The riddle that reveals if you’re a secret female sexist

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There’s a man and his son in a car crash. The father’s killed, the son rushed to hospital. But the duty surgeon says: ‘I can’t treat the boy. He’s my son.’

Tell people this story and more often than not, they’re are baffled. How can that be? Then some say: ‘Must be the biological father, the boy was adopted.’ Others presume it’s a same-sex civil partnership — two fathers!


But hardly anyone gives the correct answer — that the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

It’s so obvious once you’ve said it — not to mention more statistically likely. There are more woman surgeons in the world than same-sex parents.

So what does this riddle say about the way we think? we all like to believe we’re unbiased, don’t we? Not sexist, ageist or xenophobic, certainly not racist.

We like to think we’re pretty good judges of people, too: open-minded, but able to sum up strangers and know what to expect. Yet the fact is, we’re not very good at all.

Libby Purves asked a riddle about surgeons to reveal if you're secretly sexist (file image)

Libby Purves asked a riddle about surgeons to reveal if you’re secretly sexist (file image)

And that’s all of us, women included. It goes for sexism, too. That’s right. While we have made a lot of noise in recent months about how men have an in-built bias against us, ignoring equal pay or proper respect, science is proving that a closet sexist lurks in the vast majority of women. And whether committed feminists or corporate high-achievers, we’re all guilty.

I wouldn’t have believed it, either, until I listened to an unnervingly entertaining edition of Analysis on Radio 4 this week which asked the cheeky question: ‘Why Are Even Women Biased Against Women?’

When I first saw the billing, alarm bells started to ring. Here we go again, I thought ..

We all know that there is a certain sort of man (and some anti-feminist women) who crow with delight at the idea of a b***h-fight, two women hair-pulling, mud-wrestling and doing each other down.

Who doesn’t like a good street brawl between the ladies of Coronation Street? We know we shouldn’t, but we do.

Indeed, during the Tory leadership battle in 2016, a lot of people rubbed their hands together with glee when Andrea Leadsom seemed to be attacking her rival Theresa May for not having children. Everyone gather round and cheer!

But, on the other hand, there are plenty of preachy women who, if you raise the slightest criticism of another female, will slap you down all over social media because you have failed the ‘sisterhood’.

So it is risky to explore the uncomfortable fact that sexism isn’t just a male thing.

But while we all know that women still have to overcome prejudice, we should admit that some of that lies in us ourselves.

The Radio 4 programme was presented by the journalist Mary Ann Sieghart, a lifelong Left-wing feminist and a generous and civil colleague to other women.

Libby Purves (pictured) claims hardly anyone gives the riddle's correct answer, that the surgeon is the boy’s mother

Libby Purves (pictured) claims hardly anyone gives the riddle's correct answer, that the surgeon is the boy’s mother

Libby Purves (pictured) claims hardly anyone gives the riddle’s correct answer, that the surgeon is the boy’s mother

But when she bravely took a bias test designed by psychologists which asks participants to choose (at lightning speed) whether words such as ‘laundry’, ‘manager’, ‘family’ or ‘profession’ were more associated with men or women, there it was: she too found an instinctive sense lurking that leadership, competence and strength were more likely to reside in men.

Sieghart had the grace to laugh. We all should — and let ourselves look at it more closely. The first step towards dealing with any fault or absurdity is to identify it, and call it out.

The actress Anne Hathaway set the ball rolling in an interview last year when she admitted that the first time she worked with a woman director — Lone Scherfig, in the film One Day — her instinct was to doubt her.

‘I really regret not trusting her more easily,’ she said. ‘And I am to this day scared that the reason I didn’t trust her the way I trust some of the other directors I work with is because she’s a woman.’ Accusing herself ruefully of ‘internalised misogyny’, Hathaway bravely said that when she sees a film directed by a woman, she keeps finding herself focusing on its faults; when it’s by a man, she looks first at its merits.

