Gender Research and the Services Consumer: New Insights and New Directions

Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
ABSTRACT - Gender characteristics of interior sex role self-concepts and exterior sex role stereotyping may affect services consumer in three areas differentiating services from goods: intangibility, producer variability, and consumer demand variation. Gender research in information processing, changing perceptions of psychological traits, and societal roles has special implications for services consumers.
[ to cite ]:
Barbara B. Stern (1987) ,"Gender Research and the Services Consumer: New Insights and New Directions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 514-518.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 514-518


Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


Gender characteristics of interior sex role self-concepts and exterior sex role stereotyping may affect services consumer in three areas differentiating services from goods: intangibility, producer variability, and consumer demand variation. Gender research in information processing, changing perceptions of psychological traits, and societal roles has special implications for services consumers.


Social science researchers have pioneered the study of relationships between biological gender, psychological sex traits, sex roles, and sex stereotypes in order to learn more about the interaction of personality, social organization, and the individual life cycle. Particularly since the mid-1970's, two areas of this gender research have captured the interest of marketers: exterior sex roles, and interior psychosexual self-concepts. The potential usefulness of gender concepts as a determinant of consumer behavior has motivated much of this research.

However, with few exceptions (Barak and Stern 1986; Gentry and Doering 1979) gender research in marketing deals primarily with consumer goods, not services. The reason may be that the study of services marketing as a distinct entity is relatively new (Fisk and Tansuhaj 1985) and has not yet entered mainstream consumer behavior research. Even those gender studies which have considered services primarily leisure activities - (Barak and Stern 1986; Gentry and Doering 1979) have treated them as simply another goods-item, not a special product category.

Since services are now considered to be unlike goods on a number of critical dimensions (Berry 1980; Shostack 1977), it seems worthwhile to investigate possible gender effects in certain areas of differentiation. The rapid growth of the service economy - responsible for 70: of the GNP and nine out of every 10 new jobs generated (Shanahan 1985) suggests the importance of studying the services firm, product, and consumer. Services may entail special relationships to gender, which should be examined in order to carve out areas for future consumer research.

This paper begins with a summary of relevant gender research, and then relates it to three areas which distinguish services from goods: intangibility, variability of production, and variations in consumption (Berry 1980). Insights from the services literature which suggest ways in which the two areas of knowledge can intersect are presented, and hypotheses developed for empirical testing in future research.


In marketing literature, gender research has addressed questions about the interior sexual self-concept, especially the relationship of psychological sex traits to biological sex, and interpretations of exterior stereotypical sex roles, particularly in relation to advertising and segmenting of the "women's market."

The foundations for this research stem from the other social sciences, primarily psychology. The influence of biological sex dominated sex role research prior to the 1970's, and the assumption was that biological gender was the major determinant of sex-related behavior. "Healthy" individuals were judged to be those .,ho conformed to the sex role appropriate to their gender and manifested only those traits socially approved for that gender (Constantinople 1973; Robinson and Green, 1981).

The dynamic changes which took place in American culture in the 1960's affected sex role stereotyping, and called these traditional assumptions into question (Bem 1974; 1975; 1977; Bem, Martyna and Watson 1976; Robinson and Green 1981). The women's liberation movement and the rapid entry of women into institutions of higher learning and the workforce led to the observation that sex roles, biological sex, and sex-related personality traits may not necessarily be either immutably fixed or identical.

In the early 1970's, Sandra Lipsitz Bem developed a new theory based on the sex traits of masculinity and femininity as separate, orthogonal constructs, not biologically-based, and able to coexist in varying degrees within an individual of either sex (1974; 1975). Her theory is based on the hypothesis that individuals may be "both masculine and feminine, both assertive and yielding, both instrumental and expressive - depending on the situational appropriateness of these various behaviors" (Bem 1974). Thus, biological sex was judged less important than psychosexual gender traits in determining modes of human behavior.

