregnant people are commonly asked, “What are you having?” Unless the person is ordering food at a restaurant, the question has to do with whether they are expecting a girl or a boy. About two-thirds of pregnant women in the United States want to find out in advance whether they’ll give birth to a daughter or son (Kearin et al., 2014). Today, advances in medical technology mean that many expectant parents may obtain relatively detailed ultrasound images of the developing fetus; that technology can be used to identify the fetus’s genitals. Most expectant parents assume that if the ultrasound shows that the fetus has a penis, they’ll have a son, and if it doesn’t, they’ll have a daughter. Seems simple, right? Parents soon imagine gendered names, clothing, colors, toys, activities, and so on for the child, all on the basis of whether or not they saw a penis on that ultrasound.

The question “What are you having?” is ubiquitous because most people understand gender as an essential and central characteristic of humans. We tend to have a hard time perceiving or thinking about a person without knowing their gender. To some extent, that’s not surprising; our social world is organized on the basis of gender. Public restrooms are often segregated by gender, as are sports teams, social clubs and organizations, items in clothing stores and toy stores, and sometimes even classrooms and schools. In addition, power and status are conferred by gender; around the world, men have more power and higher status relative to women (United Nations Development Programme, 2015; see Focus 1.1 for more on this). In short, gender matters.

Photo 1.1 What is this baby’s gender? How does it matter?


Gender is also complex. Our goal in this textbook is to help you understand the complexity of gender, that is, when, why, and how gender matters in psychology. Historically, cisgender men have dominated in society and in psychological science. To redress this balance, we focus on women and, when possible, trans and nonbinary people. Each of these groups has been marginalized, “othered,” or oppressed because of their gender. We examine gender broadly: its impact on people’s lives and alternatives to a two-category gender system.

Cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth.

Why Study the Psychology of Women and Gender?

In thinking about why students might take a course on the psychology of women and gender, we (as professors and researchers) immediately reflect on why we would write a book or teach a course on the psychology of women and gender. One of the main reasons is simple: It is a fascinating topic. The questions we ask in our psychology of women and gender courses are unique and provocative. What does it mean to be a woman? How is that identity shaped by things like race or ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation? What roles do our hormones or brains play in our gender? How does our gender influence how others treat us? In some cases, these questions have complex answers that lead to more questions. In others, we have only begun to gather the evidence needed to answer the questions. And, often, the answers surprise us.

The psychology of women and gender is personally meaningful. Students take this course for a variety of reasons. For example, many women take the course to understand themselves better, a goal they may feel was not met by their other psychology courses. Some students may take this course because they have questions about their own gender and how they fit into the world.

The psychology of women and gender is essential to psychology. That is, there are many academic reasons to study the psychology of women and gender. For example, many traditional psychological theories have literally been theories about men (as you’ll learn in Chapter 2). Sexism or gender bias exists not only in our everyday experiences, but also in the science of psychology. As a result, the experiences of cisgender men have been considered the norm and the experiences of women and anyone who doesn’t fit into the traditional masculine role have been marginalized, ignored, or devalued. One way to address these biases in psychology is to study the psychology of women as well as trans and nonbinary people and to think critically about gender.

The psychology of women and gender is relevant to understanding our society and improving people’s lives. That is, just as our social world is organized on the basis of gender, that social organization shapes the opportunities and experiences available to all of society’s members. One of the central themes of the feminist movement has been that “the personal is political.” What this means is that social roles, norms, policies, and laws play an important role in determining many aspects of our lives. In some circumstances, our gender may offer unearned privileges or disadvantages. Understanding how our personal experiences are connected to the context of our community and culture is important not only for our own knowledge, but also for improving the conditions in which we all live.

Sex, Gender, Transgender, and Cisgender

Language is constantly evolving and changing, especially within the psychology of women and gender. The fact that the meanings and connotations of words are in flux can lead to misunderstandings and different interpretations. In the interest of establishing a common vocabulary for readers, we clarify our language here (see also Table 1.1).

In the English language the term sex is often used ambiguously. That is, sometimes it is used to refer to sexual behaviors such as sexual intercourse, sometimes it is used to refer to physical or physiological characteristics of maleness and femaleness, and sometimes it is used as way of categorizing a species based on reproductive function. Often, the meaning is clear from the context. For example, if a job application says, “Sex: ____,” you don’t write, “As often as possible.” Yet what is the topic of a book titled Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies? Is it about female roles and male roles in those societies, or is it about the sexual behavior of people in those societies? To reduce this ambiguity, in this book we generally use the term sex to refer to sexual behaviors.


Source: Created by the authors.

Sometimes people use sex interchangeably with gender, which we define as the state of being male, female, both male and female, or neither male nor female. Gender has, at least in Western cultures, long been understood as a binary, such that individuals are either male or female, but never both or neither (a theme we revisit later in this chapter). The gender binary is a system of thinking about gender as having two distinct and opposing groups or kinds (that is, male and female). It is evident in phrases such as “the opposite sex” and in assuming that all people must fit squarely into one of these two groups. When you apply for a driver’s license, for example, you typically must choose either male or female for gender; in nearly all states, you may choose only one of these options, and there are no others. Today, we know that people may identify themselves as being either within or outside the gender binary, such as belonging to a third gender category like genderqueer or as being nonbinary.

Gender: The state of being male, female, both male and female, or neither male nor female.

Gender binary: A system of conceptualizing gender as having two distinct and opposing groups or kinds (i.e., male and female).

Genderqueer: A gender category that is not exclusively male or female and therefore is not captured by the gender binary.

Similarly, in recent years we have seen increased visibility and awareness of transgender men and women. A person who is transgender is a person whose self-identified gender differs from the gender they were assigned at birth, typically based on the appearance of external genitalia (sometimes called natal gender). A transgender woman, then, is a person who identifies as female but was assigned a male gender at birth, and a transgender man is a person who identifies as male but was assigned a female gender at birth. Still, it is important to note that not all people whose self-identified gender differs from their assigned gender will label themselves transgender. By contrast, a person who is cisgender is a person whose self-identified gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth. The prefixes cis- (“on the same side of”) and trans- (“across or on the other side of”) come from Latin and appear in chemistry, which uses cis and trans for different pairs of molecules.

Transgender: Describes a person whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth.

Some people use trans as an umbrella term to refer to anyone who is not a cisgender man or cisgender woman, such as transgender men and women and genderqueer people. You will notice that our definition of gender allows for some flexibility and avoids adhering to the gender binary.

Nonetheless, psychology has, until recently, neglected the study of transgender men and women or considered them as abnormal (dickey, Hendricks, & Bockting, 2016), operating from cisgenderism. Cisgenderism refers to prejudice against people who are outside the gender binary or bias that recognizes a person’s birth-assigned gender but not their gender identity (Ansara & Hegarty, 2012). While we believe awareness of cisgenderism is improving and research on the experiences of transgender persons is blossoming, the field still has a long way to go.

Cisgenderism: Prejudice against people who are outside the gender binary; also refers to bias that recognizes a person’s birth-assigned gender but not their gender identity. Also termed anti-trans prejudice.

The fact that most empirical research in psychology has not accommodated the experiences of transgender persons raises questions about the psychology of women and gender. In psychology, gender differences has generally been used to refer to differences between men and women. Thus, gender differences research is rooted in the gender binary. In this book, because we review the existing science, we follow this convention and use the term gender differences to refer to male-female differences because the vast majority of empirical research in psychology has assumed the gender binary. We believe it is possible to be sophisticated consumers of that research without adopting the gender binary (a point we’ll return to later in this chapter).

