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The impact of ethgender on self-esteem among adolescents.

Inferior social status of "racial" minorities can result in negative self-concepts (Clark & Clark, 1939, 1940; Gordon, 1969; Horowitz, 1936), but most studies of global self-esteem have not found a significant difference between members of ethnic minority and dominant groups, (e.g., Jensen, White, & Galliher (1982); McCarthy & Yancey (1971); Verkuyten (1986, 1989); Yancey, Rigsby, & McCarthy (1972). Weight of evidence led reviewers, Wylie (1979), Rosenberg (1979) and Verkuyten (1988), to conclude that there is no difference in global self-esteem between minority and dominant group members.

Further, males may have higher global self-esteem than females (Alpert-Gillis & Connell, 1989; Harper & Marshall, 1991; Rosenberg & Simons, 1975; Steitz & Owen, 1992; Verkuyten, 1986; West, Fish, & Stevens, 1980), or there may be no difference between the genders (Kohr, Coldiron, Skiffington, Masters, & Blust, 1988; Mullis, A. K., Mullis, R. L., & Normandin, D., 1992; Lerner, Sorrell, & Brackney, 1981; Osborne & LeGette, 1982; Schwalbe & Staples, 1991).

Differences in theoretical frameworks and resultant differences in measures of self-esteem have produced inconsistencies that characterize the field (Dorgan, Goebel, & House, 1983; Gray-Little & Appelbaum, 1979; Wylie, 1979). This situation led Wylie (1989, p. 119) to lament that the measuring instruments are almost "idiosyncratic." Researchers have used different measures of self-esteem with the same group of respondents only to find that there is surprisingly little overlap in the aspects of self (Marsh & Smith, 1982; Shavelson & Bolus, 1982). Despite these problems, studies of self-esteem have led to an increased recognition of (if not appreciation for) its complexity.

Rosenberg's Legacy

Developed for use with adolescents, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale measures global self-esteem (for recent developments, see Rosenberg, Schooler, & Schoenbach, 1989). Using this scale to examine specific racial categories (black and white), Rosenberg and Simmons (1972), did not find any significant differences in the levels of global self-esteem. Yancey, Rigsby, & McCarthy (1972) made a similar finding. Others found that blacks had higher self-esteem levels (Hines & Berg-Cross, 1981; Richman, Clark, & Brown, 1985). The scale also has been used to examine differences between the genders. It was found that race and gender may interact to produce low levels of self-esteem among white adolescent girls (Richman, Clark, & Brown, 1985).

According to Rosenberg (1979), the self-concept is comprised of parts organized in hierarchical and complex ways. Both the global self-concept and the parts "... exist within the individual's phenomenal field as separate and distinguishable entities, and each can and should be studied in their |sic~ own right." Marsh and Shavelson (1985) provide empirical support for the existence of both global and particular features of the self-concept. The global self-concept seems to predominate during childhood and adolescence, but it seems to grow weaker in adulthood as different facets become better defined, more distinct, and more salient. Marsh and Shavelson (1985) suggest the interesting possibility that "... the formation of general self-concept may take place independently of specific facets of self-concept". Empirical research supports the multidimensional view of the self-concept and self-esteem (Fleming & Courtney, 1984; Long, 1991; Shavelson, Hubner, & Stanton, 1976). Van Tuinen and Ramanaiah (1979) found evidence that social self-esteem is a subconstruct of global self-esteem.

The self emerges as an entity that defines persons as distinct from others. As persons assume more statuses in society, the sources of self-esteem become more varied, and the self-concept becomes more differentiated. Also, these aspects become salient in different situations. Thus, persons can see themselves as less successful in some areas and more successful in others without feeling inferior on global self-esteem.

Self-Concept and Self-Esteem

Heiss and Owens (1972) found a pattern of interactions among race, class, and self-evaluations which supported the notion that self-evaluations were made up of various "traits." However, they did not anticipate such "anomalies" as lower-strata black women having fairly positive views and lower-strata white women having negative views of their own intelligence (Turner & Turner, 1982; Martinez & Dukes, 1987).

Using the trait framework, Turner and Turner (1982) distinguished between two general categories of traits of self-esteem. Private-domain traits referred to "domestic-supportive characteristics relevant to intimate interactions," and public-domain traits referred to "characteristics especially operative in the public-productive sphere, including those pertinent to occupational competence and success". They found that lower-strata black women "have an emphatic view of self as competent in the public domain". They questioned the additive view of the negative impacts of oppressive structures. Jeffries and Ransford (1980), called their technique the multiple hierarchy approach, and they developed the concept of ethgenders as the intersection of race and gender wherein individuals occupying unique social spaces develop unique perceptions of self. Martinez and Dukes (1987, 1991) studied the effect of ethgender on self-esteem while controlling for confounding factors of socioeconomic status, academic performance, and age. They found that Native American, Asian, and white American females had lower levels of perceived intelligence (public domain trait) than did their male counterparts, but black females did not. In terms of self-satisfaction (private domain trait) they found the highest levels of self-esteem among black males and Chicanos, and the lowest among Native American and Asian females.

