The term androgyny is derived from the Greek andro (man) and gyne (woman). The popular conception of androgyny is a blend of male and female characteristics or a person who is neither male nor female. Psychological androgyny refers to men and women who exhibit both masculine and feminine attributes.
Androgyny Background and History
Psychologists have measured masculinity and femininity, along with other important personality traits, since the early 20th century. These early tests were developed by identifying items that reflected differences in men’s and women’s responses. For example, the masculinity-femininity scale of the original Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory included items that male participants endorsed as being descriptive of their personality attributes. At that time, psychologists shared the Western cultural assumption that mentally healthy men were masculine and mentally healthy women were feminine. Therefore, it was expected that male participants would have higher masculinity scores than would female participants.
These early tests measured masculinity-femininity as a single dimension, with masculinity at one end of a continuum and femininity at the other end of the continuum. Therefore, the higher participants would score on masculinity, the lower they would score on femininity. Likewise, the higher participants would score on femininity, the lower they would score on masculinity. It was impossible to score high on both masculinity and femininity.
In the 1970s, many psychologists criticized these traditional tests. This criticism paralleled a shift in Western cultural assumptions about men, women, and traditional sex role socialization. During that time, Sandra Lipsitz Bem designed a new psychological test, the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). The BSRI was designed to address some of the criticisms of the traditional masculinity-femininity tests. Instead of items selected on the basis of sex differences in participants’ responses, the BSRI contains items that male and female participants rated as desirable for American men and women. The masculinity scale consists of items that were rated as slightly more socially desirable for men (e.g., aggressive and ambitious). The femininity scale consists of items that were rated as slightly more socially desirable for women (e.g., affectionate and cheerful). Moreover, the BSRI assesses masculinity and femininity as independent, separate dimensions. Male and female participants can score high on masculinity and low on femininity (traditional masculinity), low on masculinity and high on femininity (traditional femininity), high on both masculinity and on femininity (androgynous), and low on both masculinity and femininity (undifferentiated). These latter two groups were impossible to identify with the early psychological tests.
Sex-Role Flexibility and Mental Health
Research on androgyny has addressed two questions based on Western cultural assumptions about socialization to traditional sex roles: psychological adjustment and mental health. One line of research has tested the hypothesis that socializing men and women to traditional masculine or feminine sex roles would lead to rigidity and restricted behavior in many social situations. Because androgynous people have masculine and feminine attributes, they should have the flexibility to adapt to situations that require masculine or feminine behaviors. One series of studies, for example, found that androgynous men and women were more nurturing toward an infant than were masculine men and women. Moreover, androgynous men and women performed better in another experimental situation that required independence than did feminine men and women. In another study, masculine men and feminine women were more likely to choose an experimental activity that was appropriate for their sex (e.g., oiling squeaky hinges on a metal box vs. mixing infant formula and preparing a bottle) than were androgynous men and women. Moreover, masculine men and feminine women reported feeling worse after performing a sex-inappropriate activity than did androgynous men and women.
Other studies have addressed the relationship of androgyny, psychological adjustment, and mental health. Whereas some studies have found androgynous people to have higher self-esteem than traditional masculine or feminine people, the results of other studies are contradictory or mixed. An extensive review of published studies in the area concluded that androgynous and masculine men and women scored higher on several indices of mental health than did feminine men and women. However, statistical analyses indicated that it is the masculinity component of androgyny that is related to mental health rather than the unique combination of masculinity and femininity. The researchers attribute these findings to the psychological benefits masculine men and women enjoy in a culture that encourages assertiveness, competence, and independence.
Psychological tests like the BSRI are an important improvement upon the tests constructed in the early 20th century. However, critics assert that because masculinity and femininity consist of a multitude of dimensions, these tests are inadequate. Other critics assert that tests such as the BSRI measure two important dimensions that are characteristic of sex roles across cultures: Masculinity items measure instrumental attributes (representing agency and independence), and femininity items measure expressive attributes (representing nurturance and warmth). Finally, Bem has changed her views on psychological androgyny. She believes that masculine or feminine people think about the world from the perspective of gender, whereas androgynous men and women do not.
- Bem, S. L. (1975). Sex role adaptability: One consequence of psychological androgyny. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 634-643.
- Bem, S. L. (1984). Androgyny and gender schema theory: A conceptual and empirical integration. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Vol. 32, pp. 179-226). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Bem, S. L. (1987). Probing the promise of androgyny. In M. R. Walsh (Ed.), The psychology of women: Ongoing debates (pp. 206-222). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Spence, J. T., & Buckner, C. E. (2000). Instrumental and expressive traits, trait stereotypes, and sexist attitudes: What do they signify? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24, 44-62.