Sandra Bem’s Gender Schema Theory Explained


Core gender identity can be associated to a person’s physical characteristics, but how that information is perceived depends on how an individual is able to interpret certain types of gender-associated information. We have networks of information that allow for some data to be more easily assimilated than other data.

Sandra Bem’s gender schema theory makes the case for there being individualized differences in the amount of data that is assimilated and the degree to how much importance is placed on the interpretation of that data.

What Is Sex-Typing in the Gender Schema Theory?

An individual undergoes sex-typing, which influences their core gender identity potentially as much as their physical gender. Several different influences can have an effect on the core gender identity a person has through this sex-typing. Typical influences may involve parental attitudes, religious perspectives, media reports, educational opportunities, and cultural information.

Sandra Bem offers four different categories into which an individual may fall into with her gender schema theory.

  • Sex-typed individuals.
  • Cross-sex-typed individuals.
  • Androgynous individuals.
  • Undifferentiated individuals.

People who are sex-typed individuals will process and then integrate information that is consistent with their physical gender. Cross-sex-typed individuals integrate and process information that is in line with the opposite of their physical gender.

Androgynous individuals would be able to process data and then integrate traits that are found in both genders. Undifferentiated individuals would struggle to process information from either gender.

How Gender Schema Theory Addresses Stereotypes

Sandra Bem’s gender schema theory is not trying to discuss the content of gender or how people apply gender to their personal lives. It is a theory of process instead, looking to explain why there are certain differences in gender despite the presence of socially-ingrained stereotypes. By understanding this process, it becomes possible to identify the data processing preferences an individual may have so they can better adapt to society at a personal level.

Bem theorizes that children are given multiple dimensions of data which will lead them to a general regulation of gender-specific behaviors. The schematas that exist cause children to identify as being male, female, both, or neither. Each category then offers a sub-schema that focus on gender attraction.

Bem believed that the development of a heterosexuality sub-schema helped to reinforce the idea that people are either male or female in gender. For those who fit into a different information processing category, society rejects them because the benchmark for proper gender identification of male or female comes from the sub-schemata of heterosexuality.

If homosexuality was considered the primary “societal norm,” then Bem’s theory shows that the opposite effect would occur. The definition of masculinity and femininity would be based on same-gender attractions, which would cause society to reject the heterosexual information processing which occurs.

What the Gender Schema Theory Means for Today’s Children

Sandra Bem often recommended that parents reduce the amount of sex-typing information that is available to their children. Bem even changed how children’s books were read to her family, creating more of a gender-neutral approach. The recommendation was to limit any media or school influences as much as possible so that children could identify and then implement their own perception of gender without an outside influence.

The goal of the theory, however, was to raise the public consciousness of the male-female dichotomy that exists in many societal frameworks today. It is incorporated in curriculums, entertainment, religious services, and even within the home. Bem believed that if gender had a lesser influence on society, then gender schemas would have less of an influence, which would then promote a greater level of equality.

Bem also suggests that if children are unable to be completely independent in their sex-typing process, an alternative sub-schemata could be presented to children that approached individualized differences. Learning to process information on a personal basis changes how gender is seen in society because each person is able to create their own definition of male, female, both, or neither.

In doing so, this would create less of a moral outrage when one person encounters a gender identity that is different than their own.

How Relevant is Sandra Bem’s Gender Schema Theory Today?

The legacy of Bem’s theory has not had a lasting impact on the perspective of gender. It has helped people to identify that there can be multiple interpretations of how people see gender, but it does not incorporate different forms of physical gender that exist. 1 in an estimated 2,000 births in the United States, for example, can be classified as “intersex,” or having distinguishing features of male and female gender at the same time.

Sex-typing may have influence in how people process information, there are broader sociological theories that come into favor regarding the psychology of gender. Even so, the fact that we can recognize individualized differences in one another is a step toward helping all of us accept one another for who we are instead of what society expects each of us to be.