Sandra Bem Biography

Pioneering Feminist Psychologist

"My central passion has always been to challenge the long-standing cultural belief in some kind of a natural link or match between the sex of one's body and the character of one's psyche and one's sexuality." — Sandra Bem, 1995

What Bem Is Best Known For

Sandra Bem was a psychologist particularly known for these areas:

Early Life and Education

Sandra Bem (originally called Sandra Ruth Lipsitz) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 22, 1944. She was raised by working-class parents in an often tumultuous household. Her mother, however, encouraged her daughter to pursue a life outside of housework. In grade school, she insisted on wearing pants to her Orthodox Jewish school, and her refusal to wear a skirt nearly led to her expulsion. These early experiences foreshadowed Bem's later research and writing on topics such as gender roles, sexuality, and androgyny.

She attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later called Carnegie-Mellon) and majored in psychology. There she met a young professor named Daryl Bem during the last year of her undergraduate studies. She asked Daryl to supervise her independent studies, and the two quickly formed a romantic interest. Sandra feared that marriage would hold her back from her career, so she initially declined his proposals. Eventually, the two agreed to commit themselves to what was at the time considered an unconventional, egalitarian marriage that allowed Sandra to pursue her professional interests and goals. They agreed that they would share household responsibilities equally, as well as all parenting responsibilities should they ever decide to have children.

They married on June 6, 1965, when Sandra was just 20 years old, and had two children. They continued their commitment to their egalitarian marriage, sharing household chores, supporting each other's careers, and splitting parenting duties. While the couple later chose to live separately, they continued to parent their children as partners and remained both friends and colleagues.

In 1965, she enrolled at the University of Michigan and earned her Ph.D. in developmental psychology.


Sandra taught at Carnegie-Mellon and Stanford, but she eventually took a position at Cornell University after Stanford denied her application for tenure. At Cornell, she served as a professor of women's studies and the director of the women's studies program. Her research interests while at Cornell centered on sexuality, androgyny, and gender schema theory.

The Bems' approach to marriage inspired Sandra to explore the detrimental impact of rigid and traditional sex roles. She developed the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), which was designed to measure how people psychologically identify with masculine and feminine gender roles. The goal of the inventory was to demonstrate that it was advantageous to have a personality that included both masculine and feminine qualities.

She developed her gender schema theory to explain how society and culture transmit ideas about sex and gender. Gender schemas, Bem suggested, were formed by things such as parenting, school, mass media, and other cultural influences. 

Contributions to Psychology

She was honored with many awards, including the APA's Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution, the Association for Women in Psychology’s Distinguished Publication Award, and the American Association of University Women’s Young Scholar Award. In 1995, the Divisions of General Psychology and History of Psychology of the APA named Bem an "Eminent Woman in Psychology."

Sandra Bem had an important influence in psychology and on our understanding of sex roles, gender, and sexuality.

Four years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Sandra decided to end her own life before the disease became too debilitating. According to her obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sandra and Daryl spent a final day together, and that evening Sandra took a drug and passed away peacefully in her sleep. She died on May 20, 2014, at the age of 69 at her home in Ithaca, New York.

Selected Publications

Bem won awards and recognition for many of her publications. Some of her most famous works include: 

  • Bem, S. L. (1998). An unconventional family. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Bem, S. L. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Bem, S. L. (1981). Bem sex role inventory professional manual. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
  • Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88, 354- 364.
  • Bem, S. L. (1974). The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42, 155-162.
  • Bem, S. L., & Bem, D. J. (1973). Does sex-biased job advertising "aid and abet" sex discrimination? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 3, 6-18.
1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bem SL. Working on gender as a gender nonconformist. Women and Therapy: A Feminist Journal. 1995;17(1-2), 43-53. doi:10.1300/J015v17n01_06

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."