Theory of Needs and self-actualisation

In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote “Only recently have we come to accept the fact that there is an evolutionary scale or hierarchy of needs in man (and thus in woman), ranging from the needs usually called instincts because they are shared with animals, to needs that come later in human development”. However, the progress through this scale is easily blocked, and was indeed blocked for women from the 1940’s onwards as seen in The rise and fall of the New (Dominant) Women. As Friedan wrote, “the development of women has been blocked at the physiological level with, in many cases, no need recognized higher than the need for love or sexual satisfaction”…They were encouraged to evade human growth.” (Friedan, 1963)

Friedan believed that freedom was the key to growth, and that those women that were free were also the high-dominance women described by Maslow in his earlier papers on dominance. For Friedan “These high-dominance women were not “feminine” in the conventional sense, partly because they felt free to choose rather than be bound by convention, and partly because they were stronger as individuals than most women”. Indeed Maslow also realized that high dominance women were “psychologically free, easy and relaxed”. Their behaviors, attitudes and feelings were more “natural” than they were in lower dominance women. Maslow compared high dominance women to high dominance men “From a psychological point of view, a high-dominance woman is more like a high-dominance man” (Maslow, 1942). Therefore it is not surprising that authors like Cullen state that “a belief in the “naturalness” of male dominance and female submission underlies Maslow’s needs hierarchy”(Cullen, 2002).

If growth (or self actualisation) is interpreted as a state of psychological health that requires freedom, it is logic to assume that those reaching it belong to the high dominance type since they are also more free in general, accept themselves more freely, are spontaneous, independent of culture and environment, etc.,

The fact that Maslow only managed to include 2 women in his study on public self actualisers is explained by Friedan as proof that “self actualisation is hardly possible at all for women in our society” (Friedan, 1963). This seems obvious “if a woman’s needs are not recognized and she is forced to seek identity and self-esteem only in sexual fulfilment, motherhood, and the possession of material things” (Friedan, 1963). Maslow thought that “self actualization is only possible for women today in America if one person can grow through another -that is, if the woman can realize her own potential through her husband and children. “We do not know if this is possible or not” he said” (Friedan, 1963 quoting Maslow). For Friedan it clearly wasn’t as she sees meaningful work that uses men and women’s full capabilities as the solution to their identity crisis.

Considering the very small number of women that Maslow included in his study on psychological healthy, it is the more surprising to discover that when describing the imperfections of self actualizing people 2 of the 3 examples are about women!

Some of the more recent criticisms to Maslow’s theory are that the theory is non-testable (Kelly Dye, 2005), has limited empirical evidence, and is outdated (Cullen, 1997). Even Maslow recognized in 1962 that “My motivation theory was published 20 years ago, and in all that time nobody repeated it, or tested it, or really analyzed it or criticized it. They just used it, swallowed it whole” (Lowry, 1979). Another criticism is that it can only be applied in capitalist environments “The theory is grounded in the historical and social realities of the growth of democratic elitism…Since growth comes through vocational achievement, Maslow’s theory glorifies individual initiative for personal gain” (Cullen, 1997) It is therefore understood by some authors as an “affirmation of capitalist ideology”. (Cullen, 1997 quoting Shaw and Colimore)

The theory is gender biased because of the links between self-actualization and high dominant, masculine values.  “By continuing to publish Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs without context….we are merely perpetuating the genderedness of organization theory” (Kelly Dye, 2005). This “reinforces the sexuality of organizations, while at the same time justifying women’s exclusion from positions of power. If dominance or hierarchical position requires masculine behaviours, women can supposedly achieve this…by becoming more like men”(Cullen, 2002).

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