With regard to describing psychological differences between men and women, we recognize that other scholars have adopted other conventions. For example, some scholars prefer to use the term sex differences to refer to innate or biologically produced differences between men and women and gender differences to refer to male-female differences that result from learning and the social roles of men and women (e.g., Unger, 1979). The problem with this terminology is that studies often document a difference between men and women without providing any evidence as to what causes it—biology, society, or both. Furthermore, the sharp distinction between biological causes and cultural causes fails to recognize that biology and culture often interact. Sometimes, the distinction between sex and gender isn’t obvious or even possible to make. Therefore, we simply use the term gender differences for differences between men and women, and leave their causation as a separate question.

Sexism and Feminism


Another term that will you will find throughout this book is sexism. Sexism or gender bias can be defined as discrimination or bias against people based on their gender. Some people feel uncomfortable using the term sexism because they think of it as a nasty or inflammatory label to hurl at someone or something. In fact, it is a good, legitimate term that describes a particular phenomenon—namely, discrimination on the basis of gender. It will be used in that spirit in this book, not as a form of name-calling. It is also important to recognize that anyone, regardless of their gender, can engage in sexist behavior or hold sexist attitudes.

Sexism: Discrimination or bias against other people based on their gender; also termed gender bias or sex bias.

Social psychologists have studied sexism extensively, and their research has yielded several findings that are relevant here. First, sexism isn’t what it used to be. Old-fashioned sexism, the kind that was prevalent in the 1950s and earlier, was characterized by open or overt prejudice against women. An example would be the belief—common in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States—that women could not be anchors on TV news programs because they wouldn’t be good at it and because viewers wouldn’t accept the news as authoritative if it were delivered by a woman. Today, of course, news programs often have coanchors, one male and one female, and the old view seems ridiculous. Old-fashioned sexism has been replaced by modern sexism or neosexism, which refers to covert or subtle prejudiced beliefs about women (Swim et al., 1995). Psychologists measure old-fashioned sexism with items like “Women are generally not as smart as men”; 50 or more years ago, many people would have agreed with such a statement. Modern sexism, in contrast, is more subtle and consists of three components: denial that there is continuing discrimination against women, antagonistic feelings about women’s “demands,” and resentment about perceived special favors granted to women (Swim et al., 1995). Although anyone can be sexist, modern sexist beliefs are most strongly endorsed by White men (Hayes & Swim, 2013).

Old-fashioned sexism: Open or overt prejudice against women.

Modern sexism: Subtle prejudiced beliefs about women; also termed neosexism.

Even in the 21st century, experiences with sexism are common. In one study of a large sample of girls between the ages of 12 and 18, 23% reported that they had been discouraged in math, science, or computers by teachers because they were girls, and 32% reported that boys had discouraged them in these areas (Leaper & Brown, 2008). Many had also been discouraged in athletics because of being a girl: 28% had been discouraged by teachers or coaches, and 54% had been discouraged by boys.

Social psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (2001) have documented two other types of sexism today: hostile and benevolent. Hostile sexism refers to negative, hostile attitudes toward women and adversarial beliefs about gender relations in which women are thought to spend most of their time trying to control men, whether through sexuality or feminism. Benevolent sexism, in contrast, consists of beliefs about women that seem to the perpetrator to be kind or benevolent—in which women are honored and put on the proverbial pedestal. In the benevolent view, women are seen as pure beings who should be protected and adored. Although this view may seem harmless, it is still a form of sexism because it stereotypes women as weak and dependent on men, and being put on a pedestal is extremely confining, both literally and figuratively.

Hostile sexism: Negative, hostile attitudes toward women and adversarial beliefs about gender relations.

Benevolent sexism: Beliefs about women that seem to be kind or benevolent; women are seen as pure and morally superior beings who should be protected and adored.


Another important term that needs to be defined in this context is feminist. A feminist is a person who favors political, economic, and social equality of all people, regardless of gender, and therefore favors the legal and social changes necessary to achieve gender equality. While most Americans support the feminist principle and goal of gender equality, a much smaller percentage identify themselves as feminists (Gallup, 2002). A well-sampled national survey conducted in 2009 by ABC News/Washington Post asked the question “Do you consider yourself to be a feminist or not?”; 29% of the women and 17% of the men said yes (Roper Center, 2011). Clearly feminism is more than a tiny splinter group.

Feminist: A person who favors political, economic, and social equality of all people, regardless of gender, and therefore favors the legal and social changes necessary to achieve gender equality.

A 2006 national survey of women and men by CBS News asked, “Has the women’s movement achieved anything that has made your life better?” (Roper Center, 2011). A majority (55%) of the respondents said yes. Those who responded yes were then asked what the main thing was that had made their lives better. The top choice was equality/more rights (17% of respondents), followed by better jobs (15%), more choices (14%), the right to vote (10%—good not to forget that one), and better/equal pay (9%). As we discuss in Focus 1.1, the feminist goal of gender equality has not yet been met.

Just as sexism has changed over time, so has feminism. Historically, there have been four periods of heightened feminist activism, termed first-wave feminism, second-wave feminism, third-wave feminism, and fourth-wave feminism. First-wave feminism occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Britain, Canada, and the United States. These feminists fought for women’s voting rights, and they succeeded! In the United States, women’s right to vote was won when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920.

Photo 1.2 First-wave feminists, often called suffragettes, fought for women’s voting rights.


Paul Thompson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Second-wave feminism began in the 1960s and extended into the 1990s. Second-wave feminists could build on the successes of their predecessors and take on a much wider range of issues: sexual freedom; reproductive rights, especially contraception and abortion; pay equity; equal opportunity in education; and gender-based violence. The movement proposed the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declared, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The amendment passed in the House and Senate in 1972 but ultimately failed at the stage of ratification by the states.

By the 1990s, many goals of the second wave had been accomplished, and some declared that feminism was dead and that the nation had passed into the “postfeminist” era. There was actually no good scientific evidence of a decline in feminism (E. J. Hall & Rodriguez, 2003), but a new kind of feminism began to emerge sometime in the 1990s, known as third-wave feminism (Snyder, 2008). In part, it represents a rebellion against second-wave foremothers and attempts to rectify some of the perceived weaknesses of the second wave. One of the key criticisms of second-wave feminism is that it tended to essentialize and oversimplify the category of “women” by focusing on “universal” female experiences such as motherhood. In so doing, it ignored the great diversity among women along lines of race and social class. Second-wave feminists were also accused of being rigid in their ideology, saying that certain approaches were feminist and others definitely were not. Responding to these issues, third-wave feminism emphasized intersectionality—an approach originating in Black feminism—and diversity among women rather than universality of female experience. In addition, it favors the individual’s right to define feminism, instead of everyone accepting a uniform ideology.

We are currently in the early years of the fourth wave of feminism, which has been fueled by recent advances in online technology, including user-generated content, such as blogs, and social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (Naly & Smith, 2015). Building on the third wave, it also includes greater emphasis on intersectionality and critique and rejection of the gender binary. Thus, transgender issues are more prominent than in previous waves.

Feminism is a political movement and ideology as well as a theoretical perspective. There is a rich literature within feminist psychology, and a wide spectrum of feminist theoretical perspectives exists, which we describe in Chapter 2.

Themes in the Psychology of Women and Gender

A number of themes will recur in this book. Some of these themes are rooted in history, taking somewhat different forms across cultures but remaining essentially the same. Some themes are rooted in feminism. Other themes are derived from current scientific psychological research on women and gender. We focus here on five themes that are central to understanding the psychology of women and gender.

