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date: 10 April 2021

The Social Psychology of Sex and Genderfree

  • Peter HegartyPeter HegartyDepartment of Psychology, University of Surrey
  •  and Emma SarterEmma SarterUniversité Catholique de Louvain

Summary

Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, gender became an important topic in U.S. social psychology, raising questions about the conceptual relationship between “sex” and “gender.” A second-wave feminist project to describe differences between women and men as previously exaggerated and currently changeable was aligned with social psychology’s emphasis on the distorting power of stereotypes and the strong influence of immediate situations on human behavior. Feminism and social psychology both suggested psychology could foment social transformation, and the authors and participants of psychological research have undoubtedly become far less “womanless” in the past half-century. By the late 1980s several incommensurate social psychologies of gender existed, creating debates about the meaning of emphasizing gender differences and similarities and the gendered social psychology of psychological science itself. However, psychology remained largely a “white space” in the 1970s and 1980s, which were also “difficult decades” in transgender history. The increasing recognition of intersectional feminism and trans-affirmative perspectives in the 2010s set the context for regarding this history from different contemporary standpoints.

Introduction

In a useful history of social psychological research on gender, the U.S. social psychologists Monica Biernat and Kay Deaux note that gender was absent from the 1954 and 1968 handbooks of social psychology published in their country, but was the subject of its own chapter in the handbooks published between 1985 and 2010 (Biernat & Deaux, 2012). Between the late 1960s and the 1980s social psychology’s scope expanded, in the United States, from one that did not recognize gender to one that did. The span from the late 1960s into the 1980s, considered here, is but one possible time frame. Indeed, Biernat and Deaux (2012) reported their surprise to discover that, unlike the 1954 and 1968 handbooks, Carl Murchison’s 1935 handbook included a lengthy chapter on the psychology of sex by psychologist Catharine Cox Miles (1935). Miles emphasized the multifactorial elements of “sex” and sexuality research, while she challenged her mentor Lewis Terman’s ideas about the greater variability of traits among men than women (Hegarty, 2012; Shields, 1982). Miles (1935) used such terms as “sex role,” “masculinity,” and “femininity,” but not “gender.” The term did not yet exist in its contemporary sense, but the content of her chapter might reasonably be retrospectively understood as gender. Several narratives about the history we focus on here can be told from the present, the desires that animated research on the social psychology of gender in the past could be described as both scientific and as political. Locating the beginning and end of this historical event, like any other, shapes its narrative and politics (White, 1973).

Historical distance from Miles (1935) prompts the question of when and how “gender”—defined in opposition to “sex”—took its form in psychology. Primary psychological terms, such as memory, are those in use before psychologists got hold of them, while secondary terms, such as schizophrenia, are those coined by psychologists themselves (Benjafield, 2012). Surprisingly, gender is a secondary term, used first by psychologist John Money and colleagues in the mid-1950s within clinical guidelines for the psychological management of children with intersex sex characteristics (Money et al., 1955a, 1955b). Money’s psychology was a product of its time, the postwar period when women were more absent from the discipline of psychology than in earlier or later cohorts. Both Konrad Lorenz’s studies of imprinting and Walter Cannon’s cybernetic concept of feedback informed Money’s particular understanding that a child’s gender identity/role could be open to feedback from parental socialization, but only within a narrow window of developmental time after birth (see Gill-Peterson, 2018; Morland, 2015). During the 1960s, psychoanalyst Robert Stoller (1968) of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Gender Identity Clinic distinguished private “gender identity” from public “gender role,” and “gender identity” (an unshakeable sense of being masculine or feminine) from “core gender identity” (an unshakable sense of being male or female). The concepts of “gender,” and these psychologically differentiated aspects of it, could flexibly accommodate multiple biological, social, and psychoanalytic understandings (see Meyerowitz, 2004; Stryker, 2017). This concept of gender also informed early feminist critiques in and of psychology. For example, Naomi Weisstein (1968) cited Money in support of the point that “one will consider oneself male or female depending simply on whether one was defined and raised as male or female.”

