This 100-year-old riddle that continues to amaze us explains why we still have a strong gender bias

A father and son have a terrible car accident that kills the father. The son is rushed to hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate — that boy is my son!” How is this possible?

For decades confused individuals have thrown out wrong and random answers: “The father is a ghost/God/angel!” or “It’s his stepfather!” or “The son has two fathers!” While the latter alludes to some of our altered progressive thinking, it’s staggering that the clearly correct answer seems so out of reach of our collective minds.

After all, why is it so difficult for us to understand that the surgeon is the… mother of the boy.

What a crazy concept, right? A female surgeon. Who would have thought.

The fact that 80-90% of people to this day still can’t solve the riddle is telling. It begs the question: how much progress have we really made on gender equality and women’s representation in the workplace, especially in male-dominated industries like medicine?

The riddle remains a riddle. It continues to bother us. And that’s exactly the problem.

A few recent research projects looked more into this. There are insights and lessons learned for organizations and brands looking to continue the difficult but important battle over gender discrimination in both the marketplace and the workplace.

Gender bias is a general phenomenon

Both men and women are equally inaccurate, in the 80-90% range. In addition, similar percentages were found for people in India, suggesting that it is not an American bias.

In one of the studies, researchers also presented the riddle to young adults from a majority female university. These were twenty-year-olds, many of whom have mothers who are working professionals, including doctors. Eighty-six percent of respondents guessed it wrong.

Gender biases come early in life

It must be something for adults, right? Perhaps an innocent child, still unencumbered by gender norms, will see the association between mother and surgeon more clearly. Afraid not. Kids between 7 and 10 years old were just as bad, 85% guessed wrong.

Gender biases are persistent

Surprisingly, even self-proclaimed feminists are not spared the bias. They fared slightly less badly, with a 78% error rate. I tested this hypothesis with my wife, a professional educator, social justice advocate, and ally who has dedicated her life’s work to helping young girls in marginalized communities feel empowered.

Even she couldn’t get the right answer. That’s how persistent the bias is. On a conscious level, one can live by a code of values ​​and core beliefs (i.e., conscious brain: “Duh. Sure, women can be surgeons”), but the societal story of persistent gender norms is buried deep in our memory networks (i.e., unconscious brain: “A female surgeon? Not possible”).

Language is very important

There is good news. In one of their studiesthe researchers found that exposure to gender-neutral language, such as saying “child” instead of “son,” reduced stereotype expression by up to 50%.

The implications should be clear. These kinds of occupational stereotypes can deter women from entering male-dominated fields; or they can send signals to the women already in those fields that they don’t belong or that they don’t have the right skills to be good at their jobs.

As companies continue to invest in DEI, it is critical for senior leaders to invest wisely. A day’s training to “counter gender bias” in your workforce is laughable — and a complete waste of money. Leaders need to recognize that these biases run deep psychologically; and bringing them to the surface requires collective effort, value-based business decisions, and smart scientific thinking.

Our goal for the next five years is to get to the point where, when the person in front of you asks that question, they say, “His mom is the surgeon — of course. Worthless riddle if you ask me.”

It’s been 100 years that we’ve been dumbfounded. It’s about time the question became just that: a dull, silly old question, and not a riddle at all.

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