Feminine Evil

One theme rooted in history is feminine evil. One of the clearest images of women in mythology is their portrayal as the source of evil (Hays, 1964). In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Eve disobeyed God’s orders and ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. As a result, Adam and Eve were forced to leave the Garden of Eden, and Eve, the woman, became the source of original sin, responsible for the fall of humanity. In a more ancient myth, the Greek god Zeus ordered Vulcan to create the lovely maiden Pandora to bring misery to earth in revenge for the theft of fire by Prometheus. Pandora was given a box containing all the evils of the world, which she was told not to open. But Pandora opened the box, and thus all the evils it contained spread over the world. In addition, in Chinese mythology the two forces, yin and yang, correspond to feminine and masculine, and yin, the feminine, is seen as the dark, or evil, side of nature.

Feminine evil: The belief that women are the source of evil or immorality in the world, as in the Adam and Eve story.

Historically, perhaps the most frightening manifestation of the belief in feminine evil was the persecution of witches beginning in the Middle Ages and persisting into Puritan America. Guided by the Catholic Church in a papal bull of 1484, the Malleus Maleficarum, the Inquisition tortured or put to death unknown numbers of witches. The vast majority of those accused and tried were women (Hays, 1964). Thus, it is woman who is seen as being in collaboration with the devil, visiting evil upon humans.

Focus 1.1 Gender Equality Around the World and Transnational Feminism

In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists met and created the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The Platform for Action affirmed a commitment to gender equality and described specific steps that needed to be taken in order to improve the lives of girls and women and achieve gender equity. It stated, “The status of women has advanced in some important respects in the past decade but that progress has been uneven, inequalities between women and men have persisted and major obstacles remain, with serious consequences for the well-being of all people” (Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995, p. 2). As a result, the United Nations now regularly publishes data on how women are doing in all nations of the world, and these data are used to monitor progress toward gender equality.

What does gender equality look like? Gender equality has several aspects, such as education, politics, economics, health, and gender-based violence (Else-Quest & Hamilton, 2018). For example, educational gender equality would entail equal numbers of men and women attending high school or university, or equal numbers of men and women being able to read and write. Political gender equality could include equal political representation or having equal numbers of men and women elected to congress or parliament. Economic gender equality would entail equal pay for equal work and adequate family leave policies, regardless of gender. Gender equality in health would include improving women’s access to prenatal care and reducing maternal mortality and adolescent pregnancy rates. With regard to gender-based violence, gender equality would mean freedom from forms of violence in which men are the predominant perpetrators and women are the predominant victims (such as rape and intimate partner violence, discussed further in Chapter 14). All of these aspects of gender equality are important and were described in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Data from 20 countries are shown in Table 1.2. The United Nations Development Programme computes a Gender Inequality Index (GII), which is one of many measures of country-level gender equality. The GII indexes inequality of women relative to men in three areas: reproductive health (measured by adolescent pregnancy and maternal mortality), empowerment (measured by educational attainment and representation of women in parliament), and labor force participation. Low scores indicate less inequality (i.e., greater equality). A country’s overall rank, shown in the left column of Table 1.2, results from an average of these indicators. As the data show, no country in the world can claim to be truly gender equal.

American readers may be surprised that the United States does not rank first; some believe that we have a great deal of gender equality in this country, but it’s clear we still have areas of inequality. We rank only 55th and are beaten by some European nations, Canada, and Japan. The United States does not fare so well because of our high teen pregnancy rate (31.0, compared with 1.9 in Switzerland) and our persistent underrepresentation of women in Congress. What would we have to do to get the United States in first place?

Psychological research has shown data such as these are linked to individual endorsement of sexism and hostile sexism against women (Brandt, 2011; Glick et al., 2000; Napier et al., 2010). That is, countries that have more gender inequality also have more people who hold sexist beliefs. So, achieving gender equality means more than just changing laws and improving our scores on the GII. It also means changing people’s beliefs about gender and the roles of women so that women can be free to make their own choices.

Transnational feminism advocates for gender equality across countries and points out that we need to carefully consider women’s and girls’ experiences not only across countries, but also within them (Grabe & Else-Quest, 2012). That is, within each culture and country, behaviors and roles have different meanings. Consider gender-based violence, where we see differences across cultures and countries in the types of gender-based violence and the meaning of specific violent acts. A man in Sri Lanka might throw a shoe at his wife to punish her for cooking a meal he did not like. Even if the woman was not physically injured, such an act is considered humiliating and degrading (Marecek, 2012). In most Western countries, however, such a behavior might seem simply strange or rude and probably wouldn’t be identified in a screening or survey of gender-based violence. Thus, transnational feminists point out that we need to carefully consider women’s and girls’ experiences not only across countries, but also within them.


Source: Created by Nicole Else-Quest based on data from United Nations Development Programme (2015).

Transnational feminists such as Chandra Mohanty (2003, p. 503) advocate for “noncolonizing feminist solidarity across borders,” cautioning that we should avoid viewing girls’ and women’s experiences through a Western lens and imposing Western standards on other cultures. What can we do to empower girls and women around the world without dictating that they should adopt Western ways? Can gender equality be universalized to every country? If so, what do you think it would look like?

Today, people who hold hostile sexist attitudes, as discussed earlier in this chapter, believe that women use their sexuality to ensnare helpless men (Glick & Fiske, 2001). Again, women are believed to exert an evil influence on men.

Male as Normative

Another enduring historical theme is the male as normative. Throughout mythology the male is seen as normative, the female as a variant or deviation. That is, the male is the important one, the major representative of the species, the “normal” one, and the female is a variation on him. As Simone de Beauvoir (1952) expressed it, woman is the Other.

Male as normative: A model in which the male is seen as the norm for all humans and the female is seen as a deviation from the norm.

In the biblical creation story (Genesis 2), Adam, the man, is created first; Eve, the woman, is later fashioned out of his rib, almost as an afterthought. In this and many other creation myths, man is created first; he is the major, important part of the species. Woman comes second and is only a variant on the man, the normative. There are even myths in which a woman is created by castrating a man.

Perhaps the clearest example of the male-as-normative theme is in our language. The word man is used to refer not only to a male person, but to people in general. When the gender of a person is unknown, the pronoun he is used to refer to “him.” (Would we dare have said “to refer to her”?) The species as a whole is man; woman is merely a subset. This topic will be discussed in detail in Chapter 5.

Photo 1.3 The male as normative is a theme throughout history. An example is the Adam and Eve story, in which Adam is created first and Eve is later made from his rib.


By Albrecht Dürer - Galería online del Museo del Prado de Madrid: Adán y Eva, Public Domain.

A closely related concept is androcentrism (Bem, 1993). It means, literally, male-centeredness, or the belief that males are the standard or norm. This concept crops up in a number of places in modern psychology, including some of the theories discussed in Chapter 2.

Androcentrism: Male centered; the belief that the male is the norm.

To be the deviation from the norm is, often, to be marginalized, ignored, or devalued. Thus, embedded within the theme of male as normative and androcentrism is the lower social status of women relative to men. Throughout the world, women do not enjoy the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities as men (United Nations Development Programme, 2015). Focus 1.1 describes gender equity around the world, demonstrating that we still have a way to go before men and women are treated as equals. For this reason, our book is about the psychology of gender and focuses especially on the experiences of women.

Gender Differences and Similarities

There is a paradox in trying to understand the psychology of women and gender: Women and men are at once different and similar. Although gender differences are important in the psychology of gender, gender similarities are equally important. Both scientific and nonscientific views of women have concentrated on how they differ from men; this lopsided emphasis on gender differences has led to a distorted understanding of the psychology of women and gender. The study of psychological gender similarities is essential to a comprehensive and unbiased psychology of women and gender (Hyde, 2005a). This paradoxical tension between gender differences and gender similarities will be a continuing theme throughout this book.