The complexities of the self-concept and self-esteem are enormous. The impact of racism and sexism on the self-esteem of members of minority and dominant groups remains controversial. The present study examines the impact of race and gender on the self-esteem of adolescents, and it attempts to reconcile some contradictory findings.


The notion of "global" self-esteem, as measured by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, connotes an overarching--even enveloping--scope. "Core" self-esteem is a preferable concept, since it conveys the notion of "centrality." Certainly, the Rosenberg scale can be conceptualized as measuring core self-esteem. Around this core are formed conceptions of efficacy and self-confidence (Hughes & Demo, 1989). These aspects of the self are more public. They deal with perceived ability to perform in institutional contexts. They are referred to as "public self-esteem."


Core self-esteem of minority adolescents generally is about as high as that of whites (based on "several thousand studies"; Rosenberg, 1981, p. 604). Rationale: Primary group relations support the notion of an "inact, and worthwhile self." Among ethnic minorities, core selves are "insulated" from the effects of institutional racism.

Public self-esteem generally is lower for racial minority adolescents than for whites. Rationale: Since self-confidence and efficacy are farther from the core, insulation is more difficult, and the negative effect of institutional racism is greater.

Core self-esteem of female adolescents generally is lower than that of males (West, Fish, & Stevens, 1980; Rosenberg & Simmons, 1975: Verkuyten, 1986; Alpert-Gillis & Connell, 1989). Rationale: Primary group relations continue to support the notion of general female inferiority.

The difference in public self-esteem generally is less across adolescent males and females than across the "races." Rationale: Schools are the main public institutions with which adolescents come into contact. They are more even-handed in fostering efficacy and self-confidence in both males and females than they are for members of racial groups.

In sum, due to institutional racism, schools are more coercive of racial minorities, and the result is lower public self-esteem. They are less coercive of females, and the result is public self-esteem that is more on a par with males.

Families are more coercive of females, and the result is lower core self-esteem. Minority families insulate youth from institutional racism, and the result is core self-esteem that is more on a par with that of whites.


Core self-esteem was measured with the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale (RSE), an instrument containing 10 items that can either be summed up or set up as a Guttman scale (see Wylie, 1989). Here they were summed up. The scale is internally consistent, and it is regarded as among the best scales for measuring global self-esteem among adolescents.

Public self-esteem was measured using an index that was made up of three Likert-type items: (1) I am as intelligent as others my age, (2) I have the ability to perform in school just as well as others my age, and (3) I have as much potential as others my age to succeed in a challenging career if I'm given a chance. All responses (including those on the RSE) were scored on a four-point scale having anchors of "Strongly Disagree" and "Strongly Agree." The three public self-esteem items were intercorrelated .49 to .61.

Ethgenders were measured by combining responses to separate questions on "race/ethnic" group membership and being male or female.

Age, grade, parental education, and average grade on the last nine-week report card were based on self-reports. Socioeconomic status was measured indirectly by asking the level of education of the parent who had achieved the higher level. Finally, the occupational prestige of the head of the household was measured by asking respondents to describe it via one of the following categories: professional, business owner, business person, clerk, manual worker, and protective or service worker.


The data were collected from students attending all junior high and high schools in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The instrument took about 20 minutes to complete. It was administered by teachers in November, 1989. Usable questionnaires were returned by 18,612 students. The study was conducted as part of a larger youth lifestyle survey.


Findings on Core Self-esteem

The theory predicted that differences on the RSE (core self-esteem) would be greater for gender than for ethnicity. The mean score on the RSE was 31.51 for males and 29.83 for females. This difference generated an F-ratio (1, 18612) of 533.81 (p |is less than~ .001). The mean score for whites was 30.78 and for minorities, it was 30.39. This much smaller difference in mean scores generated a smaller F-ratio (1, 18612) of 28.17 (p |is less than~ .001). While both of these differences are statistically significant, gender had by far the stronger effect, as predicted.