Theories of gender in women’s studies research of the late 1960s and early 1970s were similarly shaped by social conditions and engagement with a preexisting paradigm, called the gender identity paradigm (Haraway, 1991; Linden, 1981). Concepts of gender emerging from gender identity clinics were part of this context. The bestselling book, Man and Woman, Boy and Girl, by Money and Ehrhardt (1972) drew extensively on Money’s case histories of people with intersex characteristics to popularize a theory of how biological programming, influenced by familial socialization, created women and men with male and female gender identities. In this paradigm, “sex” (the biological stuff) held priority over “gender” (the social/cultural stuff), only two physical sex categories or gender identities could be recognized, and gender identity and sex category had to be aligned to be legitimized. However, when difference was not explicitly in question, then men and male were the assumed norm, such that being a woman and having a gender, or being female and having a sex were conflated. Since around 2015, theories of gender/sex in psychology recognize both “gender” and “sex” as multifactorial, existing in relationships more complex than the script of competitive interactionism between the individual and the social suggests, and—as the less usual binomial word order implies—that gender can be causally primary to sex (Fausto-Sterling, 2019; Hyde et al., 2019; Van Anders, 2015). Principally because of the strides made by transgender people for recognition in the 21st century, the consequences of assuming that sex is always primary to gender are under increasing scrutiny in psychology and in the cultures in which psychologists most often operate.

“Gender” was a concept with radical potential. During the 1970s, mostly White women were breaking into all-male spaces of power, including psychology departments, and forcing the recognition of workplace gender inequality. Psychology departments were cultures ironically characterized by the same dynamics of structural inequality that social psychologists described in their research. Psychology and second-wave feminism formed in interaction. Through consciousness-raising, for example, women theorized everyday experiences understood and interpreted as individual “psychological” problems as political effects of patriarchy (Herman, 1995; Ruck, 2015). The 1969 American Psychological Association (APA) convention included a panel on the psychology of women for the first time and books and readers on the psychology of women were published in the early 1970s. A Division for the Psychology of Women was established in 1973 (Denmark et al., 2007). Several oral histories collected by the Psychology’s Feminist Voices project exemplify how women who chose to research gender differences, roles, and stereotypes risked being belittled by male colleagues who considered their research to be trivial (see also Cherry, 1995). Feminist psychologists sought to resist the sexism supported by biologically and psychologically determinist concepts of sex, asserting that gender was socialized, variable, and hence unexpectedly malleable (Unger, 1979). In the period between the 1968 and 1985 handbooks, new journals provided venues for social psychological research on gender, particularly Sex Roles in 1975 and Psychology of Women Quarterly in 1976. A critique of psychology’s claim to be an objective, value-neutral, and benevolent discipline was implicit or explicit in calls for change (Sherif, 1979; Unger, 1983).

This history will focus on the United States, but should not be read as an argument that social psychology’s cultures were elsewhere less gendered. For instance, Henri Tajfel’s group at Bristol, built with funding from the U.S. Social Science Research Council (Schruijer, 2012), created more impact on social psychology than any European research group through their development of social identity theory. The theory was applied to labor relations, language groups, nationalism, and race, but Tajfel’s writings contain almost no mention of gender, and social identity theory developed in a context in which sexual harassment was tolerated (Brown, 2020; Young & Hegarty, 2019).

As several stocktaking content analyses of the field have pointed out, psychology has become a less androcentric discipline since the 1960s (see e.g., Eagly & Riger, 2014; Eagly et al., 2012; Gannon et al., 1992; Kite et al., 2001). In particular, women are vastly more common authors of research papers than before, are more often faculty members, prizewinners, and journal editors, and often outnumber men among study participants. Feminist concepts such as intimate partner violence have become mainstream. Social psychology has been central to this transformation. Almost a quarter of research on gender, women, and sex differences that is archived on the APA’s research database PsycInfo is tagged as relevant to “social processes and social issues.” Social psychological research unsettles default attributions of differences between women and men to biological sex suggesting an influence of ‘social’ gender instead. This move fit well with U.S. social psychologists’ claims that human social behavior was organized by situations and social roles to an extent that was underappreciated by common sense, by virtue of the influence of stereotypes and other social cognitions (Ross & Nisbett, 1991).

However, as Eagly et al. (2012) have documented, few research publications on women, and on gender and sex differences in psychology have an explicitly feminist orientation; most employ the standard post-positivist hypothesis-testing approach normative within psychology (Eagly et al., 2012). This observation is not new. By the mid-1980s, social psychological research on gender published in Psychology of Women Quarterly was more often authored by women, more often researched only women participants, and less often used experiments than research published in the more prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Lykes & Stewart, 1986). Crawford and Marecek (1989) described the psychological research on women and gender in the 1970s and 1980s as failing to transform psychology itself in several regards (see also Lee & Crawford, 2012). Historian of psychology Jill Morawski described several feminist contributions appreciatively as having insight into the gendered workings of psychology’s cultures; contributions that remained “liminal” to psychology (Morawski, 1994). Over a half-century, psychology has assimilated women and gender, but—as in other areas—the values that animate psychological research are rarely articulated explicitly in empirical reports (Prilleltensky, 1997).