The areas in which gender research has been applied to consumer behavior can be summarized as follows:

1. Sex-role self-concept and masculine/feminine traits, using a variety of scales: (Aiken 1963; Allison, Golden, Mullet, and Coogan 1980; Barak and Stern 1986; Burns 1977; Coughlin and O'Connor 1985; Fry 1971; Gentry and Doering 1977; Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1978; Gentry and Haley, 1984; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1979; Kahle and Homer 1985; Martin and Roberts 1983; Morris and Cundiff 1971; Tucker 1976; Vitz and Johnson 1971).

2. Attitudes towards stereotypical women's roles and advertising portrayals: (Coughlin and O'Connor 1985; Debevec and Iyer 1986; Kilbourne 1984; Venkatesh 1980; Whipple and Courtney 1980; Wortzel and Frisbie 1974).

3. Relationship of information-processing (Gentry and Haley 1984) to gender self-schema, the cognitive pathways based on sexual self-concept and used to process incoming data (Bem 1981 a,b; Markus 1977; Markus, Crane, Bernstein, and Siladi 1982; Spence and Helmreich 1981).

4. Women's social, economic, and occupational roles as segmenting dimensions (Prakesh 1986).

Most of the above studies have focused on women. While the findings have been characterized by conflicting results, some conclusions on the basis of post-1970's research are:

1. The biological sex of a respondent seems at least as good an explanatory variable, if not a better one, than his/her sex-role self-concept for product use, brand choice, media use, product perception, product gender-typing, attitudes towards women business owners, and advertising recall (Allison, Golden, Mullet, and Coogan 1980; Gentry and Doering 1977; Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1978; Gentry and Haley 1984; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1979; Kahle and Homer 1985; Martin and Roberts 1983). It thus appears that biological sex is as useful to marketers as psychological self-perceptions of masculinity or femininity traits.

2. The presence of psychologically based masculine sex traits in respondents of either sex explains more than the presence or absence of feminine traits in the areas of family decision-making, reactions to women's roles in advertising, and certain consumer behavior variables (Barak and Stern 1986; Burns 1977; Coughlin and O'Connor 1985). Masculinity thus seems to be the behavioral trait of value for marketing.

3. Female respondents' attitudes towards women's liberation do not necessarily correlate with preferences for traditional vs. liberated role portrayals in advertising (Alreck, Settle, and Belch 1982; Duker and Tucker 1977; Wortzel and Frisbie 1974; Whipple and Courtney 1980), although feminists seem most opposed to sex-role stereotyping in general (Venkatesh 1980). Actual social changes appear to be reflected unevenly in real-world consumer behavior.

4. Gender schema does not seem to affect recall of advertising stimuli. One study (Gentry and Haley 1984) found that gender schema did not predict recall of advertisements; rather, biological sex did.

It is still not clear whether biological sex or psychosexual concepts account for sex role differences important to marketers (Prakesh and Flores 1985). In fact, post-70's gender research has concentrated on measuring the coexistence of psychosexual traits in the same individual rather than differences between male and female. At present, gender research should probably continue to measure psychological traits using the BSRI (Bem Sex Role Index, Bem 1977), despite dissatisfaction with it (Taylor and Hall 1982), since it has been the most commonly used scale in post-1979 marketing research.


The potential importance of gender research in services marketing necessitates a comment on one characteristic of the services sector which differentiates it from manufacturing: sex composition. Services is the only economic sector involving women as producers as well as consumers, and as such it differs from the predominantly male-dominated manufacturing mode. In fact, in this respect, services industries can be considered "feminized" in three ways: labor, management, and entrepreneurship. Services employ mostly female labor: 80% of women working today are in the "Pink Collar" and "White Collar" labor force (Frank-Fox and Hesse-Biber 1984). Further, the majority of women currently in managerial or professional positions are in services. In 1982, 52% of women executives were found in services firms (Forbes and Peircy 1983). And, when women become entrepreneurs, an estimated 75% tend to concentrate in the service and retail areas (Bowen and Hisrich 1986). This background suggests possible distinctive gender implications of services on consumer behavior, since it is the only economic area where women are both producers and consumers.


