Personality & Individual Differences, 1987, 8 (3), 431-432.

SEX ROLES AND FEAR OF SUCCESS: A general population study

MARK DAVIS, J. J. RAY [1] and J. S. BURT

University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland 4067


[1] University of New South Wales, Kensington, N.S.W. 2033, Australia

(Received 26 February 1986)


Major's theory that fear of success is predicted by psychological rather than actual femininity was tested using an improved sex-role scale on a random sample of 120 Australians. The theory was supported.


The concept of 'fear of success' has now stimulated a considerable literature. It was devised to explain conflicts over achievement experienced by women. It has, however, run into both conceptual and empirical difficulties. On the conceptual side it could be argued that 'fear of success' is a contradiction in terms. If we do something we seek to avoid, by whose criteria have we been successful? Such conceptual problems, however, have not prevented many people from finding the concept useful in both an explanatory and a heuristic way. The more serious problem seems to be that the most basic prediction of the theory underlying the concept is not empirically supported: men turn out to be just as success-fearing as women (Canavan-Gumpert, Garner and Gumpert, 1978). It is not a peculiarly feminine trait.

Major (1979), however, has put forward an interesting suggestion that might yet save the theory. She suggests that it is psychological femininity rather than actual femininity that predisposes people to fear of success. To understand this suggestion, it must be realized that the characteristic correlation between sex and scores on sex-role scales is low-around 0.3. In other words, although men and women do differ psychologically, they do not differ very much. We may therefore have to study very feminine women before much in the way of different attitudes to achievement is observed. Also, many men are quite feminine psychologically so they may show feminine attitudes to success that again obscure the male/female difference. It may therefore be that it is feminine sex-role orientation rather than actual sex that we have to study if we wish to get a clear idea about what is feminine.

This suggestion may seem to be drawing a rather long bow but Major does claim to have found some empirical support for it. The support was, however, far from clear. In particular, her finding that it is in fact psychological masculinity which most predisposes to fear of success seems only to muddy the waters further. Rather than making a small modification to the original theory, Major's work could be seen as asserting its opposite.

There are, however, grounds for believing that Major's empirical work was a less than adequate test of her theory. She applied the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) to a group of 218 young female college students to get her data. The BSRI has been much criticized as deficient in validity (as is shown by the proliferation of alternative instruments) and young female college students may have attitudes which are much more in a state of flux than would be so among people in the population at large. A general population study with better measuring instruments seems therefore called for.


The present study utilized the Antill, Cunningham, Russell and Thompson (1981) Sex-role scales. Fear of success was measured by the scale described in Ray (1985). The questionnaire was applied by the senior author personally to a sample of 120 residents of the Australian city of Brisbane. Respondents were selected by cluster sampling. There were 61 females and 59 males.


The Femininity scale, the Masculinity scale and the Fear of Success (FOS) scale showed reliabilities (alpha) of 0.73, 0.74 and 0.71. The biserial correlations of the scales with sex were: Femininity 0.36, Masculinity -0.34 and FOS 0.09. The first two correlations are significant < 0.01 and support the validity of the scales concerned. The two sex-role scales correlated -0.28.

The FOS scale correlated 0.36 with feminine orientation, -0.28 with masculine orientation and -0.21 with androgyny as assessed by the Heilbrun formula (Heilbrun, 1981, p. 44). All three correlations are significant (p < 0.05).


The results appear to conform exactly with Major's modification of the original fear-of-success theory: sex itself failed to predict fear of success but sex-role orientation did. It is psychological femininity rather than actual femininity which predisposes to fear of success. A more cautious approach to empirical testing has provided the evidence for Major's theory that her own empirical work could not. The fact that both sex-role scales correlated in the predicted direction might in fact be seen as making her theory doubly confirmed. The study may also confirm the desirability of using alternative instruments to the BSRI.


Antill J. J., Cunningham J. D. Russell G. and Thompson N. L. (1981) An Australian sex-role scale. Aust. J. Psychol. 33, 169-183.

Canavan-Gumpert D., Garner K. and Gumpert P. (1978) The Success-Fearing Personality. Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass.

Heilbrun A. B. (1981) Human Sex-Role Behavior. Pergamon Press, New York.

Major B. (1979) Sex-role orientation and fear of success: clarifying an unclear relationship. Sex Roles 5, 63-70.

Ray, J.J. (1985) Fear of success and level of aspiration. Journal of Social Psychology 125, 395-396.


An alternative interpretation of the above results would be that conventional sex-role scales measure a feminist view of what is feminine rather than what is actually feminine. Another view of how sex-role orientation should be measured is to be found in the article below:

Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1984) The great androgyny myth: Sex roles and mental health in the community at large. J. Social Psychology 124, 237-246.

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