Unsurprisingly, this landscape affords different narratives about the past and the places of science and politics in that past. Accepting the Kurt Lewin Award from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, social psychologist Alice Eagly (2018) addressed her audience as scientists and ‘honest brokers,” and drew on Kurt Lewin’s concepts to argue that “social” or “political” feminism had overemphasized environmental influences to the neglect of individual and biological factors. She called for more individualistic interventions by women in the 21st-century ideological climate, a more even-handed explanation of gender that emphasizes self-regulation in addition to social regulation, and the recognition of such biological factors as the influence of androgens on brain structure and “the inherent inequality in sex chromosomes between XX and XY individuals” (Eagly, 2018, p. 881). This perspective might be described as itself part of a neoliberal or postfeminist ideology; it urges women to reflect on self-regulation, describes social regulation as separate from a self who makes free choices, and positions social feminism as an outdated and irrelevant ideology (see e.g., Rutherford, 2018). Indeed, Eagly contrasted the climate of “social” or “political” liberalism within which the social psychology of gender took shape explicitly with neoliberalism, which she accurately described as “a socioeconomic system in which the so-called ‘free market’ extends to every aspect of public and personal life” (Eagly, 2018, p. 879).

Eagly (2018) was certainly right that neoliberal ideology is relevant to contemporary social psychologists, and a neoliberal approach fits with a much longer dominant individualist approach in U.S. social psychology (Greenwood, 2003). More critical traditions might place less faith in psychology’s dominant approach to science to exclude unwanted ideologies. Erica Burman (1994, pp. 2–3) asserted that the 1970s U.S.-Anglo psychology of sex and gender had impeded feminism by extending psychology’s positivist gaze to essentialize women’s experiences, and so to obscure structural relationships between gender and inequality. Burman (1994) rejected the post-positivist tradition in psychology, in part because of its individualism, in favor of the analysis of discourse, which she and others understood as a form of social action (e.g., Potter & Wetherell, 1987).

The continued relevance of structural forms of power, a central concern of intersectional feminism, might also temper enthusiasm for a neoliberal approach. Intersectional feminist theory has become more influential in psychology since the late 2000s (see Cole, 2009; Shields, 2008; Stewart & McDermott, 2004, for influential arguments). As Rutherford and Davidson (2019) argue in the article “Intersectionality and the history of psychology”, the need for intersectional theory is evident much earlier in the history of the psychology of gender. During the 1970s and 1980s, African American participants became less well represented in psychological research, particularly social psychological research (Graham, 1992). While women came to outnumber men in psychology’s cultures by some criteria (Eagly et al., 2012), students and faculty members of color remained underrepresented in psychology departments, particularly as doctoral candidates and faculty members, relative to their representation in the U.S. population (Maton et al., 2006). In one national survey, conducted in 2005, White psychology graduate students were the group most likely to report that psychology represented their ethnicity fairly and accurately. African Americans were the group most likely to report that psychology represented their ethnicity stereotypically, and Asian Americans most likely to report that psychology represented their ethnicity not at all (Maton et al., 2011). Decreasing androcentrism in psychology co-occurred with the continuation of an academic culture in which “white space” was the norm in the 1970s and 1980s (Mascarenhas, 2018). Here U.S. psychology parallels the health research with which it became increasingly connected, in which gender became included via a “difference” paradigm, while conceptualizations of ethnicity remained more often excluded from empirical consideration (Epstein, 2007). The history of late 20th century psychology has created conditions by which 21st century psychologists might look back on the origins of the social psychology of gender and sex from different standpoints (Collins, 2002).