Perhaps the most widely noticed distinction between services and goods is tangibility: services exist in time, not space, and thus have no physicality directly perceivable by the senses. A service is often considered "a deed, a performance, an effort" (Berry 1980); it is, ultimately, an experience (Bateson 1985), and may result in little or nothing tangible for the consumer to take home. Because of their temporal nature, services involve the consumer on a higher level of abstraction and may require more complex intellectual processing. It is more difficult for the consumer to grasp the meaning of a dental procedure such as root canal, for example, than to understand a product such as toothpaste.

In order for services to be comprehensible to the consumer, deprived of familiar sensory props, they must be "tangibilized" by concretization. Important tools of the tangibilization process are symbolism, imagery (Shostack 1977), and metaphor to make services vivid and lend concrete meaning to essentially abstract products. For example, the Travelers Companies umbrella is a tangible symbol of the abstract protective quality of insurance products. Images, symbols, and metaphorical constructs have long been used in literature, especially poetry, to clothe abstractions in sensorily appealing form (Brooks and Warren 1960), but little is known about the ways in which gender may affect individual reception of and receptivity to different imagistic messages. Since abstract human experiences are subjective, however, and depend heavily on the experiencer for meaning (Bitner, Nyquist, and Booms 1985), the contribution gender knowledge may add to understanding the mind of the message recipient is potentially quite valuable. Whether men and women understand imagery in the same or different ways based on biological sex, psychological sex traits, or some combination of the two, is particularly important in services, which exist in large part only through images and symbols in the consumer's mind.

The area of gender schema and information processing seems useful for the study of services and concretizing imagery. There is reason to believe that individuals process data in accordance with cognitive schema ordained by learned sex roles (Bem 1981 a,b; Markus, 1977; Markus, Crane, Bernstein and Siladi 1982). Even though this research has only been in existence since the mid-1970's, and is still rather controversial (Bem 1981 b; Spence and Helmreich 1981), it appears to be relevant to the imaging process. Any special relationships between processing of imagery and pre-ordained cognitive patterns learned on the basis of gender roles would be useful to the services marketer, particularly dependent on imagery to stimulate consumer involvement.

Services research has yielded two provocative but still untested concepts relevant to information processing which seem promising in their gender implications: vividness of imagery (Drumwright 1985) and personal template constructs (Klein and Lewis 1985). These give rise to two hypotheses about the effect of services intangibility on the consumer.

Vividness of Imagery: Memory Recall.

H1: Masculine (feminine) imagery will be recalled more readily by masculine (feminine) typed consumers.

The vividness bias in information processing suggests that vivid information is more readily available in a consumer's memory for recall and retention (Drumwright 1985). The quality of vividness has been shown to be associated with concrete words and emotionally interesting images. Services show special need for vividness tangible clues in the form of concretized and 'emotionally coded' imagery - to become embedded in consumer memory. Although empirical evidence of the vividness effect is rare, the area deserves further study in the light of potentially different gender relationships to vividness and its uses in advertising recall. It seems likely that recall differs by gender, since what is emotionally arousing to males, displays of aggression for example (Maccoby and Jacklin 1974), is not so to females. This suggests that macho aggressive symbols such as the investment company T. Rowe Price's black horned ram may be recalled more readily by masculine types than feminine.

Personal Template Constructs: Understanding Imagery.

H2: Masculine (feminine) types attach different meanings to masculine (feminine) images.

The area of personal construct theory (Klein and Lewis 1985) has been used to set forth a framework enabling marketers to use tangible clues as signs representing the intangible attributes characteristic of experiential products. The basis for this theory is that "it is the consumer's construct system which ultimately defines [his/her] reality" (Klein and Lewis, 1985, 108). Each individual appears to have a personal construct "template," which s/he uses to process information and make sense out of the real world. Constructs of the intangible are more subjective than those of the tangible. For services, "the surrogates become the tangible or metaphorical clues" (Klein and Lewis 1985, 109) that consumers use to construct their personal realities. The marketer's task is to find out what the consumer's construct is, so that an appropriate sign can be created, allowing the consumer to assimilate the product message correctly. For example, if a consumer interprets Prudential-Bache's symbolic rock sailing along a river as a threatening, destructive force, rather than a stable beneficial one, then that consumer's personal reality may attach negative denotative meanings to the company's financial services. Since the jutting rock is an obviously sexual symbol, it may mean different things to masculine and feminine types.

