When I was nearing the end of high school in 1981, a forward-thinking teacher challenged one of my classes with this riddle.
A father and son were in a car accident in which the father was killed. The ambulance brought the son to the hospital. He needed immediate surgery. In the operating room, a doctor came in, looked at the boy and said, “I can’t operate. He is my son.”
Who was the doctor?
The riddle stymied all of us. The father was dead, so who possibly could the doctor be? For most of the period, we students offered theories and debated their plausibility. Perhaps the boy was adopted and his birth father had stepped up with the scalpel and made this awful discovery. Or maybe the doctor was the grandfather who regarded the boy as a son. At the end of class, the teacher provided the answer which would have been obvious to a first grader today.
The doctor was the boy’s mother.
At that time, our gender bias blocked mother as an answer. White-haired men with smooth hands and gentle smiles—men in whom we placed complete confidence without question—were the doctors we knew. Television sages like Marcus Welby M.D. (1976)in his white coat, stethoscope hanging from his neck like a king’s amulet, showcased the doctor ideal. Women in medical shows were once cast stereotypically as a gaggle of accommodating white-stockinged nurses.
Over time, media reflected a different picture. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the art mirror society or visa versa? A script writer somewhere chose to challenge doctor stereotypes in television dramas like St. Elsewhere (1982), Doogie Howser M.D. (1989), ER (1994), and then Grey’s Anatomy (2005).
Each successive program dared to raise the bar a notch higher until today that particular gender bias has diminished. Show us a BIPOC female, or LGBTQ, or woman-identified character—with or without a partner and or children—who’s risen to chief of staff. If we can see it, we can dream it and it will be so. This is why in 2017/2018, Canada’s first year medical students were 56% female.
This International Women’s Day 2021 theme is “choose to challenge”. Most of us don’t rule social media channels through which we can broadcast social justice actions. But we do have the ability to make a difference, to shift acceptance of stereotypes and unfairness, even if we’ve been the sort to shyly guard our opinions.
Circling back to the riddle that posed a simple question, I remember it forty years after the asking. The teacher who posed it may no longer be living, but the ripple of that question lives on through this piece of writing and across the internet. Why couldn’t a woman be the doctor?
We can ask questions, of ourselves to challenge our own ingrained beliefs or accepted status quos. Persistently asked questions can spawn change. Are certain toys really meant for girls and others for boys? In some countries, why is it so difficult for girls to stay in school? If 1/3 of violent crime reported to Canadian police involve intimate partner violence, why isn’t domestic violence a focus of more political discussion? Questions lead to query which lead to theorizing which leads to propositions for change which can inspire shifts in thinking in a household, an organization, a community, a society.
Sometimes a question is mightier than an assertion.
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