Emergence of “Sex and Gender” in Social Psychology

The social psychology of gender that has become dominant in psychology focuses on differences between women and men, assumed to be of female and male sex, was characterized by questions about nature and nurture whose morality was shaped by both the sexual politics of the time and the logic of social psychology at this time. In the period between its 1954 and 1968 handbooks, U.S. social psychology developed into an experimental science of group behavior and social influence. Early feminist critics of psychology deployed its most compelling demonstration of the power of situations in their critiques. Weisstein (1968) cited Milgram (1963) to conclude that the study of human behavior should be “first and foremost, a study of the social contexts within which people move, the expectations as to how they will behave, and the authority which tells them who they are and what they are supposed to do.” Simultaneously, social psychology’s authority was in question because of its cavalier “fun and games” approach to experimental practice (Ring, 1967), ethical questions about its reliance on deception (Kelman, 1967), the social relevance of its experimental science (Allport, 1968), and the non-conscious influence of experimenters on their own scientific results (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 1969). Kenneth Gergen argued that the penchant for natural science-style experiments revealed how social psychologists valued controlling others’ behavior over engendering social change while “blacks, women, activists, suburbanites, educators, and the elderly have all reacted bitterly to explanations of their behavior” (Gergen, 1973, p. 314). Here he echoed Martin Luther King’s 1967 message that subordinated people did not need studies of their psychological adjustment, as much as assertion that there continued to be social contexts to which people should not become adjusted. This period is sometimes narrated as a “crisis” in U.S. social psychology (Collier et al., 1991; Moghaddam, 1987). Its causes, particularly the divisive reliance on experiments as means of debate in social psychology, may originate in the U.S. funding structures that fostered it, in which the natural sciences were the norm and social scientists were incentivized to distance themselves from historical explanation (Solovey, 2004).

Feminism found many opportunities in social psychology’s multifaceted crisis. First, as gender differences had often been assumed in psychological theory, reviews of the empirical record could counteract myths about differences in many areas (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1978). Eagly (1978) reviewed social psychological studies on conformity and persuadability, challenging the then-common view that women were more influenceable than men. She also found a historical effect; studies which found women more “influenceable” than men were more commonly published before 1970 (37% of studies) than after 1970 (10% of studies). Perhaps such findings evidence Gergen’s thesis that social psychology might be a kind of social history after all (Eagly, 1978, p. 96)? The strategy of reviewing the literature developed into meta-analyses quickly. Glass (1976) coined the term meta-analysis, and Cooper (1979) applied the method to gender differences in conformity, concluding that Maccoby and Jacklin (1978), in their “literary review” were wrong to deduce that there were no gender differences in conformity. The meta-analysis by Eagly and Carli (1981) found that the gendered contents of tasks mattered little, but the gender of experimenters was a factor that determined when women were more influenceable than men in social psychology experiments. A later review of all such meta-analyses on gender differences shows that the empirical record in psychology indicates a surprising amount of gender similarity (Hyde, 2005). However, as meta-analyses tended to draw together research studies in which the participants were “mostly White and middle-class” (Graham, 1992), it did little, on its own, to make the social psychology of gender less focused on the experiences and behaviors of those particular groups in the U.S. context.

Second, studies of gender stereotypes, like studies of experiment effects (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 1969) suggested that difference could be produced through interaction and perception. Interest in such studies peaked in the late 1970s (Biernat & Deaux, 2012; Eagly et al., 2012). A much celebrated study by Broverman et al. (1970) concluded that the characteristics assumed to typify a “healthy adult” and a “healthy man” were overlapping and different from those assumed of a “healthy woman.” The authors concluded that standards of mental health were loaded against women. Studies of projection (Horner, 1972), stereotyping (Deaux & Emswiller, 1974), and self-fulfilling prophecy (Zanna & Pack, 1975) showed why gender that originated in the eye of the beholder mattered. The idea that gender difference was only illusory, or was created by biased perceptions, similarity fit well with arguments for equal rights, and against inherent difference between women and men. Gender stereotypes might explain what persistently seemed to be real differences, while gender similarities were actually the reality.

Third, there was an apparent revolution in the study of what Catharine Cox Miles might have called “sex roles,” or “masculinity–femininity” (M-F) toward “gender roles.” The concept of M-F had, since Miles’s time, been assumed to be about one single dimension for social roles. It was first measured in psychology by Miles’s mentor Lewis Terman (1925) out of his anxiety that the intellectually gifted boys in his study of genius might be “a little queer” (Hegarty, 2013). His M-F measure, developed with Miles and other psychologists, was quickly used in juvenile forensic settings in California to detect boys with artistic or other “feminine” interests and abilities (Terman & Miles, 1936; see also Hegarty, 2007). In a brilliant and sustained critique of M-F measures, Anne Constantinople (1973) noted both the lack and failure of construct validity checks, the ungrounded assumption that masculinity and femininity must be psychological opposites, and the “will to power” (Foucault, 1978) promised by detecting queerness in the young, were the elements that made this literature cohere for half a century. In the early 1970s homophobic rationales for conceptualizing M-F were declining; homosexuality was being depathologized and lesbians and gay men recognized as a stigmatized group in social psychology (Hegarty, 2013; Morawski, 1985).

