A young boy and his father are involved in a car accident. The father dies at the scene. The boy is transported to the hospital, taken immediately into surgery… but the surgeon steps out of the operating room and says, “I can’t operate on this boy – he is my son!”. Who is the surgeon?
Please pause, decide on your answer, then read on.
A Memorable Look Exchanged
The first time I came across this riddle was in my secondary school. The riddle was featured in one of the comprehension passages for our English exam in WAEC, NECO, or a mock exam; I don’t remember which one it was. Our task was not to solve the riddle, as the passage already contained the answer, but to show how much we understood the argument in the passage by how we answered the questions that followed. Now, I had a friend, Nkem. After reading the comprehension passage, as if on cue, we exchanged a knowing look, a communication that was silent yet loaded with meaning, an exchange that showed our mutual appreciation of the story, its analysis and what it meant for our future. Looking back, I wonder how we got the time to enjoy that rare moment, nervous as we must have been while writing such an important exam and under time constraints.
When the riddle was first developed, the purpose was to cast light on the inherent gender bias we all have, our tendency to associate seeming more challenging jobs with men. For instance, our first thought when a doctor, an engineer, a software developer, a computer geek etc is mentioned is that the subject of the discussion must be a male. On the other hand, reference to a nurse, teacher, secretary etc, brings to our minds the image of a woman. At the time, researchers found that only 15% of the people surveyed came up with the obvious, simplest and most rationale answer to the question – that the surgeon was the patient’s mother. Of course it had to be, his father had died and the next person that could most naturally refer to him as their son was his mother.
Chimamanda Adichie, in her now viral talk on feminism told a story of her experience as a young girl that taught her that women were not the same as men, at least in the roles they were expected to play in the society. Their class teacher had wanted to appoint a monitor (prefect) for her class and announced before a certain test that whoever got the highest score was going to be the class monitor. Chimamanda got the highest score. But because she was a female, her teacher passed her over and made a boy who had a lower score than her the class prefect. Much as she had wanted to be the one holding the cane, patrolling the class and policing her classmates, Chimamanda was denied that right (or is it responsibility?) because of her gender. Sincerely, I have gender bias too. When a woman was recently appointed an assistant coach of an NBA team, I felt that she may not be effective in coaching male basketball players. I didn’t know her abilities, yet I prejudged her.
Unfortunately, this tendency to undermine women’s capabilities is largely reflected in the work place. As progressive a the United States is, it is often cited that a woman makes only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. The bias against women starts in the selection from a pool of job applicants. Some IBM executives made headlines recently when they were reportedly overheard during a lunch in a restaurant discussing their preference for male employees over their female counterparts. According to them, women often get pregnant. In fairness to them, they said they could hire a woman who is past child-bearing age. I leave it to you to imagine how successful a woman who has a bun in the oven would be if she applied for a job where any of those IBM executives were to decide her fate. Many working women are often scared to tell their bosses that they are pregnant lest they be perceived as less productive. It is also an open secret that some companies have policies that unfairly target married women. I know a woman of which as a condition for her employment, she was made to undertake that she would not be pregnant for a certain number of years. Because of the prejudice against married women in work places, many of them remove their wedding bands when they go for a job interview. Could the bias against women be the reason they feel reluctant to take up more challenging roles in the society? Could this be an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
To be sure, women face unique challenges that may negatively affect their performance in the work place. A woman who suffers from extreme nausea during pregnancy, who can barely keep anything down and loses as much as 20 pounds in her first trimester, will be less likely to function as effectively as his male counterpart who has no health issues. And how productive can a woman who work through labour and rushes to the hospital to have her baby after close of work be? And there are the house chores most women have to do when they get home from work each day including reviewing their children’s homework, preparing dinner, doing laundry etc. And yet women get little credit for effectively managing to do their day job while making sure the domestic front, their primary responsibility, doesn’t suffer.
Stay-at-home moms seeking to transition to the workforce don’t have it any easier. I was at a staffing agency sometime ago where I met a woman who had been staying home for a while with her kids but was now ready to work. Though she passed the written test the agency gave her, they told her that they couldn’t help her find a job because she lacked a recent job experience. I could sense her pain and desperation as she walked out of the office. I wondered if by taking care of her kids, the woman hadn’t shown that she was diligent, could multitask, work under pressure etc, which are qualities employers look for. Anyone who has had to stay at home to take care of children will tell you how exhausting it can be (Remember Lynette of Desperate Housewives?). Apart from having to keep up with their energy removing them from one source of danger after another, you have to work round their schedule and still manage to do your chores through their distractions. Since the staffing agency was for menial jobs, I wondered if, with the skills she had acquired as a stay-at-home mom, that unemployed mother couldn’t discharge the duties required of an assistant to a preschool teacher, deli shop worker, launder-mart attendant etc. Unfortunately, whatever experience she gained taking care of her children does not count; her years at home are deemed ‘wasted’. So apart from the guilt most women feel about leaving their little ones in the care of nannies and day care centers, they still have to deal with the stress of finding a job as most employers avoid them like the plague.
