Sex differences in spatial and social abilities

Date: 9th May, 2014

Time: 12:30 to 14:00

Venue: Meng Wah Complex 401 & 402, The University of Hong Kong

Speakers: Dr. Wang Ivy Wong, Miss Rebecca Y. Hei Li


Gender and sex continue to be a non-negligible consideration in people’s lives in the modern world. Decades of research has pointed to the complexity of sex development, with many important questions yet to be answered. At the new Gender Development Laboratory, researchers are interested in topics such as the social, cognitive, hormonal and genetic influences on sex development, patterns of sex differences and similarities, the role of sex-typed play and disorders of sex development. In this seminar, two scholars will share some of the lab’s current work on these topics. Both presentations will discuss sex differences in spatial and social abilities as well as how these sex differences arise, with an emphasis on the experiential processes.

Topic 1: Ubiquity of sex differences in spatial and social abilities across socioeconomic strata and the role of play

 Much research explores the causes of sex differences in spatial and social development and ways to reduce them. Among socialization theories, sex-typed toy play has been associated with the development of sex-typed abilities. Whereas research often assumed that sex differences are generalizable to the whole population, some studies showed that sex differences vary across nations. A recent finding also showed that sex differences in spatial abilities are present in children of middle and high, but not low, SES. These findings implicate the importance of macro-experiential factors – such as SES – in accounting for certain sex differences. Opportunities to engage in sex-typed activities such as sex-typed play may contribute to the sex differences.

This talk will review research relevant to understanding the ubiquity of sex differences in spatial and social development and the importance of sex-typed play, as well as gaps in this line of research. Finally, this talk will introduce an ongoing study of Hong Kong preschoolers that aims to address these gaps.

Speaker: Dr. Wang Ivy Wong

Dr. Wong is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong. In 2013, she obtained her PhD with a Gates Scholarship from the University of Cambridge, where she worked with renowned scholars on sex development. She is broadly interested in sex-related matters. Her previous research looked at the inter-play of social and hormonal influences on sex development in individuals with a disorder of sex development. Her other study was featured in a BBC documentary and involved the development and causes of sex-typed toy and color preferences in young children. She has published in a leading journal and presented at major international conferences in the field.

Topic 2: Dolls, guns and puzzles – the relationships between toys and social abilities in boys and girls

The study investigated the relationships between preferences for male-typical, female-typical and gender neutral toys, and the development of empathy and comforting behaviours in 80 Hong Kong Chinese children aged six to seven (40 boys and 40 girls).  Boys and girls were found to prefer male-typical and female-typical toys respectively, and there was no difference in boys’ and girls’ preference for gender neutral toys.  No sex difference was found in levels of empathy, and there was no relationship between toy preferences and levels of empathy, or between levels of empathy and comforting behaviours.  However, preference for male-typical toy play was associated with lower comforting behaviours (or lower motivation to comfort) in boys and girls, whereas preference for female-typical toy play was associated with higher comforting behaviours in girls.  The possible reasons underlying these findings will be discussed.

Speaker:  Miss Rebecca Y. Hei Li

Miss Rebecca Y. Hei Li worked under the supervision of Dr. Wong on her Postgraduate Certificate in Psychology thesis, which is about the relationships between toy play preferences and the development of social abilities in Hong Kong children. The findings of her study will be discussed in this talk. She is currently applying for an MPhil in Psychology at the University of Hong Kong.