Gender differences: Differences between genders.

Gender similarities: Similarities among genders.

Historically, the overemphasis on gender differences combined with male-as-normative thinking have fostered the pervasiveness of female deficit models. That is, we spend so much time and energy demonstrating that men and women are different and that men are the norm or the standard, we end up concluding that women are abnormal or deficient. In the 19th century, scientists found that women had slightly smaller brains than men and interpreted this as a sure reason why women were not as intelligent as men (Shields, 1975). Today some researchers continue to argue that girls are not as good at math as boys are. No matter the century, researchers always seem to try to find female deficits. In Chapter 3, we will delve into the study of psychological gender differences and similarities in detail.

Critiquing the Gender Binary

The overemphasis on gender differences and neglect of gender similarities is deeply rooted in the gender binary. There are many problems with the gender binary, which, with only the categories of male and female, is very narrow and restrictive in its range. According to the gender binary, gender is defined based on physical characteristics (such as sex chromosomes, hormones, and external genitalia), which are assumed to be consistent with one another. Thus, the binary assumes that our gender identities stem from these physical characteristics. In turn, the gender binary also assumes that everyone is cisgender.

Because of these faulty assumptions, the most glaring problems with the binary are that it excludes anyone who is transgender, intersex, or genderqueer. Many people do not fit within the gender binary; there is gender diversity beyond two rigid gender categories. Critiquing the gender binary requires thinking differently about gender and asking difficult questions. For example, should we think of gender as having distinct categories or groups? Or should we think of it as being a continuum? If there are distinct genders, how many are there? Can gender change, or is it stable and permanent? Critiquing the gender binary—and exploring the implications of that critique for research—is an important theme in the psychology of women and gender.

Intersex: A variety of conditions in which a person is born with genitals or reproductive anatomy that is not typical of females or males. Also termed disorders of sex development in the DSM-5 and differences of sex development or genital diversity.

Intersectionality of Gender

A recurring theme in the psychology of women, rooted in Black feminism, is intersectionality. Intersectionality can be defined as an approach or perspective that simultaneously considers the meaning and consequences of multiple categories of identity, difference, and disadvantage (E. R. Cole, 2009; Else-Quest & Hyde, 2016). That is, according to this approach, we should not consider the effects of gender in isolation. Instead, we should consider the experience and effects of gender, race, social class, and sexual orientation simultaneously. When we talk about the category “women,” we are talking about a complex group that differs along many dimensions and categories, including ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation.

Intersectionality: A feminist approach that simultaneously considers the meaning and consequences of multiple categories of identity, difference, and disadvantage.

The Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth described the essence of intersectionality in a speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. One of 12 children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree, Truth (a self-given name) was born into slavery sometime around 1797 and sold to four different slave owners before walking to freedom in 1826. While she never learned to read or write, she traveled and preached on abolition, women’s suffrage, and prison reform.

At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, Truth spoke extemporaneously about the importance of women’s rights for all women, not just White women. Though her exact words were not recorded, an excerpt of the speech attributed to her at the Convention reflects a need for intersectionality in the feminist movement:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Several themes are evident in her speech and continue to be described within intersectionality writing. One theme is that femininity and womanhood have often been defined with White, middle- and upper-class women in mind, and thus the experiences of poor women and women of color have often been marginalized or made invisible. Intersectional approaches recognize that gender may be constructed differently by other racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. The issues that are important to White women may not be as relevant to women of color, and vice versa.

Recognizing that diversity and giving voice to everyone—but especially to those who lack power—is essential within intersectionality. Therefore, another theme in her speech is that, despite the different needs and issues that matter to diverse groups of women, there are also commonalities. Truth was speaking about the importance of all women’s voices being heard. All women in the United States, regardless of race, were disenfranchised at this time. In sum, intersectionality holds both the diversity and commonality of experiences of people who are oppressed. As a critical theory, intersectionality is focused on power and inequality, how they are maintained, and how to achieve equity and equality.

Critical theory: A theoretical perspective that seeks to redress power inequalities and achieve equity and equality.

Within this perspective, it becomes clear that some groups experience multiple disadvantages, such as poor Black women or lesbian women of color. Others may be part of a disadvantaged group but also part of a privileged group, such as White women with disabilities. The experience of gender differs for the women at each of these intersections, but there are also similarities. Transgender women and cisgender women may experience their gender in some ways that are different and some ways that are similar.

Photo 1.4 Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.


By Randall Studio - National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain.

We will consider intersectionality throughout this book, when research is available. The overreliance on middle-class White college students as research participants makes it difficult to find an intersectional approach in much of psychology. Thus, we will return to intersectionality especially in Chapter 2, “Theoretical Perspectives on Gender”; Chapter 4, “The Intersection of Gender and Ethnicity”; and Chapter 13, “Gender and Sexual Orientation.” As a brief example here, women’s attitudes about gender roles vary as a function of their race or ethnicity (E. R. Cole & Zucker, 2007). Feminists of any race or ethnicity, for instance, have readily recognized that White men oppress White women. Black feminists, on the other hand, have emphasized that the oppression of Black women by Black men can be understood only in the context of the fact that Black men themselves are oppressed by White persons. Gender intersects with a number of other social categories, and understanding the psychology of women and gender requires examining and understanding those many intersections.

The Social Construction of Gender

Many of these themes in the psychology of women and gender reflect the social construction of gender. Feminist theorists view gender not as a biologically created reality, but as a socially constructed phenomenon (Crawford & Kaufman, 2005; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1988; Marecek et al., 2004). The basic position of social constructionism is that people—including scientists—do not discover reality; rather, they construct or invent it (Watzlawick, 1984). According to social constructionism, we do not experience reality directly. Instead, we actively construct meanings for events in the environment based on our own prior experiences, social interactions, and predispositions. Thus, concepts like the gender binary are a product of social interactions and culture.

Social constructionism: A theoretical viewpoint that humans do not discover reality directly; rather, they construct meanings for events in the environment based on their own prior experiences and beliefs.

The extent to which we socially construct gender becomes clearer if we view how gender is constructed within other cultures. In European American cultures, the gender binary is assumed by most people. To them, it is perfectly obvious—a clear reality—that there are two genders, male and female. However, among many American Indian tribes, including the Cherokee, Shoshone, Navajo, Lakota, and Zuni, there is another category of gender, known generally as Two Spirit (however, each tribe has a unique name for this category). Two Spirits are people who feel they possess both male and female spirits, so they may dress as and adopt roles traditional for both men and women or for a gender that contrasts with the gender they were assigned at birth. Some indigenous tribes consider the Two Spirit to be a third or fourth gender, and it is perfectly clear in their culture that there are more than two genders (M. T. Garrett & Barret, 2003; S.-E. Jacobs et al., 1997; S. J. Kessler & McKenna, 1985). What seems like an obvious reality to European Americans, that there are only two genders, turns out to be a social construction, which becomes clear when we see that other cultures have constructed the categories differently.

Two Spirit: Among some American Indian tribes, a gender category for individuals who feel they possess both male and female spirits.

Photo 1.5 We’wha was a Two Spirit person from the Zuni tribe. She was born with a male body but adopted traditionally feminine traits. We’wha was often misgendered by White Americans, who understood gender only as a binary system and assumed she was a cisgender woman.


By Unknown—The Library at The College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, PD-US.

