The Importance of the Surgeon Riddle

What a Classic Puzzle Reveals About Gender Bias

female surgeon operating
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Riddles can expose more than just a punchline. They can tell us a lot about our hidden biases and give us hope that change is happening and future generations won't have our same prejudices. Consider this riddle, for example. It's been around for a long time and was even once used by producers of the television news show Good Morning America to show how adults are more likely than kids to allow biases and stereotypes to cloud their thinking and judgment.

The Surgeon Riddle

Don't read the answer until you've taken a little time to really consider what the answer might be:

A young boy and his father are on their way home from soccer practice when a distracted driver crosses the center line and hits them head-on. The father dies at the scene of this horrible car accident, but the boy is still alive when the emergency medical technicians arrive. The injured boy is transported in an ambulance to the hospital, where's he taken immediately into surgery.

However, the awaiting surgeon steps out of the operating room and says, "Call Dr. Baker stat to the operating room. I can't operate on this boy. He's my son!"

The question: Who is the surgeon?

Kids vs. Adults

When Good Morning America approached random people on the streets of New York City with this riddle, the great majority could not come up with the right answer. But when the producers asked a group of fifth graders from a Manhattan school the same riddle, most of the kids got the answer right. And those who didn't get the answer right came up with unique answers, answers none of the grown-ups came up with. For instance, they suggested the surgeon might have been boy's stepfather, or perhaps his "other dad"—on the theory the boy's parents were a gay couple.

Whether they figured out the riddle or not, most of the kids' answers revealed that unlike adults, they had no pre-formed ideas about what kind of person a surgeon should be: a straight male. Which brings us to the right answer: The surgeon was the boy's mother.

Bias in the Medical Field

Good Morning America then asked for comments from an expert on gender issues, who pointed out that kids of both genders understand better than adults that both men and women can do a job and do it well as long as they have the skills. Gender is not a factor in ability or talent.

Besides being a reminder that it can work against us to leap to conclusions about a doctor's capabilities based on something like gender or race and that we should choose our caregivers based on experience, credentials, and other relevant factors.

The way the kids answered the riddle also offers hope that a new generation has embraced the concept of skills being more important than gender. They are growing up in a world where their doctor or nurse practitioner is just as likely a woman as a man They are used to trusting women as their doctors the same as their parents and grandparents trusted male doctors. A giant leap for humankind.

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