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Lisa Serbin


Training Location(s):

PhD (Clinical Psychology), State University of New York at Stony Brook, (1972)

BA (Psychology), Reed College, (1968)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Concordia University, (1978-Present)

Media Links:
Professional Website

Dr. Lisa Serbin, Concordia University


Dr. Lisa Serbin, Concordia University Chair in Psychology


Psychology's Feminist Voices Oral History Transcript


Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: Feminist Identity

Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: Stony Brook

Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: Mentoring


Career Focus: Child development; developmental psychopathology; women's health; social and environmental factors in transfer of health and developmental risk from parent to child.


Lisa Serbin, a leading expert on developmental psychopathology, did not actually start out as a psychology major. She was a history major and in order to fill her science requirement, she ended up taking a psychology course in her second year of undergraduate studies. The course had a lab component and Serbin "loved it." Her psychology courses offered exciting laboratory-based research and behaviour modification case studies and she found herself drawn to this area.  


Serbin was influenced by prominent women psychologists whose work inspired her to form her own feminist identity. Serbin read Letta S. Hollingworth's works in her undergraduate career, one of which was on gender segregation among the feebleminded. Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin's 1974 book, The Psychology of Sex Differences, also made a big impression on Serbin. She had the opportunity to meet with Maccoby in the 1970s, and Maccoby asked Serbin for a copy of her doctoral dissertation. Serbin's dissertation research was conducted in a classroom setting.  Since Serbin had adopted a behaviourist perspective, she did not find herself on Maccoby's "good side."  Maccoby did not agree with Serbin's interpretation of the data. However, they both eventually became good friends, and Serbin has referred to Maccoby as her "academic grandmother". 


Serbin did her graduate studies at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. When she began her studies, there were no women on the faculty. Her classes were mostly all men as well. However, this scenario changed due to men being drafted to fight in Vietnam. Schools found themselves flooded with applications from female students. Just like other places, Stony Brook faced the same situation, so the ratio in classes changed from one to two women in each class to more than four or five out of a total of nine students. Despite the lack of men applying, women still faced discrimination during the interview process and Serbin recalled her own interview where she was asked more questions about family planning than about plans for her future career as a psychologist. Outright gender discrimination was taking place and nobody did anything about it. If a woman replied that she planned to get married after getting her degree, she was not accepted into the graduate programs. Though Serbin was accepted, it was a hard fact to swallow that women had to meet a "higher bar" than men to get admitted. Serbin reflected on her own mother's experience to explain what a difficult position women were in during the 1950s and even years later, when they were expected to give up their jobs once they were married or had children. Lisa Serbin's mother had to keep using her maiden name in order to work as a school teacher so that she would not be fired after getting married.


Serbin's first involvement  in the women's movement occurred when her friends got involved in consciousness-raising groups on campus at Stony Brook in the 1970s. She, along with women from other departments, attended weekly meetings. This was an "eye-opening" experience for Serbin and it was in this context that she decided to pursue work in the field of motivational developmental theory and reward systems with kids. During the 1970s, the idea of naturalistic data collection was "alien" and experimental paradigms were preferred.  Nonetheless, Serbin did most of her work by observing and interacting with children in classrooms. She was astonished at the differential treatment of boys and girls by the classroom  teacher; she was reinforcing "lady-like" behaviour in girls while she allowed the boys to be noisy. This incident changed Serbin's methodological approach and she started using quantitative methods, counting, for example, "how many times a kid hit another [kid] and jumped out of his seat." However, journal editors and other researchers took issue with this method because Serbin was not "manipulating anything" in her studies. Undeterred, Serbin continued her studies due to the encouragement she received from Eleanor Maccoby, among others.  


Serbin was the first woman faculty member in psychology hired at the State University of New York, Binghamton, now called Binghamton University.  Though Serbin had many other offers, she chose Binghamton University because of its superior research support.  Ironically, before the decision was finalized, Serbin got into a philosophical debate with the chair of the department about the objectivity of her research, due to her feminist stance. Fortunately,  that debate did not prevent her from getting the job!


In the late 1970s, due to changes in the funding climate for gender-related psychological research in the United States, Serbin decided to move to Canada, taking a position at Concordia University in Montreal.  Serbin found a great mentor in Donald Leary who taught her how to write grants in a new national context, and one that demanded knowledge of a new language as well. 


Serbin also became involved in Division 35 of the APA (Society for Psychology of Women), serving on their executive committee where she had the opportunity to learn about APA by-laws as well as meet interesting colleagues. She also joined Division 7 of the APA (Developmental Psychology) and was nominated for fellow status in Division 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology). Serbin identifies as a clinical psychologist, even though most of her published research is in the developmental area. However, in examining her research record, the Division concluded that her work was not "clinical enough" and did not grant her fellow status. Twenty years later, the committee wrote an apology letter to Serbin, asking her to become a fellow in their division. She accepted.


A career highlight for Serbin was the opportunity to testify at a trial on gender equality in the Canadian National Railroad corporation in the 1980s.  Serbin was called in to provide a summary of the research on gender differences and gender-fair assessment. 


Serbin has always enjoyed being a strong mentor to her students and has been described as having a veritable "factory" of students going out into the world. When asked about what kind of advice she would give to young feminist psychologists, she replied that students should "just do it!" since all the tools and methods are better today than twenty years ago. Although Serbin is no longer involved in Division 35 activities, she does try to stay involved in public policy work. She encourages students to get involved in the issues that interest them, even if those issues do not fall neatly within their research areas. In that way, one can do feminist work even if it is not directly under a feminist umbrella.   


by Dilraj Pama (2010)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:


Fisher, D.B-D., Serbin, L.A., Stack, D.M., Ruttle, P., Ledingham, J.E., & Schwartzman, A.E. (2007). Intergenerational predictors of blunted diurnal cortisol rhythms in high-risk children. Infant and Child Development, 16(2), 151-170.


Serbin, L.A., & Karp, J. (2004). The inter-generational transfer of psycho-social risk: Processes of vulnerability and resilience. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 333-363.


Serbin, L.A., Poulin-Dubois, D., Colburne, K.A., Sen, M.G., & Eichstedt, J.A. (2001). Gender stereotyping in infancy: Visial preferences for and knowledge of gender-stereotyped toys in the second year. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25, 7-15.


Serbin, L.A., Cooperman, J.M., Peters, P.L., Lehoux, P., Stack, D.M., & Schwartzman, A.E. (1998). Intergenerational transfer of psycho social risk in women with childhood histories of aggression, withdrawal or aggression and withdrawal. Developmental Psychology, 34, 1246-1262.


Serbin, L.A., & Sprafkin, C. (1986). The salience of gender and the process of sex typing in three- to seven-year old children. Child Development, 57(5), 1188-1199.


Interview with Lisa Serbin: Developing a Feminist Identity

Interview conducted on June 13, 2009 by Laura Ball and Kelli Vaughn-Blount in Montreal, Quebec, U.S.A.


Interview with Lisa Serbin: Graduate Studies at Stony Brook

Interview conducted on June 13, 2009 by Laura Ball and Kelli Vaughn-Blount in Montreal, Quebec, U.S.A.


Interview with Lisa Serbin: On Mentoring

Interview conducted on June 13, 2009 by Laura Ball and Kelli Vaughn-Blount in Montreal, Quebec, U.S.A.