Processes closely related to gender are also socially constructed. For example, Americans are quite sure of the reality that women typically feel tired after giving birth, because they have gone through a physically exhausting process. Other societies, though, have the couvade, which is practiced among the Ainu of Japan and the Timbira of Brazil (Gregersen, 1996). The couvade consists of elaborate rituals that are based on the assumption that the father, not the mother, is the main contributor of effort in childbirth. After the mother gives birth, the baby is given to the father, and he rests for several days to overcome his fatigue, whereas the mother returns to work immediately because she is believed not to need rest. The contribution of the father to childbirth, and his fatigue following it, is a clear reality to people in these cultures. Again, European American notions of women’s contributions to childbirth are challenged, and we see the extent to which such events are socially constructed.

Feminist psychologists have noted that gender is not only a person variable (as traditional psychology has maintained) but also a stimulus variable (e.g., Grady, 1979). By saying that gender is a person variable, we mean that it is a characteristic of the individual; this point of view leads to the study of gender differences, a pursuit that has occupied some traditional psychologists and some feminist psychologists (see Chapter 3). By saying that gender is also a stimulus variable, we mean that a person’s gender has a profound impact on the way others react to that person. Our understanding of an individual—that is, our social construction of that individual—is in part determined by our knowledge of that individual’s gender. This point of view stimulated an area of research in which participants are led to believe that a particular piece of work was done by a man or a woman, or that a particular infant is male or female; their responses to the work or the infant can then be studied as a function of the gender they believe it to be (see Chapters 7 and 9 for examples). Therefore, gender is both a personal characteristic and a stimulus variable.

Social constructionism, then, argues that these processes occur in at least three areas: (1) The individual engages in social constructions, for example, reacting to another person differently depending on whether that person is male or female; (2) the society or culture provides a set of social constructions of gender, for example, whether there are two genders or more; and (3) scientists socially construct gender by the way they construct their research.

Among other things, this view that notions of gender are socially constructed challenges the belief that science is fundamentally objective (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1988). Scientific knowledge, like all other knowledge, is shaped by the values and presuppositions of the perceiver—in this case, the scientist.

Continuing Topics in Psychology

You will also notice other topics or issues that return throughout this book, which are present throughout psychology. For example, you will learn about theories of women’s behavior, some of which have solid data (empirical evidence) backing them, some of which do not. Not every theory is true, nor is every one a good description or explanation of behavior. Just because Freud said something does not make it true (or false). Readers need to become critical thinkers about the difference between statements based on theory and statements based on empirical evidence.

Another important topic in psychology is the distinction between internal and external determinants of behavior. Is human behavior determined more by internal factors, such as a person’s enduring personality traits, or more by external factors, such as the particular situation the person is in. Advocates of the latter position point out how inconsistent people’s behavior can be from one situation to another—for example, a man may be aggressive toward a business competitor, but passive or nurturant toward his spouse. This suggests that his behavior is not determined by an enduring personality trait (aggressiveness), but rather by the particular situation he is in. This distinction also has practical implications for improving people’s lives, which is the primary goal of psychology.

Sources of Bias in Psychological Research

Research in the psychology of women and gender is progressing at a rapid pace. Certainly we will be able to provide you with much important information about the psychology of women and gender in this book, but there are still more questions yet to be answered. With research on the psychology of women and gender expanding so rapidly, many important discoveries will be made in the next 10 to 20 years. Therefore, someone who takes a course on the psychology of women and gender should do more than just learn what is currently known about women and gender. It is even more valuable to gain the skills to become a “sophisticated consumer” of psychological research. That is, it is very important that you be able to evaluate future studies about gender that you may find in newspapers, magazines, blogs, websites, or scholarly journals. To do this, you need to develop at least three skills: (1) Know how psychologists go about doing research, (2) be aware of ways in which gender bias may affect research, and (3) be aware of problems that may exist in research on gender roles or the psychology of women. In general, one of the most valuable things you can get from a college education is the development of critical thinking skills. The feminist perspective encourages thinking about psychological research and theory. The following discussion is designed to help you develop these skills.

How Psychologists Do Research

Figure 1.1 is a diagram of the process that psychologists go through in doing research, shown in rectangles. The diagram also indicates points at which gender bias may enter, shown in ovals.

The process, in brief, is generally this: The scientist starts with some theoretical model, whether a formal model, such as gender schema theory (see Chapter 2), or merely a set of personal assumptions. Based on the model or assumptions, the scientist then formulates a question. The purpose of the research is to answer that question. Next, they design the research, which involves several substeps: A behavior must be selected, a way to measure the behavior must be devised, a group of appropriate participants must be chosen, and a research design must be developed. One of these substeps—finding a way to measure the behavior—is probably the most fundamental aspect of quantitative psychological research. The next step is for the scientist to collect the data. The data are then analyzed (often, but not always, using statistics) and the results are interpreted. Next, the scientist publishes the results, which are read by other scientists and incorporated into the body of scientific knowledge (and also put into textbooks). Finally, the system comes full circle, because the results are fed into the theoretical models that other scientists will use in formulating new research.

Now let us consider some of the ways in which gender bias—bias that may affect our understanding of the psychology of women or gender—may enter into each stage of this process (Caplan & Caplan, 2009).

Bias in Theory

The theoretical model or set of assumptions the scientist begins with has a profound effect on the outcome of the research. Gender bias may enter if the scientist begins with a biased theoretical model. Perhaps the best example of a biased theoretical model is psychoanalytic theory as formulated by Freud (see Chapter 2). A person with a psychoanalytic orientation might design research to document the presence of penis envy or immature superego in women; someone with a different theoretical orientation wouldn’t even think to ask such questions. It is important to be sensitive to the theoretical orientation of a scientist reporting a piece of research—and sometimes the theoretical orientation isn’t stated; it needs to be ferreted out—because that orientation affects the rest of the research and the conclusions that are drawn.

Figure 1.1 Ways that gender bias may enter each of the stages of the research process.


Source: Created by the authors.

Feminist scholars advocate an important method for overcoming the problems of biased theoretical models and stereotyped research questions: Go to the community of people to be studied and ask them about their lives and what the significant questions are. For example, research on transgender women may be limited if it is conducted by cisgender women working from theories developed by cisgender men. It is better scientific practice to begin by asking transgender women for input on the research design. Theories can be built at a later stage, once a firm foundation has been laid beginning from the women’s own experiences and perspectives.

Bias in Research Design

As shown in Figure 1.1, the next step in psychological research is designing the research. Research methods in psychology can be roughly classified into two categories: laboratory experiments and naturalistic observations. In the experiment, the research participant is brought into the psychologist’s laboratory, and their behavior is manipulated in some way in order to study the phenomenon in question. In contrast, with naturalistic observations, researchers observe people’s behavior as it occurs in naturalistic settings, and they do not attempt to manipulate the behavior. In practice, the distinction between these categories is not so clear-cut. For example, it is possible to conduct an experiment in a naturalistic setting. However, regardless of where an experiment takes place, true experiments must always include (a) the researcher randomly assigning participants to conditions, (b) some kind of experimental control to rule out confounds, and (c) the manipulation of an independent variable.

It is also possible to talk about quasi-experimental designs (quasi meaning “not quite”). This term refers to designs that don’t meet these three criteria. For example, a quasi-experiment might compare two or more groups of participants on their response to a treatment without randomly assigning the participants to the treatment conditions. Thus, studies of gender differences are not true experiments, but rather quasi-experiments, because the researcher cannot randomly assign participants to be male or female.

Quasi-experimental design: A research design that compares two or more groups but is not a true experiment because participants are not randomly assigned to groups; an example is a study comparing men and women.

Some scholars argue that laboratory experiments are inherently gender biased, although this point is controversial (Peplau & Conrad, 1989). This question will be considered in greater detail later in this chapter.

