Here’s a riddle:
A father and son are in a horrible car crash. The father is killed. The son is rushed to the hospital, and just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son!”
If you thought the surgeon is the boy’s second father, you get some points. But what about the surgeon being a woman? Do we leap to the conclusion that someone in a position of knowledge or authority is a man? What happens if the inventor, the doctor, or the scientist isn’t the gender we expect?
Last night I read about the struggles of Margaret Knight, who invented the flat-bottom paper bag machine in 1868. When she applied for a patent, Charles Annan claimed that he invented the machine.
His defense? Women could not possibly invent things.
I roll my eyes at such a presumption. But then I see evidence of the same sort of thing today.
According to a story in the Washington Post, on a Delta airlines flight last year, a passenger was having a medical emergency. When the flight attendant asked if anyone was a doctor, an African American woman held up her hand.
The flight attendant’s response was, “Oh no, sweetie, put [your] hand down. We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you.”
Professor Deborah Belle of Boston University studies people’s assumptions in answering the surgeon riddle. I didn’t get it right, even though all my doctors are women (and rock stars!).
Apparently I’m in good company. Many Boston University students with mothers who were doctors did not answer that the surgeon was the boy’s mother.
It’s easy to see bias in history.
Source for the story of Knight: Wonder Women by Sam Maggs.