The Measurement of Masculinity and Femininity: Historical Perspective and Implications for Counseling. (Assessment & Diagnosis)

Article excerpt

Like most psychological constructs, masculinity and femininity are abstract concepts. Yet, for several decades researchers have been unsuccessful in adequately measuring masculinity and femininity, which suggests that these constructs may be more elusive than most (Constantinople, 1973; Lewin, 1984b; Spence, 1993, 1999). Nonetheless, there are numerous instruments and scales designed to assess femininity and masculinity that are widely used today by a range of individuals from researchers in counseling, psychology, and education to human resource personnel. Unfortunately, exactly what is being assessed is often given only cursory consideration by researchers and consumers alike, resulting in potentially misleading conclusions and assumptions about those individuals whose masculinity and femininity are under scrutiny.

Why bother to critique existent measures of masculinity and femininity or to spend time developing new ones? Why are these concepts important for counselors? The answer to the first question rests partially with the fact that research abounds in which participants' "masculinity" and "femininity" are examined in relation to other characteristics and behaviors (cf. Beere, 1990). Given that such research is so extensive, it is imperative that we are clear about what we are measuring. Unfortunately, the majority of masculinity and femininity measures define these terms only stereotypically, thereby negating or disallowing personal interpretations of what it means to be male or female. To illustrate, individual women and men may derive a sense of their femininity or masculinity from many sources (Spence, 1985). For example, in contemporary society in which rigid, traditional gender role prescriptions have been widely challenged for over three decades, a woman may consider her strength to be part of her femininity, although this may not be viewed as a traditional "feminine" characteristic. Similarly, a man may conceive of his masculinity as including his nurturing of his children (as does gender studies scholar Kimmel, 2000, p. 266), despite the fact that this is not representative of the "traditional" masculine image.

Why are masculinity and femininity important concepts for counselors to think about? Women, men, boys, and girls are constantly dealing with gender-related issues. Consciously and unconsciously, people (particularly young people) continually assess and redefine their identities as females and males and are affected by subtle pressures to maintain gender-stereotypical attitudes and behaviors that devalue both sexes and negatively affect women, men, and society. Counselors are in a key position to facilitate healthy development in this area. Thus, counselors need to examine what masculinity and femininity mean, both to themselves and to their clients.

This article examines the history of masculinity and femininity measurement, beginning with the work of Terman and Miles (1936), whose focus on "masculinity-femininity" brought gender-related measurement to the forefront of psychological research, and culminating with an overview of current trends in gender measurement research. Despite extensive criticism and the development of newer measures, the gender role orientation instruments that were developed in the 1970s remain quite popular today, and I focus specific attention on them, particularly the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI; Bem, 1974). Masculinity and femininity measures cannot be discussed independently of the theory behind them; thus, I review various theoretical perspectives of masculinity and femininity. In addition, I consider the challenges of responding to the criticisms of masculinity and femininity measurement as well as the need for alternative approaches. Finally, I explore the meaning of these challenges for counselors and offer cautions as well as suggestions for practice, research, and training.

MEASUREMENT OF MASCULINITY AND FEMININITY (1920s-1970s)

Until the mid-1970s, it was commonly believed that masculinity-femininity was bipolar and unifactorial (Bem, 1981 a; Spence, 1993). …