Libby believes the mental image of a surgeon is stamped on the brain as always being a bloke (file image)

Libby believes the mental image of a surgeon is stamped on the brain as always being a bloke (file image)

Libby believes the mental image of a surgeon is stamped on the brain as always being a bloke (file image)

And this, remember, is the actress who starred with the redoubtable Meryl Streep — the terrifying magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada.

Anne had the perception to notice the flaw in herself, but there have been plenty of experiments backing up what she found. In the literary world, a cheeky author called Catherine Nichols sent a book proposal out to 50 publishers, many of them female, and only two lukewarm respondents would even agree to read it.

Sending the same proposal out with a made-up male name on the cover got her 17 replies. Just as importantly, many of them were generous with advice and ideas about changes, keen to mentor ‘him’.

Chilling isn’t it? And these are women in authority!

It is not just the media: the same result met a Harvard experiment where they sent out identical CVs to a science professors, applying for a job as a lab manager. Again, the men were preferred both as employees and for mentoring. And, yes, the women professors were just as instinctively more favourable to men.

Politics? Oh yes, there too. Over here, an analysis was carried out seeing which of the political journalists were most followed and re-tweeted around the internet during the election campaign.

Anne Hathaway (pictured centre right) confessed she regrets not easily trusting her female film director (pictured left) when filming One Day

Anne Hathaway (pictured centre right) confessed she regrets not easily trusting her female film director (pictured left) when filming One Day

Anne Hathaway (pictured centre right) confessed she regrets not easily trusting her female film director (pictured left) when filming One Day

Women and men were both less likely to pay attention to the women, to the extent that even the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg — a heavy-hitter in a prestigious job — didn’t make it into the top-ten influencers. Suspecting this might be just because there were more men being noisier online, the researcher checked. And no: only half the disparity could be explained by that.

It would be easy to go: ‘Yes, women hate women, ha ha!’ Everyone has a story of the nightmare boss from hell, the Devil in Prada or the jealous office crone who shops the younger, prettier ones for every small crime.

My first thought was that the only two colleagues or bosses I have really disliked have been female. But, that is bias talking. A couple of men have been worse, but I must, at some deep-seated level, have forgiven them more easily because hey, they’re just blokes.

Maybe women are hard on women because, dammit, we’re hard on ourselves: full of doubt and humility. The research, when it goes deeper, is more interesting than that, and helps dispel the guilt.

Anne Hathaway (pictured) accused herself of having ‘internalised misogyny'

Anne Hathaway (pictured) accused herself of having ‘internalised misogyny'

Anne Hathaway (pictured) accused herself of having ‘internalised misogyny’

Psychologists talk of the unconscious brain — they call it the primitive ‘lizard brain’ which underlies our decisions about other people.

‘What the brain knows is what it sees,’ says one Harvard researcher, ‘and it buries the information quickly and efficiently.’

So if what you see all your life, and in pictures, and media, is men wielding authority and women as homemakers and helpful assistants, your brain ticks that box and every time you have a decision to make about who is the leader, unless you make an effort of thought, bias kicks in.

As it did in all those publishers, scientists and Anne Hathaway.

Nobody likes being preached to. Try playing around with some of the tests, or devise your own.

Imagine a spaceship captain or an airline pilot in an emergency. Got the scene in your head? Now take another look. Oops, yes, you probably imagined a man at the controls. A white man, too. Fail!

In all likelihood you failed the riddle, too — the one about the injured boy and the surgeon. Hardly anyone says the obvious — that the surgeon must be the injured boy’s mother. The mental image of a surgeon is stamped on the deep brain as being a bloke.

It is called ‘categorisation’. Hilariously, one woman who didn’t work out that it was a female was horrified at herself afterwards, because her own mother was a surgeon ..

Challenging the categorising lizard brain in your head can be fun. I arrived the other day for a speed awareness course (sorry!). A woman let us in. And, yes, for a moment I assumed she was the receptionist. But she was an instructor. Very good, too — of course she was.

So while it’s right to take men to task about their treatment of women, we should also be examining and challenging our own lazy assumptions, too.

I bow my head in shame. 





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