Gender researchers developed new measures of “gender roles” in this context that understood “masculinity” and “femininity” as separate constructs (Bem, 1974, Spence et al., 1974). Sandra Bem particularly described the conjunction of high levels of self-reported masculine and feminine traits as androgyny, and androgyny as a valued way of being which allowed flexible adaptation to situational demands (Bem, 1974). The popularity of androgyny occurred in a particular cultural and historical context (Morawski, 1985). Throughout the 1970s, campaigns for an Equal Rights Amendment exposed and polarized opposing conceptualizations of gender as grounded in a traditional or natural division of labor between male breadwinners and female homemakers or more egalitarian and flexible arrangements of labor that were not dictated by sex categories (Mansbridge, 1986). Career and motherhood were not the opposed life goals among the cohort of women who were college graduates during this period of second-wave feminism, as they had been for their mothers (Stewart & Healy, 1989). Bem and Bem (1973) had shown in one study how categorizing job adverts by sex in newspapers limited their availability to women and men, contributing to the repeal of this advertising process across American newspapers. Androgyny represented the breaking apart of previously conflated norms linking sex categories and gender roles.

The value of flexible adaptation may also have been a product of its time. The postmodern condition taking shape since the 1960s was characterized in the United States by a shift away from stable employment in manufacturing (for men) toward flexible “just in time” production and service industry jobs for all (see Harvey, 1991). Women entering male-dominated workplaces, such as psychology departments, were often demanded to act flexibly as different situations might demand “masculine” or “feminine” behavior to make the most of things. One pivotal experiment seems to particularly capture the economic benefits of androgyny. Students were offered financial rewards for performing diverse tasks. “Sex-typed” students, as determined by Bem’s Sex Role Inventory, chose to sacrifice financial gains to avoid “cross-sex” activities, while students that the scale conceptualized as androgynous were happy to engage with those same activities (Bem & Lenney, 1976). These economic trends accelerated in the 1980s with the election of President Ronald Reagan in the United States (1981–1989) and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990), whose monetarist economic policies are sometimes taken as the start of a neoliberal era. In the 1980s, Bem (1981) argued for a focus on gender schematicity rather than androgyny, where gender schematicity was the extent to which individuals and societies read the world through the lens of gender, rather than individuals’ gender roles. Bem (1985) maintained that there her work had a feminist orientation; the prescription was not for individuals to be ascribe to an androgynous norm, but for society to be more gender aschematic.

As Dean and Tate (2017) have argued, Bem’s approach to androgyny was revolutionary for its time. While popular among social psychologists turning to gender, it did not win over all personality psychologists. Rather, several psychologists could be seen “backsliding” into the prior understanding of gender as a one-dimensional construct in the late 1970s and afterwards. New measures of gender identity that emerged in clinical sexology continued to conceptualize masculine and feminine identities, as measured by preferences for clearly gender-stereotyped activities (see Freund et al., 1974). Thus while Stanford undergraduates participated in the Bem and Lenney (1976) experiments about their flexibility in gender roles, transgender clients had to perform very rigid gender roles to navigate clinical psychologists who had become “caretakers, gatekeepers and legitimizers” in the Stanford medical school’s gender clinic in the same decade and on the same campus (Bolin, 1988, p. 54).

Perhaps even further ahead of their time than Bem, Kessler and McKenna (1978) drew upon a critique of the idea that gender was a social role to ground their research. These social psychologists were influenced by ethnomethodology, then a new approach in American sociology, through which Harold Garfinkel and others sought to understand how everyday interactions re-grounded the rules of social order. Garfinkel’s understanding of gender was formed in interaction with the concepts of gender taking shape in gender identity clinics in the 1960s. Following his interactions and interviews with a client of Robert Stoller’s at the UCLA Gender Identity Clinic, to whom he gave the pseudonym Agnes, Garfinkel described the rules of social order in regard to gender as a “natural attitude to gender.” This “natural attitude” included the belief that there are two and only two valid real genders, that gender identity is fixed, and that a person’s genitalia determine their gender category membership. Agnes navigated these rules in everyday life and in the clinic, and she convinced UCLA clinicians that she had a rare intersex condition to explain why she had both breast growth and a penis. (In reality she had been assigned male at birth and had administered female hormones to herself, see Stryker, 2017, on relationships between transgender clients and clinicians in U.S. gender identity clinics in the 1960s). While Bem and others suggested roles in opposition to the edifice of M-F in psychology, Kessler and McKenna offered a more critical perspective on the construction of gender and gender roles, from a position that drew on criticisms of the gender identity paradigm rather than working within its logic.