When psychologists study a trait or behavior, they must clearly define it for the purposes of their study, or create an operational definition. Quantitative research methods use operational definitions that involve psychological measurement, or the assignment of numbers to psychological characteristics. Psychological measurement may take many forms. If the researcher wants to measure aggressive behavior in preschool children, the measurement technique may involve having trained observers sit unobtrusively in a preschool classroom and make check marks on a research form every time a child engages in an aggressive act. Here, however, we will concentrate on psychological tests, some of which have been the objects of sharp criticism for problems of gender bias (Baker & Mason, 2010).

Quantitative research methods: Research methods that involve psychological measurement and the use of statistics to analyze data, often with the goal of generalizing from a sample to a population.

Psychological measurement: The processes of assigning numbers to people’s characteristics, such as aggressiveness or intelligence; essential to quantitative methods.

Let’s consider as an example the mathematics portion of the SAT, which is taken widely by high school seniors who are planning to attend college. The SAT Math has been criticized a great deal on the grounds that it is biased against women. In 2015, for example, women taking it scored an average of 496, compared with an average of 527 for men (College Board, 2015). How could such a test be biased against women? One major issue is the content and wording of questions. If the content of an item involves situations that men experience more frequently, or requires knowledge to which men have more access, then the item is gender biased. As an example, consider the following item, which actually appeared on the SAT in 1986:

A high school basketball team has won 40% of its first 15 games. Beginning with the sixteenth game, how many games in a row does the team now have to win in order to have a 55% winning record?

1. 3

2. 5

3. 6

4. 11

5. 15

Men, who tend to have more experience with team sports and computing win-loss records, have an advantage. There is a direct algebraic solution, which a woman could do if she had mastered algebra, but it is time-consuming, and the test is timed. A man might say, “I know that 11 out of 20 is a 55% record. Will that work? Yes. The answer is 5.”

If women score lower than men on a particular psychological test, there often are two possible interpretations: (1) Women are not as skilled at the ability being measured, or (2) the gender difference simply indicates that the test itself contained biased items.

Another area of gender bias in research design has to do with sampling. There is a long history of gender bias in choosing participants for psychological research. Men have been used more frequently as participants than women have been, though the tide is changing. For example, in 1970 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 42% of the articles reported on male-only studies, and in 1990 the percentage was 20% (Gannon et al., 1992). By 2007, women were somewhat overrepresented as research participants in mainstream psychology journals, a pattern that may stem from the overreliance on undergraduate psychology students (who are disproportionately female) as research participants (Cundiff, 2012). The reliance on single-gender samples varies by discipline; while women are now somewhat overrepresented as participants in psychological research, they remain underrepresented as participants in biomedical and neuroscience research (Eagly & Riger, 2014).

Researchers can make a second error that compounds the effects of using an all-male sample: overgeneralization. That is, having used a single-gender sample, the researchers then discuss and interpret the results as if they were true of all people, regardless of their gender.

Overgeneralization: A research error in which the results are said to apply to a broader group than the one sampled, for example, saying that results from an all-male sample are true for all people.

Although psychological research has become less prone to gender bias in sampling, problems remain. Psychologists have been guilty of an overreliance on college student samples, which are typically homogeneous in several ways, including age (most participants are between 18 and 22), race/ethnicity (mostly White), and social class (mostly middle class). Feminist psychologists argue for the importance of recognizing the diversity of human experience. Your family’s ethnic group and social class influenced the environment in which you grew up and therefore influenced your development and behavior. Feminist psychologists urge researchers to use samples that will allow an exploration of ethnic and social class diversity.

Bias in Data Collection

In the step of research in which the data are collected, two important kinds of bias may enter: experimenter effects and observer effects.

Experimenter effects occur when some characteristic of the experimenter affects the way respondents behave and thus affects the outcome of the experiment. For example, in one experiment, a sex survey was administered by either a male or female researcher; men reported more sexual partners when they had a female researcher (Fisher, 2007). In another experiment, a test of rape myth acceptance was administered by a woman who was either provocatively or conservatively dressed (Bryant et al., 2001). Answers to the questionnaire differed significantly depending on the experimenter’s clothing. It is rather disturbing to realize that an experiment might have different outcomes depending on whether the experimenter was a man or a woman, White or a person of color, or dressed in one set of clothes or another.

Experimenter effects: When some characteristics of the experimenter affect the way participants behave and therefore affect the research outcome.

The problem of experimenter effects is not unsolvable. The situation can be handled by having several experimenters—for example, half of them female, half of them male—collect the data. This will minimize any experimenter effects due to the gender of the experimenter and demonstrate whether the gender of the experimenter did have an effect on the participants’ behavior.

Another important bias that may enter at the stage of data collection is observer effects. Observer effects (sometimes also called rater bias) occur when the researcher’s expectations for the outcome of the research influence their observations and recording of the data (Hoyt & Kerns, 1999; Lakes & Hoyt, 2009; R. Rosenthal, 1966). Scientists are no more immune than laypeople to having stereotyped expectations for the behavior of women and men. These stereotyped expectations might lead scientists to find stereotyped gender differences in behavior where there are none. As an example, consider research on gender differences in aggression among preschool children. If observers expect more aggression from boys, that may be just what they observe, even though the boys and the girls behaved identically.

Observer effects: When the researcher’s expectations affect their observations and recording of the data; also called rater bias.

The technical procedure that is generally used to guard against observer effects is the blind study. It simply means that observers are kept unaware of (blind to) which experimental group participants are in so that the observers’ expectations cannot affect the outcome. Unfortunately, the blind method is virtually impossible in gender research, as the gender of a person is usually obvious from appearance, and therefore the observer cannot be blind to it or unaware of it.

One exception is infants and small children, whose gender is notoriously difficult to identify when they are clothed. This fact was used in a clever study that provides some information on whether observer effects do influence gender research. The study is discussed in detail in Chapter 6, but in brief, adults rated the behavior of an infant on a videotape (Condry & Condry, 1976). The infant was dressed in clothing that didn’t signal their gender. Half the observers were told the infant was male and half were told the infant was female. When the infant showed a negative emotional response, those who thought the infant was male tended to rate the emotion as anger, whereas those who thought the infant was female rated “her” as showing fear. The observers rated behavior differently depending on whether they thought they were observing a male or female infant.

Photo 1.6 If all researchers look like him, experimenter effects are likely.



Bias in Interpretation of Results

Once the scientist has collected the data and analyzed them statistically, the results must be interpreted. Sometimes the interpretation a scientist makes is at best a large leap of faith away from the results. Therefore, this is also a stage at which gender bias may enter (Hegarty & Pratto, 2010).

As an example, let us consider a fairly well-documented phenomenon of psychological gender differences. A class of students takes its first exam in Introductory Psychology. Immediately after taking the exam, but before getting the results back, the students are asked to estimate how many points (out of a possible 100) they got on the exam. On average, men will estimate that they got higher scores than women will estimate they got (see Chapter 3). At this point, the data have been collected and analyzed statistically. It can be stated (neutrally) that there are statistically significant gender differences, with men estimating more points than women. The next question is this: How do we interpret that result? The standard interpretation is that the result indicates that women lack self-confidence or have low confidence in their abilities. The interpretation that is not made, although it is just as logical, is that men have unrealistically high expectations for their own performance.

The point is that, given a statistically significant gender difference, such a result can often be interpreted in two opposite ways, one of which is favorable to men and one of which is favorable to women. A persistent tendency has existed in psychology to make interpretations that are favorable to men; these interpretations are essentially based on a female deficit model.

Female deficit model: A theory or interpretation of research in which women’s behavior is seen as deficient.

