No human judgment is value free. All of our ideas are “filtered through our cultural and social categories, on an ongoing social context and our own social rank.” (Weisstein, 1993). Is psychology gender blind or are we beginning to focus too much on differences between males and females instead of focusing on human nature as a whole like earlier research has done. Early research into psychology and human nature did not focus on differences between genders and moreover some psychologists did not believe that the gender of their samples impacted the results of their research. Were their reasons, perhaps, influenced by the patriarchal society in which they lived? Femaleness in the past was, after all, seen as deviant. The norm in andocentric Western society was male and anything different was sub-altern.
Feminism and feminist issues are most often associated with society, politics and literature. It is however, pertinent to the study of psychology. As with many disciplines, psychology has largely been a study of and by white, middle class males in western society. This is an imbalance which needs to be addressed. Feminist psychology does just this.
It was not until the mid seventies that the first inclusion on the psychology of women was published by Mary Parlee in The Annual Review of Psychology (Stewart & Dottoio, 2006). Parlee, like many of her contemporaries, focused on the impact that feminism was having on psychology. Henley, (1985), reviewed patterns of development within feminist psychology in relation to mainstream psychology. She concluded that while there were empirical developments in feminist psychology there was still a need for a broader feminist theory to be introduced to psychological research.
In any discussion of Gender bias in Psychology it is important to examine the approaches to both sexes. There has always been some degree of androcentrism in psychology. Many of the seminal studies in psychology were carried out b men on men, with the findings being generalised to the population as a whole. Gender differences were translated into female differences with masculine traits and charactistics taken as the norm. Gergen, (2001), posited that many of these popular findings could have an alternative conclusion; an example of this would be the finding that women have lower self esteem than men. This could however be argued that men are simply more consisted than women, so too would the finding that women do not value their efforts as much as men do which could translate as men over valuing their work. Another issue with research is the desk drawer problem where studies that do not find differences or confirm similarities are simply not published. This raises the question of the relevance within the discipline of psychology of these gender differences and whether an acrogenous approach may serve us better.
Sandra Bern, an influential figure in feminist psychology sense the 1970s argued against the categories of masculinity and femininity as normative and descriptive and suggested in its place psychological androgyny. She challenged the conventional gendering of people and critiqued the traditional view within mental health which equated a healthy identity with femininity in women and masculinity in men. Her enculturated lens theory, attempts to explain how gender identity is based on culture. She suggested that “we must reframe the debate on sexual inequality so that it focuses not on the differences between women and men but on how male cantered discourses and institutions transform male/female difference into female disadvantage” (Bern, p. 201,1993). Interestingly, this female disadvantage could according to West & Zimmerman, (1987), explain many of the popular female personality traits such as low self esteem as being the result of powerlessness and not the cause.
There is no doubt that early research in the field of psychology was indeed gender biased. Today, however, this gender bias is being combated in many ways. There are more women working in the field of psychology than ever before and it is my belief that they are more sensitive to gender bias that their male counterparts and therefore implement measures in their research that allow for gender bias. The roles of women in society, especially in Western cultures have broadened significantly over the past fifty years. This is clear when one recalls the media portrayal of women in the immediate post war era. The good little woman was engaged solely in roles of housewife and mother. Today the first lady in America is recognised for more than her role as the President’s wife, and mother to his (one should say their) children. We now have countless examples of strong, educated, powerful and dynamic women in all sectors of society. These women and their achievements are testament to the radical change in both the variety of availability and the public perceptions of female roles in 21st Century society. The paucity of studies to date which examine and confirm gender differences is impressive in both its depth and breadth. Now that the question of gender difference is no longer an issue it remains only to continue to redress the balance which once, so heavily, favoured men and all things male.
- Bern, S. (1999). The Lessons of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. Yale University Press: CT.
- Gergen, M, (2001). Feminist Reconstruction in Psychology: Narrative, Gender and Performance. Sage: CA.
- Parlee, M.B., (1975). Psychology, Signs, 9, 119 – 138.
- Stewart, A.J., & Dottoio, A.L., (2006). Feminist Psychology, Signs, 31, 493 – 513.
- · Weisstein, N., (1993). Psychology Constructs the Female; or the Fantasy Life of the Male Psychologist (with Some Attention to the Fantasies of his Friends, the Male Biologist and the Male Anthropologist). Feminism and Psychology, 3, 2, 194 – 210.
- West, C., & Zimmerman, D.H., (1987). Doing Gender, Gender and Society, 1, 2, 125 – 151.