Ethnomethodology cast “gender” not as the sociocultural cause of differences between women and men, but as a set of implicit rules of social order being continually made up (as by the practice of theorizing “gender differences” as if the only serious way to do so were to explain differences between women and men). Kessler and McKenna (1978) innovated by studying the natural attitude to gender in their experiments. In one study, participants were required to figure out the gender of a person whom the experimenter held in mind by asking the experimenter a series of questions with yes/no answers. In response, the experimenters provided random “yes” and “no” answers. Participants’ questions, and interpretations of their answers, revealed their natural attitude to gender. For example, they assumed that genital anatomy was the absolute signifier of gender categories when they aligned all other information around it or assumed that asking about it directly was cheating.

In line with ethnomethodology’s orientation to science as a process of making up social order, Kessler and McKenna argued for a reflexive social psychology of gender that would refer to both scientists’ and laypersons’ gender attributions. In 1985, Kessler interviewed several pediatric specialists who enacted Money’s protocols in response to children born with intersex characteristics (Kessler, 1990). Here she observed how Money’s original psychological assumptions that gender was fluid for the first years of life but fixed thereafter guided these experts’ clinical reasoning. Her work was arguably the first social science study to examine the medicalization of intersex traits. The surgical alteration, to render bodies more consistent, remains contested (see also Kessler, 1998).

Kessler and McKenna’s work expresses an ironic attitude toward psychological science that remained “liminal” to social psychology (Morawski, 1994); they both used experimental methods and described science as shaped by gender. Other influential researchers distanced themselves from the experimental method for its emphasis on controlling others, its artificiality, and its neglect of rich description of subjectivity (Fine & Gordon, 1989). Carol Gilligan (1982) asserted a very influential theory of gender differences in moral reasoning, using qualitative methods. Her argument that such theories had missed the ethic of care at the center of women’s moral reasoning was not easily squared with the post-positivist research finding gender similarities in moral reasoning (Greeno & Maccoby, 1986), nor did it satisfy the long-standing concern that asserting psychological differences could be a rationale for treating women unfairly (Mednick, 1989). As methods diversified, different incommensurate understandings of gender appeared, and dilemmas about the tension between erasing women’s experiences (by asserting similarities) versus justifying inequality (by asserting differences) became more common by the middle of the 1980s (e.g., McHugh et al., 1986). Hare-Mustin and Marecek (1990) used the statistical lingua franca of scientific psychology to describe both “alpha bias” (overemphasizing difference to prop up stereotypes) and “beta bias” (denying difference to erase power’s effects). In this insightful work they showed that there was no easy or “right” answer to such starkly framed questions of whether it was generally good or bad to study differences in the psychologies of women and men, to report on them, or to formulate scientific explanations about why they existed.

By the mid-1980s, the mainstream landscape had also diversified, leading to several influential reviews. An enduring concept to emerge from gender stereotypes is the idea that men and masculinity are stereotyped in terms of agency, and women and femininity in terms of communal traits (Williams & Best, 1990). Deaux and Major (1987) developed a social psychological theory of how gender labeling and stereotyping could lead to lasting inferences about gender differences emerging from fleeting situations. The major synthesis in gender role theory by Eagly (1987) drew on meta-analytic studies extensively, and described gender stereotypes attributing communality to women and agency to men as the products of social roles between women and men. Janet Spence (1984) began to theorize a more firm boundary between gender identity and gender orientation, which was the basis for later work teasing apart the difference between feelings of gender typicality and gender contentedness (Egan & Perry, 2001) and the multifactorial “gender bundle” specifying gender at multiple levels of analysis in the last decade (Tate et al., 2014). These theories took account both of the rejection of gender differences in many areas since the late 1990s and sought the proximal explanation of remaining differences in social factors (which might or might not, ultimately, have biological or social structural origins).

