A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Farmer's Husband

A father and his son are hurt in a car crash.  While the father’s injuries are being dealt with in the emergency room, the boy is rushed in for surgery. But on entering the operating room, the surgeon says, "I can't operate on this boy. He's my son."  How can this be?

I first heard this riddle when I was about the age my kids are now (riddles are epidemic among second-graders).  I’m pretty sure it took me a minute or two to figure out the answer.

The surgeon was the boy’s mother.

This merited a laugh of surprise.  How tricky! 

I don’t think it occurred to me at the time that this question shouldn’t have been difficult – or even worthy of being a riddle.  “Surgeon,” after all, is not a word that has a gender, in the English language – not, that is, unless we mentally assign it one.

At the age of seven, my brain was already chock-full of preconceptions.  Not only were default-doctors male, but I’d accepted that “the farmer’s wife” was a character who showed up in songs and stories, while “the farmer’s husband” never, ever did.  I was already sexist – and, most likely, ageist, sizeist, and racist, too.  Not explicitly, that is.  Not consciously.  Unconsciously, though, I was a bouncy little bundle of biases. 

But then, we all are.

Yeah, that’s a controversial piss-off-your-friends kind of statement.  What?  Me?  No way!  But, based on my not-terribly-scientific personal observation of our society (The World as Nancy Knows It), it’s nonetheless a true statement.  Yes, we’ve made some splendid progress between my generation and my kids’.  We’ve gotten past much of the most egregious and overt “but can she type?” discrimination that my mother had to suffer, and we’re capable, as a nation, of electing people with appreciable melanin.  But even in the radically modern world of 2013, I’m both fascinated and horrified by the degree of differential treatment – “profiling,” if you will – dished out to both children and adults by people who are NOT nasty racist creeps or slimy sexist pigs. Many of our skewed assumptions are hidden even from ourselves.

If my anecdotal ramblings don’t pass muster, I can offer data to back them up. (Data!  Full of numbers!)  Researchers at Harvard (Greenwald, McGhee, and Schwartz, 1998) have come up with a whole battery of tests that use paired words, reaction times, and error rates to tease apart that subtlest and trickiest of mental knots: separating what people think they think from what they actually think.   (Those Harvard types are tricksy).  The “Implicit Association Tests” (IATs) measure everything from consumer preferences to self-esteem.  I’ve taken a few of these tests over the years – mostly when my procrastination reaches epic proportions (which is common), and when I remember they exist (less common).

I hadn’t thought of IAT’s for a while – and I hadn’t yet tried out the mom-surgeon conundrum on my kids – when I brought them to the first day of 4H camp a couple of weeks ago.  The camp director was all smiles as she wielded her clipboard and greeted the children.  “Are you a wild man?” she teased the little boy in front of us, who shyly shuffled his feet.  She offered the same riposte to his brother.  “How about you, are you a wild man?” And then she moved on to the next kid in line -- my petite, blonde little girl.

“Oh, you’re so cuuuute!” cooed the 4-H leader.

No, she’s a wild woman, I wanted to snap – but I didn’t, of course.  I couldn’t act all frothy-mad and self-righteous – not only because a middle-aged mom who starts taking out leaders of the 4H in the botanical garden is likely to end up as the most amusing item on the daily police blotter, but also because this woman was so plainly a nice person.  A good, kind, well-meaning person. I would have bet ten bucks on a nickel that she was not consciously trying to “profile” the children in her care.  She was not a malevolent biased cretin.  She was merely… just like the rest of us.  But she did remind me of the existence of the IATs.

Viewing “implicit associations” through the lens of parenthood gives me a whole new rationale for self-examination.  Am I passing on my own biases to my offspring?  Are they picking up biases from other well-meaning adults? 

In this regard, I know I’m a second-generation worry-wart. Years ago, my mother told me that she chose an ophthalmologist solely based on her gender, because she wanted her kids to know that women could be doctors.  In other subtle and not so subtle ways, she tweaked my view of the world with examples: the daddy who did the cooking, the family with a black stepfather, and so forth. There weren’t necessarily a lot of examples – it was barely even the 80s yet – but there were some.  And… maybe it was enough to render me Not A Total Jerk.

Or was it?  Thinking back to IATs of the Past, I recalled being ashamed to find out that I was ageist, a bias that I can regret at leisure as I become increasingly ancient.  I couldn’t recall what other results I’d received.  So I went and found the tests again.

The first set I found were randomly assigned, so I ended up taking three.  I discovered that although (whew) I associated Caucasian and Latino surnames indiscriminately with words representing intelligence vs. brawn, I linked the white-person names more closely with “human” words, and Hispanic names with “animal” words.  Um…ouch. 

My results for black/white race bias… well, I’ll admit I was kind of holding my breath.  I spent more than two years living in Jamaica, being the pale-white fleck in a dark ocean of humanity.  That was many years ago, but during that time, I feel like I at least made progress in quelling any latent idiocy.  Plenty of recent news has made it clear that our nation isn’t even remotely close to surmounting this problem.  I’m not even talking about profiling unarmed teenagers in hoodies; there are also the people who can’t even handle a Cheerios commercial.  Luckily, however, my IAT results were reassuringly balanced.