Both of these theories suggest gender-related questions pertinent to information processing. To begin, there is the global concern: does each gender process symbolic input in the same way? Do symbols and images filter through the mind on the basis of biological sex, sex-role self-concepts, interactions between the two, or, perhaps, other dimensions altogether? In terms-of possibly important psychological gender differences, T. Rowe Price's ram may be recalled differentially by masculine and feminine types, just as Prudential's rock may be interpreted differentially. Because these symbols function so centrally in creating services' reality, it is important to understand ways they are processed, stored, changed, and ultimately understood. The consumer of financial services has no tangible item such as canned peas or motor oil to process mentally, and thus attaches much more significance to the signs a company conveys. As yet we know very little about how gender functions in symbolic cognition of these signs. In view of the sexual overtones of many symbols, it seems mistaken to assume that they mean the same thing to each gender.


A second difference between goods and services also flows from their differing temporal status: producer variability. Goods, especially assembly-line products, are turned out with little variation, while service experiences are, strictly speaking, never precisely the same twice in a row. This production variability stems from the simultaneity of service production/consumption in time (Berry 1980), and results in an inability to standardize services to the same degree as goods. Because a service is often produced and consumed at the same time - evident in experiential activity such as hair cutting or theatrical performance - the consumer may be present IN the service factory, interacting with the provider. This interaction is personal and immediate: no buffer of time or space separates the two. The "high-contact" nature of many service relationships (Chase 1978) involves a fifth and most uncontrollable "p": people. Services personnel are often barely differentiated from the product itself - for example, airline personnel may represent the totality of the flight "product." A lack of standardization of services follows as a result of the variability of people input: each provider brings his/her own personality and life script to the service encounter and interacts with a consumer. who also carries his/her own agenda.

This simultaneity and lack of standardization create the need for service firms to exert control over interaction processes by motivating customer-centered behaviors in their own employees, a management task called "internal marketing." (George 1977, 1986; Gronroos 1981, 1985). Increasing depersonalization of services (Hollander 1985) has led to consumer dissatisfaction with provider behavior: services personnel are often perceived as rude. disinterested, or hostile. Since the service provider and consumer are often face-to-face, the attitude of the provider can determine consumer decisions about personal satisfaction and product quality. The provider's relationship with the customer becomes emblematic of the service product in situations ranging from medical care to interior decoration (George 1977, 1986; Gronroos 1981, 1985). In this sense, services firms differ considerably from manufacturing ones (Schneider and Bowen 1984): an assembly-line worker has little to no contact with the final consumer, while a nurse's aide or an automobile repairperson does. Non-caring service employees can directly alienate a consumer on an immediate and personal level, unlike disaffected assembly-line workers who can only sabotage the customer indirectly by careless workmanship.

Human variability in the production of services and the concomitant need for high levels of positive employee behavior seem to imply gender issues in at least two areas: the depiction of stereotypical sex roles in advertising (Fennell and Weber 1984; Roberts and Koggan 1979) and stereotypical sex traits associated with interpersonal relationships (Prakesh and Flores 1985). Two hypotheses can be generated on the basis of producer variability in services.

Stereotypes and Advertising.

H3: Masculine (feminine) types will show differing emotional responses to masculinity (femininity) of imagery in advertisements.

The subject of sex traits and advertising imagery has been considered in a set of research propositions put forth about advertising (Prakesh and Flores 1986) which has interesting implications for services. Suggested scenarios for attractive advertising images were created based on research hypotheses about the desire of women for intimate relationships vis a vis the desire of men for personal space. Women's attraction to intimacy and men's hostility to it were linked to the potential appeal of stereotypical portrayals and situations based on the message recipient's psychological gender.

If symbols and images are understood intellectually and recalled differentially (H1 and H2) by each gender, then it is also likely that they arouse different emotional responses. Symbolic usage may attract/repel each gender according to the emotions aroused. For example, the Dreyfus Investment Company's lion may be exciting to males, but frightening to females. One Bem experiment, in fact, implies this: feminine-typed women did not show nurturant behavior towards a baby kitten, but DID play with and cuddle a human baby when Bem repeated the experiment (Bem 1975). Bem hypothesized feminine-typed fear of animals. If this is the case, then the same symbol designed to elicit emotional responses may affect each gender differently. Symbols are powerful sexual stimuli, and pertinent gender-related associations require attention in terms of creating advertising messages which do not unintentionally confuse or alienate consumers.

