Growing up, I heard a riddle that made a major impression on me:
A man and his son are in a serious car accident. The man is killed instantly. The boy is badly injured and is rushed to the hospital for surgery. The surgeon enters the emergency room, looks at the boy, and says: “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son.” Who is the surgeon?
Odds are that you caught on to the trick here right away. Many schoolchildren, after all, now realize that there are several possible answers here: Maybe the boy has two happily married dads, maybe he was adopted by foster parents, or maybe one or both of his parents are transgendered. Or perhaps, ever so mundanely, the surgeon is a woman.
Yet this riddle still stumps some people. And we still often qualify certain job titles, particularly in male-dominated fields, with words like “woman” or “female.” (For that matter, we also do this in reverse, inserting the word “male” before “nurse” and other pink-collared job titles. And people of color are routinely qualified by their race or ethnicity in phrases such as “African-American doctor” or “Latina scientist”.)
It’s no secret why we do this: There simply aren’t enough women in these professions. Numerous articles have been written about the dearth of women in science and philosophy, for example, and there’s been much discussion about women’s progress (or the lack thereof) in the upper echelons of business and government, thanks to the release of books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.
But what are the implications of speaking this way?
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