But we know that those years are not wasted. We know that taking care of our little ones is arguably the most important job there is. When during the US presidential campaigns in 2012, a critic opined that Ann Romney (wife of former presidential aspirant Mitt Romney) knew little about the economy because she never worked out of the home, one of her (Ann) sons took to Facebook and wrote: ‘Growing up, we never had a nanny or a ‘mommy’s helper.’ Never went to daycare. I was just one out of five, but always felt like I was the most important thing in her life. For my Mom to raise us 5 boys, the way she did, was, in my mind, the most demanding – and hopefully rewarding – work she could have done’. So if it true that women have to stay home at some point to nurture the future generation, wouldn’t it be necessary for companies to have policies that encourage taking in such women when they are ready to join the workforce. The current practice where they are discriminated against is reprehensible.
And I must say something about a society that plays double standards with respect to the way female executives are expected to conduct themselves. Women in management positions often walk on a tight rope. Either they are perceived as too weak or too aggressive. While a forceful male executive is seen as competent, a woman who attempts to be half as assertive is labelled a five letter word that starts with a b. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, wrote about a social experiment in which two resumes stating business success were presented to various people. The resumes were identical except that one named a female job candidate and the other a male candidate. In most cases, people found the success of the male candidate to be appealing and the success of the female candidate to be worrisome.
The point is that if we realize that women have as much potential as men do and we acknowledge the unique challenges they face, then we may be willing to give them more opportunities to grow and challenge the existing stereotypes. We understand that a woman who spent a decade at home taking care of her kids may not be able to take up managerial positions, which means more pay, like her male counterpart who work through those years, but we should at least be willing to at least open the door for them in the first place to prove themselves.
Hope in the Horizon
As grim as the situation looks, many countries and companies already have policies in place that take into consideration the unique challenges their female employees face. In Nigeria, for instance, a woman is entitled to three months maternity leave during which she is to be paid at least half her salary provided that she had been with the company for at least six months. She is also entitled to two half-hour breaks each day for as long as she nurses her baby. Lagos State recently took it up a notch and now guarantees six months maternity leave with 100% pay to its employees. The extra benefits in Lagos State however applies to the first two babies the woman has. Fathers are also entitled to ten days paternity leave. It is a tad disappointing that while most countries in the world have similar programs varying in duration and percentage of salary payable during a maternity leave, the United States does not have laws that guarantee paid maternity leave to women. A woman who has difficulty paying her bills will be forced to return to work immediately after childbirth.
Worthy of mention is also the fact that some companies host daycare centers for their employees. Also to be commended are companies which have policies in place that reserve a certain number of positions for women. Such affirmative actions ensure that women attain positions they would not otherwise attain because of bias. On that note, women should see life as happening for them and not to them as there are still some benefits they enjoy by virtue of their gender.
I must acknowledge that men are becoming more involved at home, lessening the burden on women. And many of them are now making sacrifices to see that their wives also get to their career aspirations. So to my male readers, it means a lot when you help change the baby’s diaper, cut vegetables for dinner, put a toddler to bed, etc because then you are helping the women in your lives have more time to focus on and take one step closer to achieving their career goals. Women appreciate it and love you all the more for it. And to all executives, men and women, please give women more opportunities to grow.
And Just a Word on Generation Gap and Cultural Differences
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When recently I looked up the ‘Who is the surgeon?’ riddle again, I was amazed at some of the interesting answers that people in the United States came up with when the survey was conducted this year, answers that reflect the changes that have taken place in the country’s values in recent years. I especially found interesting the role age played in the answers the participants gave. While most adults didn’t get the answer right, younger kids did. It appears that younger people are growing up to see women take up more challenging roles in the society, hence their inclination to associate the role of a surgeon with not just men, but women as well. Even younger people who didn’t give the ‘right’ answer came up with replies that showed they were more attuned to the trend of what a ‘modern’ American family looks like. For example, some of the kids suggested that the surgeon could be the boy’s step dad or that the boy had two dads (Gay dads), the surgeon being her second dad.
However in Nigeria, as in most parts of the world, it is unlikely that any child will come up with either ‘step dad’ or ‘second gay dad’ as the answer, since divorce and gay marriages are anathema in those regions.
Finally, remember Nkem, my secondary school friend, she is now a mechanical engineer and a lecturer, and she isn’t thirty yet. Is there a better way to challenge gender stereotypes? And yea, she is also a wife and mother. To her, my sisters, friends and all women who are supermoms (I am not yet one, at least according to the dictionary), thank you for contributing to the society in more than one way.
So how did you answer the riddle? And guys in the house, I know this post is from a lady’s perspective. Are there some benefits women enjoy in the work place that you don’t? Please let us know in the comments section.
PS: When I was writing this blog post, between trying to focus on my typing and trying to keep my cute eighteen month old ‘assistant’ from using the laptop as one more toy, I lost a version of the draft – a version that contained the most progress I had made in two weeks as I had been struggling with writer’s block. I had to start all over again. It’s an example of how challenging it is for those who do it both.