Shannon Pruden, Florida International University – Gender Gap in STEM

Watch what you say to your little ones.

Shannon Pruden, professor of psychology at Florida International University, explains why the type of language heard in childhood could have a profound effect.

Dr. Pruden’s primary research interests lie at the intersection between developmental psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and education. Employing a variety of methodologies (e.g., eye-tracking and naturalistic studies of language), and age groups (0-5 years), her research focuses on the development of early language abilities, with an emphasis on the growth of children’s spatial language. More specifically, she has been examining which factors influence children’s early language development, such as the role of cognitive, biological, and environmental factors, including early conceptual knowledge, child gender, and socioeconomic status. She also studies the development of spatial abilities and how language influences the development of spatial skills. Dr. Pruden has been an author of more than a dozen peer-reviewed papers and chapters and has presented at more than 25 national and international conferences. Her research has been published in the most prominent journals in the field of Developmental Psychology and Education, including Child Development and Developmental Science.

Gender Gap in STEM


Big, little. Circle, Square. The words parents choose to describe their child’s world could be the reason for the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the STEM disciplines.

Males consistently outperform females on tasks requiring spatial thinking like mental rotation and transformation of objects which has been linked to success in and entry into STEM. This sex difference emerges in preschool-aged children, before they have entered formal schooling.

My research explores what factors affect the development of spatial thinking by examining the language children hear from their parents. The focus is on a particular type of language called spatial language — language about the shapes, dimensions and spatial features of objects. Circle, square, big, little, tall, short, edge, border are all words used to describe the spatial properties of things. My research shows that parents who use more spatial language with their toddlers and preschoolers have children with better spatial thinking skills.

Recently, I examined, with my co-author Dr. Susan Levine, whether parents use more spatial language with boys than with girls. We found this to be the case even as early as 14 to 26 months. Boys produced more spatial language than girls as early as 34 months. Overall, boys heard and used 25 percent more unique spatial words than girls.

It is possible parents use more spatial language with boys because boys play more with blocks and building sets, which invite increased spatial language use. Parents may also hold stereotypes about boys being better at spatial thinking than girls, and as a consequence, may provide boys with more opportunities for spatial play, which could increase boys’ exposure to spatial language. While more research is needed I am hopeful this line of research will shed light on why there is a gender gap in STEM.

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