Gender stereotypes had a historic day in court in the 1989 case of Price Waterhouse v Hopkins. Ann Hopkins claimed that sex discrimination led to her being denied partnership in the large accounting consultancy firm Price Waterhouse. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that gender-based stereotyping was one cause of Price Waterhouse’s decision; she was treated negatively for an assertiveness that was demanded by her occupational role, in a way that a man would not have experienced. This verdict was influenced by evidence presented by the APA in an amicus brief and in the testimony of social psychologist Susan Fiske (Fiske et al., 1991). These social and occupational psychologists drew on then recent research on categorization processes, conditions that engender stereotyping, and stereotypes’ influence on evaluation and explanation to make this intervention to support the Hopkins case. Upon Hopkins’ victory they concluded that “cognitive categorization perspectives are particularly well suited to courtroom use” (Fiske et al., 1991, p. 1055). The judgment has been influential, and expanded a prior legal understanding of stereotypes as discriminatory on the basis that they are simplistic expectations, to an understanding of how stereotypes discriminate by creating prescriptions for behavior based on social group membership (Herz, 2014).

The neglect of intersectional realities of discrimination in both psychology and its successful application to the law are related. Graham (1992) attributed the declining representation of African American participants in social psychology research to the rise of those very social cognition approaches that guided the amicus brief in Hopkins v Price Waterhouse. In the same years that the Supreme Court heard that case, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) analyzed a set of legal cases in which Black women brought legal claims of discrimination in the United States, demonstrating that U.S. discrimination law could tolerate greater protection from discrimination for either White women or Black men over Black women, but was intolerant of particular legal protection for Black women. Crenshaw described how both constructions of Black women as similar to, and different from, White women could be used to defer recognition of what she called intersectional discrimination. By emphasizing what was most common to gender roles, stereotypes, and gender differences (in opposition to “sex”), staying within a post-positivist discourse that eschewed the articulation of feminist values, and continuing to study and meta-analyze results derived from mostly White middle-class students, the social psychology of sex and gender was ill-equipped to recognize intersectional discrimination. In spite of its continuing focus on the relationship between social roles and labor, the literature on gender roles and stereotypes did not always incorporate accounts of how race and class, in intersection with gender, structured roles, stereotypes, and behavioral differences as the standards of an intersectional analysis of discrimination would demand (Crenshaw, 1989).

In dialogue with other disciplines, epistemological disagreement emerged within feminist psychology about the extent to which psychological science was a masculinist activity by virtue of its commitment to empiricism, prediction, and control (Morawski, 1994; Riger, 1992). A theme that drew these ideas together was that science could be—in spite of its claim to objectivity—a positioned ways of knowing, because social identities such as gender, race, and nationality created “standpoints” and situated partial knowledges (Collins, 2002; Harding, 1986). Postmodernism became a catch-all term for several theories that drew on poststructuralist theories and doubted conventional scientific epistemologies, ontologies, and methods for the ways that they concealed and normalized the standpoints and interests of powerful groups (Harding, 1986; Riger, 1992). In the United Kingdom, the development of the psychology of women in the 1980s was particularly interconnected with the emergence of qualitative methods that rejected experimental social psychology (Wilkinson, 1986). A greater internationalization of the social psychology of sex and gender was achieved after the launch of Feminism & Psychology in 1991, which prioritized feminist framings of these questions; contrast, for example, the range of positions on the question of whether psychologists should study sex and gender differences in Feminism & Psychology in 1994 (Kitzinger, 1994), or in American Psychologist in 1995 (Eagly, 1995). British critical psychology engaged particularly substantively with postmodern scholarship, reaching new ways of conceptualizing the positioning of gendered subjectivities and the power of discourse that naturalized sex differences, around heterosexuality for example (Hollway, 1984).

In the U.S., the center of social psychology, these developments were barely perceptible. Rather, the cryptic workings of evolution on social behavior were articulated with renewed interest as an influence of “sex” on those matters that “gender” had come to explain, such as gender differences in heterosexual encounters (Buss, 1989). Clashes between social and evolutionary explanations of gender differences reoccurred across academic and popular discussions after gender had become a core topic of social psychology (Ruck, 2016). Debates among evolutionary and gender role theories spread out beyond the United States via cross-cultural (or more properly cross-national) comparisons to show invariant sex differences across cultures (Buss, 1989) or variation that was correlated with country-level measures of gender equality (e.g., Eagly & Wood, 1999). A distinctly American post-positivist nature–nurture debate globalized.