Sometimes there is no way of verifying which interpretation is right. As it happens in the example above, there is a way, because we can find out how the students actually did on the exam. Those results indicate that women and girls underestimate their scores by about as much as men and boys overestimate theirs (D. Cole et al., 1999; Mednick & Thomas, 1993). Thus, the second interpretation is as accurate as the first.

Becoming sensitive to the point at which scientists go beyond their data to interpret them, and becoming aware of when those interpretations may be biased, is extremely important. Another example of bias in interpretations occurs in research on gender differences in language (Chapter 5).

Bias in Publishing Findings

Once the data have been analyzed and interpreted, the next step is to publish the findings. There is a strong tendency in psychological research to publish significant results only. This does not necessarily mean significant in the sense of important; it means significant in the sense of being the result of a statistical test that reaches the .05 level of significance. In other words, it means that if the study were repeated, there would be a less than 5% chance that the results would be different.

Why does it matter if we publish only significant findings in the psychology of gender? It means that there is a tendency to report statistically significant gender differences and to omit mention of gender similarities and nonsignificant gender differences. That is, we tend to hear about it when men and women differ, but we tend not to hear about it when men and women are the same. Thus there would be a bias toward emphasizing gender differences and ignoring gender similarities.

This bias may also enter into psychology of women and gender research when results are inconsistent with gender stereotypes or gender roles, for example, research on menstrual cycle mood fluctuations (a point to be discussed in detail in Chapter 11).

Bias Against Female Scientists

If there is a tendency for reports by female scientists to be considered less authoritative than reports by male scientists, this would introduce bias, particularly when combined with bias due to experimenter effects, as discussed previously. Evidence of such a gender bias might include the underrepresentation of women as lead authors of scientific journal articles and conference presentations. Research on the extent of this problem has produced mixed results (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006; Meredith, 2013; Swim et al., 1989), suggesting that bias against female scientists doesn’t happen consistently. One analysis of over 8 million journal articles published across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities examined the representation of women as authors. The representation of women varied by fields, such that math and philosophy had the lowest percentage of women authors while demography, sociology, and education had the highest (J. D. West et al., 2013). In addition, the analysis found that the representation of women has been improving over time: From 1965 to 1989, only 15% of authors were women, but from 1990 to 2012, 27% of authors were women. A similar trend appears in psychology: From 1965 to 1974, only 12% of the articles in Journal of Abnormal Psychology had a woman as first author; by 1995—2004 that number had risen to 30% (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006). Thus, at least by the measure of women as authors of journal articles, it appears that bias against female scientists is on the decline.

Other Kinds of Gender Biases

Another kind of bias is introduced if scientists have a tendency to remember and use in their work only the studies that conform to their own biases or ideas and to ignore the studies that do not. This tendency would allow for dominant biases (such as bias against women and people of color) to be perpetuated in scientific research. Gender bias and cisgenderism in the language used in reports of psychological research are also a concern. We will address these forms of bias in language in depth in Chapter 5. In addition, research on women has long been considered a specialty or fringe topic, a perception that reflects the male as normative theme (which is discussed later in this chapter). Today, this bias has shifted such that mainstream research includes psychology of women (Eagly et al., 2012) but marginalizes research on people outside the gender binary.

Feminist Alternatives to Biased Research

We have discussed a number of problems with psychological research that may affect our understanding of women and men. Of course, these problems are not present in every study in the area, and certainly we don’t mean to suggest that all psychological research is worthless. The point is to learn to think critically about biases that may or may not be present when you are reading reports of research. Thinking critically about the theoretical orientation of a scientist and about biased interpretations of results is important.

A more general point emerges from this whole discussion of gender bias in research methods in psychology. Traditional psychology has historically viewed itself as an objective and value-free science. Today, many psychologists, feminist psychologists among them, question whether psychological research can be objective and value-free (Peplau & Conrad, 1989). They point out that psychological research might more appropriately be viewed as an interaction between researcher and research participant that occurs in a particular context. The researcher brings to that interaction certain values that may influence the questions asked, the methods used, the results found, and the interpretations made. In short, psychological research cannot be totally objective. Acknowledging our values and reflecting on how they may shape the research process, then, is crucial.

Psychology, of course, is not the only science that has claimed to be objective and value-free when it isn’t. Another example is physics and its groundbreaking discoveries of ways to generate nuclear power. These discoveries can be used to manufacture weapons capable of annihilating thousands, or they can be used to generate electricity for cities. Values are closely connected with science.

Feminist psychologists would say that, while the preceding criticisms are important and you should be aware of them, we need to go beyond those criticisms to offer some constructive alternatives. In doing so, we can think about gender-fair research and feminist research.

Gender-Fair and Feminist Research

Gender-fair research is research that is not guilty of any of the gender biases discussed in the previous sections (Denmark et al., 1988; McHugh et al., 1986). Some characteristics of gender-fair research are as follows:

1. Single-gender research should rarely, if ever, be done. In some situations where a single-gender design might seem justified, the demands for gender fairness and inclusiveness might lead to better understandings. For example, a study exclusively examining women’s mood fluctuations over the menstrual cycle would fail to identify systematic fluctuations in men’s moods.

2. Theoretical models, underlying assumptions, and the kinds of questions asked should always be examined for gender fairness. For example, the minute someone proposes to do research on the effects of mothers’ depression on their children, it also should be asked whether fathers’ depression has an effect on their children. Otherwise, we assume that only mothers influence children and that fathers have no influence, which is unfair to both mothers and fathers.

3. Research teams should be diverse with regard to gender—as well as other social characteristics such as race or ethnicity—to limit experimenter effects.

4. Interpretations of data should always be examined carefully for gender fairness, and possibly several interpretations should be offered. For example, if there is a significant gender difference in the number of points students estimate they will get on an exam, two interpretations should be offered: that women underestimate and lack self-confidence and that men overestimate and have inflated expectations for their performance. In a sense, then, gender-fair research proposes that we continue to play the research game by the same set of rules it has always had—tight controls, careful interpretations, and so on—but that we improve procedures so that the rules are observed fairly.

Gender-fair research: Research that is free of gender bias.

Feminist researchers might argue that we need to go even further in reforming psychological research. There really is no single, comprehensive, definitive statement of the principles of feminist research, but many scholars have made contributions (e.g., Crawford & Kimmel, 1999; Else-Quest & Hyde, 2016; E. B. Kimmel & Crawford, 2001; Rabinowitz & Sechzer, 1993; Reinharz, 1992), and we present some of those ideas here.

Feminist research: Research growing out of feminist theory, which seeks radical reform of traditional research methods.

Some feminist researchers have argued that the classic form of psychological research—the tightly controlled laboratory experiment—needs to be revised. They maintain that it is manipulative, intended to determine how manipulations of the independent variable cause changes in the dependent variable. It objectifies and dehumanizes the people it studies, calling them “subjects.” It strips away the context of behavior, taking people out of their natural environments in order to control all those things the experimenter considers irrelevant. In all these senses—the manipulativeness, the objectification, the context stripping—traditional psychological experimentation might be accused of being masculine or patriarchal.

Feminist research includes several recommendations:

1. Do not manipulate people, but rather observe them in their natural environments and try to determine how they experience their natural lives and worlds.

2. Do not call the people who are studied “subjects,” but rather “participants.” This reaffirms their personhood and agency.

3. When determining the gender of research participants, it is best to follow this two-step method: First, ask participants what gender they were assigned at birth. Next, ask them to designate their gender identity using their own words. This two-step method is more inclusive and more accurate than asking participants to check a box indicating either “male” or “female” as their gender (dickey, Hendricks, & Bockting, 2016).

