We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby… or Have We?
Have you heard this one?
A father and his son are out driving and are involved in a terrible accident. The father is killed instantly, and the son is in critical condition. The son is rushed to the hospital and prepared for an operation that could save his life. The surgeon comes in, sees the patient, and exclaims, “I can’t operate, that boy is my son!” How can this be?
If you are old enough you might remember this riddle from the television show All in the Family. Half a century ago, many characters on the show (and in the audience) were perplexed and could not answer the question. They didn’t realize that the surgeon in the riddle could be a woman, the boy’s mother. After all, female surgeons and other physicians were rare back then, and the ways we thought about men’s and women’s roles made it difficult to escape stereotypes.
But today female physicians are commonplace, and women are over a fifth of all surgeons nationwide, up from just 7% in 1970. Young people today are “woke” and aware of the ways that women contribute to society.
Our question was: Really? Could this classic riddle still pack a punch?
We posed the riddle to U.S. college students who were taking introductory psychology classes at their universities. We asked each participant to give us two solutions to the riddle, asking “How can this be?” and then “Is there any other way this can be?” We excluded from our analysis any students who had heard the riddle before.
Most of the students in our study had mothers who were employed and most had encountered female physicians, and a majority were women themselves. Nearly half identified as feminists.
Yet fewer than a third of the students in our study realized that the surgeon in the riddle could be a woman, the boy’s mother. (Did you realize that, too?) A larger percentage noted (correctly) that the surgeon could be the boy’s second father in a same-sex marriage. Others suggested a stepfather or adoptive father. Altogether, two-thirds of our research participants named some type of father as the surgeon, while fewer than one third named the mother.
Other students came up with creative responses that suggested how desperate they were to find solutions to the riddle:
It could be a dream and not reality.
While the son was in the operating room he died, and when he saw the surgeon, it was his dad’s ghost.
The ‘father’ killed could be a priest, because priests are referred to as fathers and members of the church are ‘sons.’
Even previous exposure to the riddle did not guarantee that students knew the surgeon could be the boy’s mother. A third of the participants who told us they had heard the riddle before failed to realize that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother! Those who heard the riddle earlier in their lives must also have heard the riddle’s solution. To remember the riddle yet forget its solution suggests again how deep the problem lies.
What can explain the continuing power of this riddle to stump young people today?
Psychologists note that “gender schemas” based on the presumed dichotomy between biological females and biological males are formed very early in life and are remarkably resistant to change. The power of such schemas can outweigh even significant experiences later in life such as having a woman doctor and can trump elements of identity and personal philosophy such as feminism. In our study, only being a woman predicted a higher likelihood of naming the mother as a solution to the riddle. Other aspects of identity, values, and life experience made no difference.
Just because we consciously value women and believe in equal treatment for women in the workplace and elsewhere does not mean that we always escape the powerful gender schemas that make this riddle so difficult. This classic riddle, while old, is not outdated.
For Further Reading
Belle, D., Tartarilla, A. B., Wapman, M., Schlieber, M., & Mercurio, A. E. (2021). “I can’t operate, that boy is my son!”: Gender schemas and a classic riddle. Sex Roles, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-01211-4.
Moss-Racusin, C.A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. PNAS, 109(41), 16474-16479. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1211286109.
Deborah Belle is Professor Emerita of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Boston University, where she directed the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program (2010-2014), helped to create a new interdisciplinary course on gender and sexuality, and organized a 2014 conference on the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.