Findings on Public Self-Esteem

The theory predicted that differences in public self-esteem would be greater for ethnicity than for gender. The mean for whites on the public self-esteem index was 10.20, and the mean for minorities was 9.87. This difference generated an F-ratio (1, 18612) of 134.24 (p |is less than~ .001). The mean score for males was 10.20, and the mean for females was 10.00. Males had higher public self-esteem, but the gap narrowed. The difference produced an F-ratio (1, 18612) of 28.17 (p |is less than~ .001). As predicted, differences in public self-esteem were greater for ethnicity than for gender.
Table 1

Means and z-scores (with covariates) for Rosenberg and Public Self-Esteem
Scales by Ethgender


Ethgender Mean z-score

Black males 32.44 (.33)
Hispanic Males 31.96 (.24)
White Males 31.78 (.20)
Native Males 31.47 (.14)
Black Females 31.10 (.07)
Asian Males 30.91 (.03)
Hispanic Females 30.03 (-.14)
White Females 29.59 (-.26)
Native Females 29.41 (-.26)
Asian Females 28.82 (-.38)

GM 30.75
SD 5.06

Public Self-Esteem

White Males 10.36 (.12)
Hispanic Males 10.30 (.09)
Black Males 10.29 (.08)
Black Females 10.28 (.08)
Asian Males 10.16 (.01)
Native Males 10.14 (.00)
Hispanic Females 9.95 (-.10)
White Females 9.95 (-.10)
Native Females 9.97 (-.10)
Asian Females 9.72 (-.23)

GM 10.14
SD 1.80

Could these findings be replicated with another population? Separate analyses were performed on 1,700 students in the Denver, Colorado area. These students were of slightly lower socioeconomic status, and were more ethnically mixed than were the students in Colorado Springs. Findings supported the theory slightly more strongly than those reported above.

Could the findings have been produced by factors such as age, academic achievement, or socioeconomic status? Separate analyses were performed using analysis of co-variance. Results parallelled those reported above.


The analyses revealed some evidence of statistical interaction between ethnicity and gender that parallelled those of Richman, Clark, and Brown (1985). These findings as well as theoretical notions suggested the analysis of core and public self-esteem by ethgender.

Upon examining scores (without controls for age, GPA, SES) on the RSE by ethgender, males of all ethnic groups appeared above the grand mean. Black females were the only ethgender to score above the grand mean, and their mean ranked them about in the middle of the males. These findings support the previous theoretical premises.

Looking at scores on public self-esteem by ethgender, two female groups (whites and blacks) were in the top five groups. Comparing z-scores, generally the male groups did not score as well on public self-esteem as they did on the RSE. Female groups, however, scored at least as well on public self-esteem as on the RSE.


Race and gender interact to produce different levels of core and specific (public domain) self-esteem among youth. These findings parallel those of Richman et al. (1985). In general, "race" (as a function of racism) does not have a significant negative impact on the global self-concept of racial minority males, but it seems to have a negative impact on public domain components of self-esteem. In contrast, discrimination (both sexist and racist) "attacks" both global and specific aspects of self-esteem among females, but less so public domain self-esteem.
Table 2

Means and z-scores for Rosenberg and Public Self-Esteem Scales by Ethgender


Ethgender Mean z-score

White Males 31.80 (.21)
Black Males 31.75 (.20)
Hispanic Males 31.15 (.08)
Black Females 30.84 (.02)
Asian Males 30.83 (.02)
Native Males 30.76 (.00)
White Females 29.93 (-.16)
Hispanic Females 29.63 (-.22)
Native Females 29.10 (-.33)
Asian Females 29.04 (-.34)

GM 30.75
SD 5.06

Public Self-Esteem

White Males 10.36 (.12)
Black Females 10.18 (.02)
Asian Males 10.13 (.00)
White Females 10.09 (-.03)
Black Males 9.98 (-.09)
Hispanic Males 9.95 (-.11)
Native Males 9.85 (-.16)
Asian Females 9.82 (-.18)
Hispanic Females 9.79 (-.19)
Native Females 9.68 (-.26)

Mean 10.14
SD 1.80

Males had lower public domain self-esteem than global self-esteem, but females showed the reverse. Could this be due to socialization practices within families? If so, is the family the primary vehicle for the production of sexism? Something gives females a relatively more positive outlook on public domain traits related to institutions than on core self-esteem. Do adolescent females believe the rhetoric of "having it all"? Schools have tended to reward the conformity of females, so perhaps the measures on intelligence and school performance reflect this process. Greater perceived equality in the workplace and emphasis in schools on performance may account for the observed differences.

Despite decades of emphasis on race and gender in the study of self-esteem, surprisingly little of this research has focused on the systematic investigation of the interactive effects of these variables. This avenue of research has promise of locating individuals in unique social spaces and allowing for investigation of the mechanisms by which discrimination has an impact on the self. In order for this line of investigation to prove fruitful, a stronger theory on the core and public aspects of the self is needed, as is a more thorough measure of public self-esteem.


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Ruben Martinez, Ph.D., Chair and Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Reprint requests to Richard L. Dukes, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Science Research Center, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80933-7150.
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Author:Dukes, Richard L.; Martinez, Ruben
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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