Stereotypes and Interpersonal Relationships.

H4: Stereotypical feminine sex traits associated with interpersonal relationships convey attributes of caring to consumers.

Stereotypical sex traits associate women with excellence in nurturant caretaking, and men with strong aggressive leadership. These stereotypes have remained constant for twenty years (see e.g. Rosenkrantz et al. 1968; Williams and Bennet 1975), and may or may not be biologically-based (Maccoby and Jacklin 1974). The services firm seems to require a qualitative dimension of feminine-associated traits which differs from more "macho" characteristics deemed desirable in manufacturing. If women are indeed more adept at personal relations - better "caretakers" - they would seem to be the better providers of services with the desired human touch. The call for nurturant values in the service sector (Schneider 1980; Czepiel, Solomon, Surprenant and Gutman 1985) seems like a call for the restructuring of services on a more feminized model. In fact, the question, "Does corporate America need 'feminine skills'?" has also been asked in the popular press (Hughey and Gelman 1986), particularly in reference to a dehumanization often associated with American business enterprise.

In reference to gender research, the presence of a feminine caretaking stereotype may affect the marketing activities of services in several ways. Services seem to have a reservoir of "people" skills to tap into by virtue of the numbers of women employed in both managerial and labor positions. How can the firm maximize nurturance traits such as sensitivity and sympathy, generally thought to be characteristic of women, and desirable both for internal and external marketing? The use of female figures as spokespersons symbolizing the service - Leona Helmsley, for example, as the Queen standing guard over the Palace Hotel - seems to be a campaign based on conveying particular care for the consumer by having the Monarch Herself ensure that guests are treated royally. Since women seem to have an advantage in either possessing or being thought to possess nurturant qualities, certain services try to transform these caring traits into attractive consumer appeals by using women as product personifications.

Some questions must be raised, however, about the accuracy of these stereotypical characterizations in the 1980's, widely acknowledged to be an era of social, personal, and value change (Zimney 1984). The cards are by no means in on the nature, definition, and current interpretation of stereotypes and sex traits. A controversial body of literature on androgyny (see e.g. Taylor and Hall 1982) as well as a recent consumer behavior study (Barak and Stern 1986) implies that perhaps masculine/feminine are neither as strongly dichotomized nor mutually exclusive as has been assumed. Both men and women seem to have been given "permission" by rapid and widespread societal change to adopt behaviors generally thought to be associated with the opposite sex: men can express nurturant feelings, and women display powerful actions to a greater degree than ever before. Yet it is not clear that this message of change in the stereotypical feminine/expressive, masculine/instrumental has become widely adopted by or even acceptable to the mass market. In a period of value transition such as the present, it seems reasonable to assume that different consumers view the association of nurturance and femininity differently, and that both old stereotypes and newer revisions may co-exist for some time.


A third significant difference between goods and services, also related to the temporal dimension, is consumer variation in demand. This is particularly important as an input of consumer involvement, measured by perceived importance of the stimulus in a specific situation where time pressure is a factor relevant to the decision process. Since services exist in time, they cannot be inventoried as goods can, and are far more subject to fluctuation in consumer demand (Sasser 1976). The task of smoothing out the demand curve in services is one of the most important and difficult marketing tasks: both a lost producer-hour and an unconsummated customer transaction are irreplaceable. No storage process exists to adjust the needs of the producer to those of the consumer, and supply and demand both require active management.

Services need to cope with wide varieties of human change which seem directly related to gender issues, but about which little is known. The need for services to reshape the supply/demand equation to reduce the impact of consumer variability seems to relate in some ways to the gender issue of changing societal roles of women. While the women's market has been segmented on various dimensions of working/non-working, job commitment, value systems, and attitudes towards women (see Prakesh 1986), the reality of the enormous number of women in the labor force never before encountered in the American economy - has not yet been widely considered in relation to the variety of role and lifestyle options newly available to the services consumer.

