As someone who has been relatively vocal about research rigor and how findings are interpreted (and sometimes misinterpreted) in the mainstream media, it was certainly interesting for me when a small study I did as a spin-off from my dissertation picked up a bit of buzz a few weeks back. To summarize, in an analysis of number-related language (e.g., “three cats,” “how many apples?”) in everyday speech, American mothers of toddlers (mean age 22 months) spoke two to three times more often about numbers and quantities when talking to boys compared to girls. After reading some of the questions and comments (some quite angry!) about the study, I thought it might be interesting to provide a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at how this paper came to be. I’ve addressed a few issues that directly deal with gender stereotyping – and why the study did not include fathers – in a previous Q&A with Mommyish.com, so I will try my best to not be repetitive.
I was originally studying differences between Mandarin Chinese and English speaking parents, how they talk to children about number before they enter formal schooling, and how this might contribute to the well-documented cross-national differences in math scores between Mandarin speaking countries (China, Singapore, Taiwan) and their English speaking counterparts (including the United States). I never failed to get at least one question about gender differences each time I presented the data. Since my research was actually about language and concept development, it took awhile after sorting the initial study out before I took the time to carefully look at what was happening between genders.
I needed to make sure that the age of the children and the amount of overall speech generally matched between boys and girls (i.e., I controlled for age and amount of speech) in order to compare between roughly equivalent groups of mother-son and mother-daughter pairs. The fact that only mothers were left after this matching process was purely circumstantial, not intentional. (However, at least one study has found that fathers show a greater bias toward boys than mothers when explaining science museum exhibits). My colleagues and I were both shocked and fascinated to find significant differences in number speech to boys and girls… but only in the American group. Over the next two years (that’s right, years), this paper was written and revised countless times. However, it was rejected no fewer than seven times from as many journals before finally being accepted and published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology.
This is just one example of the stark difference in pace between academia and Silicon Valley. Between authors, reviewers, and editors, iterating on a manuscript can take months, if not years, for a variety of reasons. A lot of stress can result from a sometimes incredibly long peer review process. More than once have I wondered if a reviewer actually read my manuscript, and have become incredibly frustrated when reviews that don’t seem particularly negative result in a rejection for an unclear reason. Despite all of the challenges, I firmly believe in peer review as a tenet of the scientific process. I feel that it is important for articles that go down as scientific record to be reviewed by individuals with domain expertise. In addition, my co-authors and I knew that we had an important, compelling result, and knew that the only way that it would ever have any impact in the world (even just to us in our own careers!) would be to get it published in a peer-reviewed journal. And we finally succeeded… on the eighth try.
The amount of time it takes to design, run, analyze, implement, and then publish a research study is one of the reasons why there isn’t a lot of “hard evidence” about some of the current learning technologies Silicon Valley is buzzing about. Pilot results are one thing, but full randomized controlled trials are a whole different beast. Building a bridge between rigorous scientific research and development of technology is something that I feel is incredibly important, but has quite a ways to go. It is my hope that in this next phase of my career, I can make a contribution in this area, and perhaps even inspire more girls and women to pursue STEM!
Chang, A., Sandhofer, C.M., & Brown, C.S. (2011). Gender Biases in Early Number Exposure to Preschool-Aged Children. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 30(4), 440-450.
Crowley, K., Callanan, M. A., Tenenbaum, H. R., & Allen, E. (2001). Parents explain more often to boys than girls during shared scientific thinking. Psychological Science, 12, 258-261.
Picture by kakisky