Moving on, I was particularly curious about how I’d do on a gender-related test.  Was I really any better than the 4H leader I’d felt so snotty about?  After years of noticing how often people praise girls for being pretty, sweet, charming, cute, and well-dressed – and then, barely pausing to draw breath, praise their brothers for being strong, fast, brave, smart, and tough – I somewhat dreaded finding out what was embedded, parasite-like, in my own brain. 

As it turned out, the particular test that I unearthed linked gender-specific first names with words related to either “career” or “family”.  Would my fingers be quicker to find matches when “Julia” was on the same side of the screen as “home” and “Ben” was paired with “office”, or when “Rebecca” was over by “professional” and “Daniel” was with “children”?

Conveniently, the website gave me a rundown on what thousands of other participants have demonstrated regarding the dusty inner recesses of their brains.  And they put it in a nice table, like this:

Test Result
% of Test Takers
Strong association between male and career
Moderate association between male and career
Slight association between male and career
Little or no gender association with career or family
Slight association between female and career
Moderate association between female and career
Strong association between female and career

What did this really mean?  I wasn’t entirely sure.  It certainly showed that my kids are going to have to battle a few assumptions – and so are the boys, because “home” and “family” are not dirty words.  The skew is still steep – but then again, most of the people in that top 55% or so would probably not try to kick women out of the boardroom, or even realize that their own instincts were anything but fair.

So, how did I fit in? What did my results tell me about me own peculiar brain?

“Your data suggest a slight association of Female with CAREER and Male with FAMILY compared to Male with CAREER and Female with FAMILY.”

So, I was one of the renegades, although not wildly so.

Although I was a bit smugly pleased, I was also surprised. Yes, I deeply believe that men and women should be equally matched to “career” and “family.”  The tough choices made in balancing the two should be equal choices.  Among my friends, this is mostly the case.  For me, Jay, and the kids, it’s certainly true.  But in the world at large, and in the formative years of my upbringing… not so much.

Why would my results not reflect this?  Why, in fact, would they reflect a slight opposite bias, a kind of Alice-through-the-looking-glass world full of female CEOs?  What made my fingers do the backward tapdance on the computer keys?  This seemed important, given that I want to figure out how to raise non-biased kids.

I thought a bit more about the test, and realized what might have happened.  I’d been asked to repeatedly pair four female names and four male names with words relating to home or office.  But the names, in order to have genders, had to be real names.  And real names (sometimes) already have associations in my head.  I know several Bens, Daniels, Julias, and Rebeccas.  But I can only think of one Emily.  In my head, she is firmly – and I think she’d be pleased to know this – associated with “Professional” – and not with “Children”.  On the other hand, the “Paul” who springs to mind is pretty clearly linked with “Family.”  And that’s not at all a bad thing, either.

So, the test didn’t work for me.  It was unfairly weighted.  Not valid.

Or… was it?  True, single individuals do not constitute average results.  But, on the other hand, we all experience humanity as a series of single individuals, rather than as a statistical phenomenon. Single interactions.  Role models.  Real human beings.  Sure, we might always imagine a male when the word “surgeon” appears, but confronted with a female in her scrubs, holding a scalpel, we adjust pretty quickly. 

It was in conjuring this image, and recalling the riddle that went with it, and reminiscing about my mother’s earnest ophthalmologist selection, that I remembered an incident from way back when the kids were no more than four.  They’d recently had two sets of checkups, first from our excellent family dentist, Phyllis, and then from the doctor who has been caring for them since they were fetuses, our friend Corrine.  A few days later, out of nowhere, Molly asked me, “Mama, can boys be doctors, too?”

The memory made me smile – and it also made me relax.  I can’t protect my kids from all the subtle differences in treatment that they are already facing – and will face throughout their lives, based on the crap-shoot of their skin color, their hair color, and the genitalia they came equipped with.  Nor can I stop them from developing biases, based on the world they experience and the osmosis of other people’s preconceptions.  At some level it drives me nuts to know that I can’t mathematically balance the stereotypes so that the numbers come out even.  But for every stereotype, I can at least make sure that the kids see occasional counterexamples.  Or even, perhaps, too many counterexamples. 

Out of amused curiosity I wondered -- had my kids’ “backward” gender bias regarding medical professionals changed in the past few years?  The opportunity to test this arose today, when the twins were in the bathtub together, doing more arguing than washing. I decided to distract them.  “Can I ask you a riddle?”  Quickly, I related the car-accident/surgeon old chestnut.

The kids looked puzzled for only a second or two.  Then they both started talking. (I’ve gotten pretty good, over the past few years, at decoding two conversations at once).  Molly reasoned, “Well, the dad was in the car, to the surgeon must have been the boy’s mo…”

But Lizzy was way ahead of her.  Before her sister’s sentence was half done, she’d already demanded, “But why couldn’t she do surgery on her own kid?” 

Lizzy, honey, there’s something you should know.  If boys work very, very hard in school, they can grow up to be doctors, too.  So if you meet a boy doctor, I don’t want you to be biased against him, ok?

Maybe next bath night, we’ll discuss the farmer’s husband.

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