Two intra-individual dimensions of change - developmental role restructuring across an individual's lifetime and role shifting within a person's daily life activities also have implications as gender issues relating to services. There is evidence that people not only exhibit role changes throughout life (Robinson and Green 1981), but also show changes in daily life as a result of the need to balance a multiplicity of divergent roles simultaneously. This is particularly evident and stressful for working women, who in the course of a short span of time may need to switch back and forth in a variety of roles such as manager, wife, mother, and daughter (Lenney 1979). While the roles of men have not received as much attention in recent literature as those of women (Debevec 1986), we can also assume that these changes impact them. The relationship of rapid shifts in role enactment impacts consumer involvement in terms of high and low time pressures in purchase situations. At any given moment, the consumer market appears to be in role flux: each sex can move in and out of both new and accustomed non-biological roles by the day, the year, or the decade.

The relationship of changes in sex roles across an individual's lifetime has not been extensively studied in the consumer behavior discipline, for longitudinal studies are rare (Dickson 1982). One implication of change in both the individual and society over time (Heilbrun and Schwartz 1982) is that marketers, especially those in service industries, should be examining relationships between sex traits/roles over the consumer life cycle as well as the product life cycle, since both men and women seem to show different levels of masculinity and femininity at different times in their lives (Puglisi 1983). Age, period, and cohort effects (McBroom 1984) would also seem to impact different market segments' demand states in different time periods. However, the study of change as a consumer dimension has barely begun.

Change and Consumer Involvement. One hypothesis can be put forth on the basis of research in situational segmentation:

H5: Different service attributes are sought by consumers depending on the interaction between time pressure and Render-role enactment in purchase situations.

Recent examinations of the significance of situational segmenting (Dickson 1982; Hornik 1982) can be extended into the services area because of the relationship of situational events to change. The concept behind person-situation segmentation (Dickson 1982) is that consumers can be categorized not primarily on "demographics, personality traits or attitudes," (Dickson, 58) but on interactions between the individual and the situation (Hornik 1982). Consumer behavior can be viewed, then, as subjectively related to temporal events, and segmentation can take place on the basis of particular consumer needs in particular usage situations. Since individuals take on different roles in different situations, and usage situations themselves change over time (Dickson 1982), the consumer should no longer be viewed as a fixed target.

There seems to be a relationship between this kind of segmentation and the consumer demand variability which is one characteristic of services, also related to changing sex roles. In fact, time itself - the root of most differences between services and goods - has been called "the ultimate factor differentiating alternative consumption strategies" (Hornik 1982). Fluctuating consumer demand seems to be related to changeable sex roles, since usage behavior appears to vary depending on what situational role the consumer is enacting at any given time. For example, the female consumer shopping in a department store at lunch hour may seek store attributes of rapid service, ease of payment, and streamlined selection as result of interaction between limited time and career pressures diminishing her involvement in the act of shopping. The same woman consumer shopping on a Saturday, however, might seek discount prices, lack of sales pressure, and in-depth selection as a result of interaction between the social nature of the shopping trip and her role as a recreational shopper.

The critical question for services is, what is the relationship of changing sex roles, both within society and the individual, to demand patterns? One unknown is the difference - whether it exists, and to what extent in the tolerance of men and women for demand dissatisfaction or the discontinuities that seem inevitable in service production. The involvement level of consumers stressed by interactive increased time pressure and multiple role shifts may be causing changes in consumer purchase of services. The reaction of a constantly changing consumer requires careful attention to ensure proper "fit" between desired attributes and service performance in any given situation.


Thus, the area of gender research holds great promise for the service industries, since there are many qualities of services which differ from goods in ways which imply gender-related distinctions. The intangibility of services, their production variability, and consumer demand variations all seem to relate to popular areas of gender research, such as sex-role self concepts, advertising stereotypes, and actual social/occupational role changes. New examinations of the service sector as an area distinct from manufactured goods seem likely to yield promising results in the light of what is now known about gender characteristics, and what remains to be discovered.


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