Wang Ivy Wong talks about her career in gender studies research and her efforts to help put gender studies on the map in East Asia.
My interest is in exploring controversial social phenomena that are widely experienced and attesting to or challenging the beliefs we hold scientifically.Wang Ivy Wong
Since she returned to Hong Kong after completing her PhD in Psychology at Cambridge, Wang Ivy Wong  has been promoted to the role of Associate Professor at the Gender Studies Programme and Department of Psychology of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has her own gender development laboratory and collaborates on research with international partners.
Her research on gender has won media coverage in Asia and the UK and she continues to teach the next generation of scholars in psychology and gender development, some of whom have gone on to win awards. She is also co-editor of a forthcoming Springer book Gender and Sexuality Development: Contemporary Theory and Findings, which foregrounds the latest research in gender and sexuality development.
It was at Cambridge University that Ivy started to focus on the psychology of gender. Her research was focused on gender development, particularly that of children with congenital adrenal hyperplasia and whether and at what age typically-developing children were influenced by gendered colour preferences..
Her observations about gender began much earlier, however, and is linked to her experience in a single sex school and her awareness of the gender dynamics at play in a traditional Chinese family and in society at large.
Towards the end of primary school, Ivy moved from a local school which had only a few girls and over 30 boys in each class to a top-performing convent school started by American sisters. At her old school, girls, as a minority group, had a distinct gender identity and were clearly favoured by the teachers. At the convent school, there was a stress on being ‘lady-like’, but girls also had to do everything because there were no boys around. Ivy, who cut her hair short after starting at the school, absorbed the change in her school environment and it planted a seed of curiosity in her about gender issues.
Ivy also faced other challenges at her new school. As there was a much heavier use of English in classes, her teachers were initially worried about her ability to keep up, but she did and eventually was among the top students in her year group, in particular for subjects like Biology, History and English Literature. However, because she had chosen the arts stream, she was not allowed to continue studying Biology for A Level. That restricted her choices at university. So she opted to major in Psychology as it was also a route to the kind of professional and scientific role she wanted.
Many of her school friends chose to do their undergraduate studies abroad, as did her sister and brother, and Ivy was thinking of doing the same – and indeed interviewed for some British secondary schools too – but the financial crisis of the late 1990s forced her family to rethink. Ivy studied at the University of Hong Kong for two years. At the end of her second year in 2006 she was selected for a Serena Young Oxbridge Exchange scholarship. The scholarship involved the best psychology students in the department to study at either Oxford or Cambridge university. She picked Cambridge as her preferred option as Cambridge offered a whole year of study and the ability to do her third-year thesis there.
In Cambridge, Ivy met Professor Melissa Hines, who, like her, had just started at Cambridge and was teaching gender development. The undergraduate thesis that Professor Hines advised her on was on attachment theory, as Ivy had not considered or formally learnt anything about gender before coming to Cambridge because in Hong Kong there was little coverage of gender in Psychology. Having come from a girls’ school, however, she was interested and that interest brewed while she was at Cambridge.
She applied to do an MPhil in Psychology at Cambridge. For her MPhil she worked with Professor Hines on congenital adrenal hyperplasia [CAH], an inherited disorder that results in low levels of cortisol and high levels of androgen (or “masculinising hormones”), causing development of male-typical characteristics in biological females. Professor Hines was interested in the impact of exposure to high testosterone levels in the womb on behaviour and the impact of how parents treat children with the condition. The study found that parents of girls with CAH tended to go along with their children’s masculine tendencies and, for instance, encouraged their daughters to play with ‘boys’ toys’ as well as reinforcing masculine behaviour in a positive way. The findings therefore suggested that the development of children with CAH was a complex mixture of biological and social factors.
After her MPhil, Ivy took a gap year to explore what she wanted to do for her PhD and did some teaching at the University of Hong Kong. This experience, together with the Distinction she received for her MPhil, boosted her application for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. The following year, she returned to Cambridge and to Professor Hines, initially anticipating extending her MPhil research. However, she continued to explore other ideas and her interest in developmental and experimental psychology.
Around that time, there was a heated debate about the pink and blue colour divide, how it relates to other aspects of children’s behaviour and parents and toy manufacturers in the UK and US began to re-examine the gendering of toys and colours. Ivy [pictured right] began to look at the impact of gendered ideas about colour on toy choice and started to investigate how early boys and girls showed a difference in colour preferences. She says: “My interest is in exploring controversial social phenomena that are widely experienced and in attesting to or challenging the beliefs we hold scientifically. There are very heated discussions about colour.”
Her PhD research involved changing the colours on toys that are perceived to be gendered. She had two dolls and two trains – one blue and one pink and she filmed children’s responses. She found that young children do not show a gender preference for the colours blue and pink before the age of two and a half. This gender difference only emerged just before their third birthday, but when it emerged it was quite massive. “It was something we observed quickly and strongly,” says Ivy, who adds that some parents were surprised about how marked the effect was. “It does make you question when toymakers use colours as gender labels and how that affects the toys children play with and the skills they develop.”
Ivy says she enjoyed her time at Cambridge and has retained some good friends from her Gates Cambridge network. She found many of her fellow scholars and alumni inspiring. “Many of the Gates peers have gone on to do great things and they all serve as role models to encourage you to believe you might also do something meaningful,” she says. “And without the scholarship,” she adds, “I would not have been able to study in the UK. Being a Gates Cambridge Scholar brought a different level of experience.”
After finishing her PhD in Social and Developmental Psychology she returned to Hong Kong and continued her gender research at the University of Hong Kong, but says it was difficult at the time because few psychologists in Asia study gender and she had to justify why it was useful. She worked within the Psychology department and collaborated with others in the US, UK and Canada, but says it was harder to identify peers doing related research locally. Her students were, however, very interested.
In early 2019, she joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong who were looking for gender specialists and experts in quantitative, empirical research. The university has a long-established gender research centre and programme. In February Ivy was promoted to Associate Professor in Gender Studies and Psychology. She has her own laboratory in the Psychology Department and teaches several courses on the psychology of gender. Before she joined, gender-based courses tended to come under the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
Ivy continues her research on gender stereotyped play and also does research into single sex schools and whether going to one affects students’ gender identity, such as how strongly they identify with their gender and how they deal with people of another gender. She is also studying empathic accuracy – how accurately people can guess the feelings and thoughts of another person as part of an ongoing dynamic interaction. She says studies in adults show that there is often a far-from-perfect accuracy score. Ivy found that, surprisingly, children seemed to be no more or less accurate than adults and that there was no difference between girls and boys, although their parents thought girls would be more accurate.
Ivy says she hopes that her research and her teaching will have an impact on putting gender studies on the map in Hong Kong and on bolstering the psychological research of gender in East Asia and bringing it to the international stage. “Working with students I can see that they often have no background knowledge about gender and it is rewarding to see their interest and knowledge grow,” she says. “I have seen shy students growing in confidence and becoming prize-winning young scholars with international citations. That makes me feel that what I am doing as an academic is meaningful. I hope to nurture my students and give them the chance to change their lives like Bill Gates gave me.”
*Picture credit: Children at school by Lucélia Ribeiro, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.