Surgeon and ?

So here’s a riddle for you: A man and his son are in a car accident…

surgical mask (1)

So here’s a riddle for you:

A man and his son are in a car accident. The man is killed instantly, and his son is rushed to the local hospital. The emergency room personnel see that the boy will need to be operated on,  and call for the surgeon. But, looking at the boy, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate. That’s my son!” How can this be?

This riddle is quite old–I remember first hearing it back in early 1980s! (And, BTW, I didn’t get it, the first time around.) These days, I have to update it a bit, clarifying that we will rule out the case of the boy having gay male parents.

Maybe you already know the answer. But I still use the riddle every year in a course I teach on gender and economics. In that class, we study things like the occupations held by men and women, and how these have changed over time. We also discuss issues of stereotyping and unconscious bias. I introduce this riddle just as we finish discussing the former subject, and start into the latter. I ask everyone to, silently, write their answer on a piece of paper and hand it in. Usually some students ask me, with puzzled looks on their faces, to repeat the riddle.

These days, maybe a third to a half of the class already know the answer from having heard the riddle before, or figure it out right away. But from the others I get answers such as:
“One of the men is the boy’s stepfather.”
“The man in the car was the boy’s priest.”
“The man didn’t actually die.”
“I don’t know.”

Really. In a Gender and Economics class. Where we’ve recently discussed the fact that 36% of physicians and surgeons are now female.

These students’ minds still habitually put “surgeon” in a mental pile that stores “masculine”-associated stuff . So that is where they search for an answer. The pile of “feminine”-associated stuff, thought of as distinctly separate from and opposite to the “masculine,” is too far away for the students to easily access.

I could have titled this post “Surgeon and Mom”… but that would have given the answer away.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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