Feminine traits, those characteristically associated with women, include helpfulness to others, gentleness, warmth, and emotionality. Masculine traits, stereotypically associated with men, include assertiveness, self-reliance, achievement orientation, and independence. Traditionally, psychologists viewed femininity and masculinity as opposite roles of a single bipolar continuum: the more feminine a person was, the less masculine that person could be.
In the 1970s, Sandra Bem and other psychologists, such as Janet Spence and her colleagues, began to challenge the bipolarity assumption. They conceptualized femininity and masculinity as two independent dimensions, rather than as one dimension in which masculinity and femininity were mutually exclusive. According to this view, individuals can show any combination of female-stereotypic and male-stereotypic characteristics. A high degree of one does not imply a low degree of the other.
Individuals, female or male, who exhibit high levels of both feminine and masculine personality traits are said to demonstrate androgyny. People who have many masculine traits but few feminine ones are termed masculine; those with many feminine but few masculine characteristics are labeled feminine. Individuals who show few feminine and few masculine traits are designated as undifferentiated.
A number of tests have been constructed to measure femininity and masculinity. The two most widely used instruments are the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), developed by Sandra Bem, and the Personal Attributes Questionnaire (PAQ), developed by Janet Taylor Spence and her colleagues. These instruments, both published in 1974, ask participants to indicate the extent to which various personality traits apply to them. The traits used in these tests are virtually all positive. Each of these tests yields both a femininity score and a masculinity score.
Bem has hypothesized that androgynous individuals are more flexible and adaptable than others, able and willing to engage in either feminine or masculine behaviors as the situation requires. For example, the androgynous woman or man could successfully close a tough business deal at work and also be a nurturing spouse and parent at home. Furthermore, because androgynous individuals can summon a wider range of behaviors to meet the challenges of life, they should enjoy advantages in mental health and psychological adjustment.
There is a good deal of evidence that androgynous children, adolescents, and adults are better adjusted than are masculine, feminine, or undifferentiated peers. For example, androgynous adolescents, compared with other adolescents, have better social relations and greater self-esteem, and they are more likely to have resolved identity crises.
Some research, however, has found little or no difference between androgynous and masculine individuals. Several studies, for example, have found that androgynous and masculine individuals are equally high in self-esteem. Apparently, it is high masculinity and not the specific combination of high masculinity and high femininity that is strongly related to wellbeing and self-esteem. What might account for the positive relationship between masculinity and psychological adjustment? One possible reason is that masculine characteristics have broader adaptive significance for an individual than do feminine characteristics. Another related hypothesis is that masculine traits are more highly valued in Western society than are feminine traits. Thus, people with masculine traits may feel more positive about their ability to function effectively.
The contribution of femininity to overall adjustment is less clear than that of masculinity. Femininity appears to have little or no effect on the adjustment of women. However, highly feminine men appear more poorly adjusted than highly masculine men. This may result from the greater cultural pressure placed on men than women to conform to their socially expected role. A more recent notion about the contributions of femininity and masculinity to adjustment is the differentiated androgyny model. According to this view, the context of the situation or behavior is critical in determining the relative importance of femininity and masculinity to an individual’s self-esteem. For example, high femininity can be an asset to both women and men in social interactions and in some occupations such as nursing and special education.
The past three decades have witnessed major changes in the incidence of masculinity and androgyny among college students. During the 1970s, female college students were more likely than their male peers to score high on femininity, and males were more likely to get high scores on masculinity. About one third of females and males were rated androgynous. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in masculinity and androgyny among women and a slight increase among men. Moreover, women and men no longer differ on several traits previously classified as masculine, such as being assertive, ambitious, active, independent, or self-reliant; defending one’s beliefs; and acting as a leader. These changes most likely are a result of societal shifts in women’s roles and status in the past few decades. Opportunities for girls to develop masculine-typed traits have expanded significantly in the spheres of sports, education, and employment. Although women have been encouraged to become agentic, men have not been as encouraged to become communal. Such findings bring into question the validity of the masculine and feminine dimensions of instruments such as the BSRI and PAQ, which were developed 30 years ago. We also cannot assume that findings based on undergraduate college students are generalizable to other segments of society.
When the psychological measurement of androgyny was introduced in the 1970s, it was received enthusiastically by feminist scholars. It replaced the notion that psychological health required that females be feminine and that males be masculine. By embodying socially desirable traits for both females and males, androgyny seemed to imply the absence of gender stereotyping. Moreover, by incorporating both feminine and masculine behaviors, androgyny appeared to broaden the scope of behaviors that can be used to handle different situations and thus lead to more flexible and adaptive behaviors.
Although androgyny continues to be viewed by feminist scholars as more positive than restrictions to either femininity or masculinity, several criticisms have been leveled against this concept. One criticism is that the instruments used are too narrow to be considered comprehensive measures of femininity and masculinity. For example, some researchers note that only socially desirable agentic and communal traits are measured. Others have noted that the concepts of femininity and masculinity may mean different things to women and men. In addition, white and African American women do not define femininity in the same way. Thus, instruments such as the BSRI and PAQ, at best, measure only one component of whatever ways masculinity and femininity are defined in different populations.
Another criticism is that the notion of androgyny, similar to the bipolar differentiation of femininity and masculinity, is based on the division of gender into female-stereotypic and male-stereotypic characteristics. Rather than making traits gender neutral, androgyny involves the combination of gender-specific orientations. Some theorists have suggested that androgyny should be viewed as a transcendence of gender roles, rather than emphasizing some balance between feminine and masculine traits.
An additional concern is that androgyny might be erecting unrealistic goals for individuals by requiring that people be competent in both the communal and agentic domains. In a sense, such expectations restrict, rather than expand, the range and flexibility of individuals’ behavioral choices.
A further criticism of androgyny is that the concept does not deal with masculinity and femininity in their unequal cultural context. It neither acknowledges nor attempts to eliminate the greater cultural value placed on male activities. A related concern is that androgyny will not lead to the elimination of gender inequality, a goal that requires societal rather than personal change. That is, the mere existence of individuals with both feminine and masculine traits does not alter the patriarchal power structure in society.
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