Conclusion

Gender, in U.S. social psychology, was—on the one hand—hard won, radical for its time, and immensely successful in transforming the landscape in psychology. On the other hand, this development had both occlusions and exclusions. Because of its complexity, and the growth of incommensurate literatures, always in a social structure of psychology’s research cultures characterized by the roles, stereotypes, discourses, and behavioral differences that were also the subject of psychology itself, this article argues strongly, with Morawski (1994), for a reflexive understanding of this field among those who would practice it and understand its history. Beyond its own explicit concerns, the social psychology of sex and gender illustrates why “culture” is not simply a variable that psychologists study, nor the origin of ideologies and biases that are managed by rigorous experimental control. Science is culture, and this can perhaps best be seen in social psychology when notice is paid to the “stubborn particulars” of research practices that illustrate culture’s workings via experimental contexts that are meant to exclude them (Cherry, 1995). Perhaps the most useful way to look back on how this culture took form is not through the lens of present social identities, but to use it genealogically to create new dialogues between present standpoints. This article closes with two examples of such genealogical thinking.

First, even by the 20th century’s end, disparities between transgender activists’ and psychologists’ conceptions of gender were very clear (Hird, 2003; Parlee, 1996; Riggs et al., 2019). An affirmative literature on transgender adults emerged in the first decade of the 21st century(Moradi et al., 2016). This development made a new look at how the social psychology of gender had conceptualized exclusionary language possible. During the 1970s and 1980s, generic language which assumed that everyone was male had largely been replaced by language that included women and men in APA publications (Gannon et al., 1992). However, only the 2020 APA publication manual gives advice about how to recognize the non-binary genders of research participants (APA, 2020), with earlier manuals prescribing the misgendering of some people (Ansara & Hegarty, 2014). Whilst feminist research on masculine generic language largely operated within Garfinkel’s “natural attitude to gender,” the concern that binary gender language misgenders people and the feminist concern that scientific language assumes are humans are male are conceptually analogous (Ansara & Hegarty, 2013). It would seem important to consider the similarities in why both linguistic shifts have happened, and in the “backsliding” by which each was resisted (see e.g., Martyna, 1980).

Second, intersectional feminism assumes that the noun “women” prompts legal thinking about White people by default (Crenshaw, 1989). Debate about the importance of the occlusions of this social identity category resonates with research about masculine generics; both concern mental concepts of social identity groups that disproportionately call to mind higher status groups. A visible consequence of such thinking in psychology is that race, gender, and sexual orientation are attributed more to groups who are lower down on these social structural variables than those that are higher up (Azibo, 1988; Causadias et al., 2018; Hegarty & Buechel, 2006; Miller et al., 1991). Intersectional feminist standpoints make it critical to examine how normative identity assumptions intersect in relevant areas of psychological science. Indeed, in the extensive social psychological literature on discrimination, targets of sexist discrimination are often assumed to be White women by default (and targets of race discrimination assumed to be African American men; see Goff & Kahn, 2014). The study of such normative assumptions and their impact on discourse could be recalled, critiqued, and addressed as one that recognized “one way in which we are different” assumed “to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing” (Lorde, 1984, p. 116).

Science remains culture, in spite of the best post-positivist attempts to conceptualize culture as bias or ideology that can be purified out of the mix. As a result of those purification efforts, post-positivist quantitative methods remain relevant targets of criticism, and potentially transformative means of critiquing psychology’s scientific culture. The history of the social psychology of sex and gender is one of diverse responses to this tension. Tactics for change in scientific psychology might include exposing scientific myths (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1978), or the norms that inhere in identities (Bem, 1974), developing new statistical techniques to shift representations (Eagly & Carli, 1981), or recognizing how language represents (Martyna, 1980). Progress co-occurs with backsliding (Dean & Tate, 2017; Graham, 1992), and simple inclusion does make a previously excluded group escape the position of the “other” of differences (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1990). Insightful conceptual challenges can remain liminal but become surprisingly relevant after social conditions change (Constantinople, 1973; Kessler & McKenna, 1978). Actions that make up this field do not make up a coherent consensus. But, as they are animated by values informed by different standpoints, they are exemplary of the history of the larger field of psychology itself; a modern moral project in which science and politics are idealized as separate, creating surprises about how indistinguishable they are in practice and application (Haraway, 1997; Richards, 1995; Shapin & Schaeffer, 2011).

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