4. Devote specific research attention to the special concerns of women and members of marginalized groups.

5. Do not think in simple terms of variable A causing effects on variable B, but rather in terms of complex, interactive relationships in which A and B mutually influence each other. Complexity is emphasized.

6. Conduct critical research. That is, conduct research aimed at empowering members of marginalized or oppressed groups (such as women and transgender persons) and eliminating power inequities.

7. Consider diverse and innovative methods for studying human behavior (Crawford, 2013).

8. Keep in mind that scientific research and political activism are not necessarily contradictory activities (Wittig, 1985).

Values affect the scientific theories that are proposed and the way research is done (Rabinowitz & Sechzer, 1993). In particular, they affect the way research is interpreted, a point discussed earlier in the chapter. Readers need to become sensitive to the values expressed by a particular scientific position. At the same time, high-quality research that documents oppressive or harmful conditions and provides a prescription for eliminating inequities can facilitate social change. Psychologists who are engaged in political activism and have social justice as their goal can still do good research; such researchers are obligated to articulate their values, but clearly that is a good rule for all scientists!

One example of innovative methods is the use of qualitative research methods or the combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, known as mixed methods (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Traditional psychological research has largely relied on quantitative methods (Eagly & Riger, 2014)—that is, behavior is studied by converting it to numbers, whether IQ scores or individuals’ ratings of their attitudes toward legal abortion on a scale from 1 (strongly disapprove) to 7 (strongly approve). With qualitative methods, the data are often text, talk, or images. For example, an interviewer may pose open-ended questions in an interview or focus group, record and transcribe the respondent’s answers, and then analyze the answers for themes. In one such study, Watson and her colleagues (2012) interviewed African American women about their experiences of sexual objectification, finding that their experiences were the result of bias based on gender, race, and class. The researchers argued that, since most of the research on sexual objectification had been with White women, African American women’s experiences were marginalized and should be a focus of study. The possibilities of feminist research—using quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods—are limitless and exciting, especially because they can address social inequality.

Qualitative research methods: Research methods that do not use numbers or statistics, but may analyze text, in-depth interviews, participant observations, or focus groups for themes and meaning.

Mixed methods: Research methods that involve both quantitative and qualitative methods.

Both gender-fair research and feminist research can make valuable contributions. While the traditional psychological experiment needs reform, we shouldn’t throw it out entirely. It is most effective when it is combined with naturalistic research examining complex mutual influences. Gender-fair research and feminist research may diverge on some issues, though. For example, feminist researchers would value the investigation of intimate partner violence against women as an issue of special importance. Gender-fair researchers may point out that intimate partner violence may be perpetrated by men and women alike, and that both should be studied. Feminist researchers might reply that intimate partner violence—which is most often perpetrated by men against women—is a gender-based crime and that feminist research should be especially concerned with this systematic form of gender-based oppression. We will revisit this issue in Chapter 14.

Are We Making Progress?

Feminist psychologists began to publish their critiques of traditional research methods more than 45 years ago. Has there been any progress? Have psychologists changed their methods to respond to these criticisms?

Photo 1.7 Today, scholarly journals such as Psychology of Women Quarterly publish empirical research on the psychology of women and gender.


© SAGE Publishing.

Feminism has positively influenced psychology in a number of ways (Eagly & Riger, 2014; Hegarty & Buechel, 2006). Substantial shifts have been made toward nonsexist methods in psychological research. There are more women researchers and more equal representation of women among participants. However, other forms of bias—such as bias against transgender persons and those outside the gender binary—remain. It is critical that we continue monitoring our methods and commit to reducing all forms of bias in our discipline.

Chapter Previews

In the next chapter we will look at the contributions to the understanding of the psychology of women and gender that have been made by some of the major theoretical systems of psychology—psychoanalytic theory, social learning theory, and cognitive-developmental theory. A controversial theory, sociobiology, is examined, as are gender schema theory and feminist theories.

Following these theoretical views, later chapters will focus on research in content areas of the psychology of women and gender. Chapter 3 reviews evidence on gender stereotypes and gender differences to see the ways in which women and men differ and the ways in which they are similar. Chapter 4 examines the scholarship in psychology at the intersection of gender and ethnicity, focusing especially on women of color. Because feminist scholars have emphasized the importance of language, Chapter 5 is about gender and communication—whether there are gender differences in verbal and nonverbal communication and how women and trans or nonbinary people are treated in language. Chapter 6 presents the important new research on gender and emotion. In Chapter 7 we discuss gender development across the lifespan from birth to old age. We look at gender and achievement in Chapter 8 by considering research on gender differences in intellectual abilities and research on achievement in women. Chapter 9 is about gender and work, including discrimination and wage inequity as well as issues involved in balancing work and family roles.

Chapter 10 explores biological influences on gender and behavior, including research on persons who do not fit the gender binary. Chapter 11 discusses psychological research on several key women’s health issues, including menstruation, abortion, and breast cancer, as well as transgender health issues. Chapter 12 explores gender and sexuality, including research on the physiology of sexual response and research on gender similarities and differences in sexuality.

Chapter 13 is about the intersection of gender and sexual orientation. Chapter 14 centers on gender-based violence as seen in rape, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, child sexual abuse, and human trafficking, including the victimization of transgender persons. Chapter 15 considers mental health concerns that show gender disparities (such as depression and eating disorders) and feminist therapies.

In Chapter 16 we examine the psychology of men and masculinity from a feminist perspective. The final chapter discusses historical shifts and trends in the conceptualization of gender within psychology and social backlash against feminist progress.

Experience the Research: Understanding Gender Bias in Psychological Research

Design an experiment to determine whether adults are more likely to help a 4-year-old child who is crying and apparently lost, depending on whether the adult is alone and there are no other adults close by (no bystander condition) or there are other adults present (bystander condition). Design two versions of the experiment. First, create the experiment as a traditional, prefeminist psychologist might have done. Then, using Figure 1.1, make a list of all the examples of gender bias in the research. Finally, re-create the experiment to correct all the elements of gender bias so that it will meet the standards for gender-fair research.

Chapter Summary

The psychology of women and gender is an exciting and constantly evolving field. Similarly, language on gender continues to evolve. Terms such as sex, gender, transgender, cisgender, gender binary, and genderqueer are important and used throughout this book. Table 1.1 clarifies many of these terms.

A chief concern in the psychology of women and gender is sexism. Sexism and its variations have changed over time, from old-fashioned sexism to modern sexism. Psychologists study sexism and its impact on psychological phenomena.

A feminist is a person who favors political, economic, and social equality of all people, regardless of gender, and therefore favors the legal and social changes necessary to achieve gender equality. We are currently in the fourth wave of feminism.

There are several pervasive themes in the psychology of women and gender. The male-as-normative theme results in women and nonbinary people being marginalized, ignored, or devalued. Androcentrism also fuels a lopsided emphasis on gender differences, despite evidence that women and men are both different and similar. In addition, critiquing the gender binary and analyzing gender with an intersectional approach are contemporary themes that challenge traditional approaches in psychology. We revisit these themes throughout this book.

Gender bias can shape the design of research, including the type of methods, measures, and sample used. Experimenter effects and observer effects can alter the outcome of research, and results may be interpreted with a female deficit model. There are many feminist alternatives to sexist research, and nonsexist research methods are now more commonly used.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Anderson, Kristin J. (2015). Modern misogyny: Anti-feminism in a post-feminist era. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Anderson, a social psychologist, lays out the evidence for why feminism is as important today as ever.

Caplan, Paula J., & Caplan, Jeremy B. (2009). Thinking critically about research on sex and gender (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon. This brief book includes a feminist critique of several major areas of psychological research on women and provides helpful guides for critical thinking about research.