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Margaret Signorella


Training Location(s):

PhD, Pennsylvania State University, (1979)

MSc, Pennsylvania State University, (1976)

BSc, University of Pittsburgh, (1974)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Penn State Brandywine, (2017 - present)

Penn State Greater Allegheny, (1982-2017)

Eastern Michigan University, (1981-1982)

SUNY at Brockport, (1980-1981)

Media Links:

Social Psychology Network Profile 


Personal Website


Psychology's Feminist Voices Oral History Transcript



Career Focus: Gender identity; gender roles; gender schema; gender stereotyping; single-sex education; research methods; developmental psychology; cognitive psychology; prejudice and discrimination; applied social psychology; feminist psychology.


Margaret Signorella, born in 1952 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, came from a family with a strong academic background.  Her mother had an undergraduate degree in biology and a graduate degree in business, and her father was a physician. She remembers growing up in a time where sexist attitudes were rampant, which always angered her. Her confidence in her abilities came from her father’s acceptance and encouragement. She remembers, “He always felt that I had the capability to do anything I wanted to.” While she would not call his attitudes “feminist,” he was influenced by the strength of his own mother who was a driving force in the family. He was stuck by the injustice of men in his family getting credit for what the women did and having access to opportunities that women never had access to. He wanted more for his own daughter. Furthermore, Signorella’s own mother served as a role model as she fought sexist attitudes and demanded to be respected as an individual rather than as an appendage of her spouse, or “the Doctor’s wife.”


In her youth, Signorella was influenced by the protests of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement and women’s rights movement. She came to believe that we could live in a better society and that social psychology was working to address these concerns. She was fortunate to work with a psychologist whose work she greatly admired, Carolyn Sherif, while pursuing her graduate degrees at Penn State. When she arrived at Penn State, in 1975, Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif were already well known for the Robbers Cave studies, which showed how pursuing superordinate goals can bring two opposing sides to work together. Signorella has always admired this work for providing, “a message of hope (about the possibility of) getting people (in conflict) to work together, overcome differences, break down stereotypes and eliminate prejudice.”


Carolyn Sherif, who was just beginning to write about gender identity when Signorella arrived at Penn State, became her primary mentor and supervisor. She was very supportive of Signorella and inspired her to both work in the psychology of gender and to become a critical methodologist. Carolyn taught her to become suspicious of the ways in which data are sometimes manipulated to create distinctions that are media worthy, but scientifically unsound. Signorella’s research today continues to critique popular psychology, such as the works of John Gray (who wrote Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus in 1992) and break down cultural myths about gender.


Caroyln Sherif encouraged Signorella to take courses with Lynn Liben who was working on children’s attitudes about gender and the impact on information processing. Together with Liben and Becky Bigler, Signorella looked at previous studies which largely concluded that children were increasingly influenced by gender stereotypes. However, through their meta-analysis they showed that children only showed increased gender stereotyping in forced choice questions. When they were asked particular non-forced choice questions, children’s stereotyped responses lessened with age. In other words, we need to be able to understand how the question being asked impacts the answer in order to accurately determine the results.


In 1996, Signorella, together with Irene Frieze and Susanne Hershey, published an article on the influence of single-sex schooling on gender schemata development in children. They found that single-sex education did not serve any advantage for girls, debunking the myth that mixed-sex classes are detrimental for the development of young girls. In 2005, the United States Department of Education published a review suggesting that there might be benefits to single-sex education, or at worse, no harm. This report is now used to argue that single-sex education should be publically funded. This report did not cite Signorella, Frieze, and Hershey’s 1996 study. Thus, Signorella decided to once again investigate the methodological legitimacy of this now popular and influential report. Again, she discovered that the methodology was flawed and the studies that were cited showed that the advantages to students in single-sex schools correlated with pre-existing differences, such as socio-economic status. Thus, Signorella is now opposed to single-sex education. She cites one of the mottos of the Civil Rights era, “Separate but equal is not equal” and says, “Whenever you start separating people in any characteristic that is an accident of their birth…you create stereotypes.” Furthermore, same-sex education is based on heterosexist and binary-gender assumptions. She concludes that:


If you really truly think that a lot of girls are not learning leadership and competitiveness and you think that a lot of boys are not learning or expressing emotions, it is not at all clear that if you separate them…each group [will] learn characteristics that they may not be conversant with. The problem is the instruction, not how you arrange the students. Wouldn't it be better to fix the instruction, train the teachers how to deal with these situations? That would benefit everyone.


While Signorella views herself as a feminist, she does not see herself as radical even though much of her work has been labeled as such. Throughout her career, she has committed to doing serious science with an emphasis on rigorous methodology, where much of her work is critical of biased research methods. Still, she, and hence her research, have been viewed as “radical”; that is, as someone who is “fomenting revolution” just for the sake of it. She has experienced the burden of sexism in her career, which has deepened her sympathy for the isolation that Carolyn Sherif must have felt in the 1970s being one of the only women in a male-dominated world. She thus values mentorship and all of the support that she has received in the course of her own career. She encourages students in psychology to understand the structure of academia in order to “find a balance between working within the structure and accomplishing [their] goals.” In her current work, Signorella continues to challenge the impact of subjective biases and other methodological problems on the interpretation of data, while simultaneously advocating for the use of sound evidence-based research as a foundation for producing socially-just political change. 


By Prapti Giri (2018)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:


By Margaret Signorella


Bigler, R. S., & Signorella, M. L. (2011). Single-sex education: New perspectives and evidence on a continuing controversy. Sex Roles, 65(9-10), 659-669.


Liben, L. S., & Signorella, M. L. (1980). Gender-related schemata and constructive memory in children. Child Development, 51(1), 11-18.


Shields, S. A., & Signorella, M. L. (2014). Carolyn Wood Sherif (1922–1982): Feminist social psychology in the service of equality for all peoples. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38, 443-446. 


Signorella, M. L. (2015). Challenges in evaluating single-sex education. Sex Roles, 72, 397-400.


Signorella, M. L., Hayes, A. R., & Li, Y. (2013). A meta-analytic critique of Mael et al.’s (2005) review of single-sex schooling. Sex Roles, 69(7-8), 423-441.


Signorella, M. L., & Bigler, R. S. (2013). Single-sex schooling: Bridging science and school boards in educational policy. Sex Roles, 69(7-8), 349-355. 


Signorella, M. L., & Cooper, J. E. (2011). Relationship suggestions from self-help books: Gender stereotyping, preferences, and context effects. Sex Roles, 65, 371-382.


Signorella, M. L. (1999). Multidimensionality of gender schemas: Implications for the development of gender-related characteristics. In W. B. Swann Jr., J. H. Langlois & L. A. Gilbert (Eds.), Sexism and stereotypes in modern society: The gender science of Janet Taylor Spence. (pp. 107-126). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.


Signorella, M. L., Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (1997). A meta-analysis of children's memories for own-sex and other-sex information. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 18(3), 429-445. 


Signorella, M. L., Frieze, I. H., & Hershey, S. W. (1996). Single-sex versus mixed-sex classes and gender schemata in children and adolescents. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20(4), 599-607. 


Signorella, M. L., Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (1993). Developmental differences in children's gender schemata about others: A meta-analytic review. Developmental Review, 13(2), 147-183. 


Signorella, M. L., & Jamison, W. (1986). Masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 100(2), 207-228.


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