Let’s begin with a classic riddle: A father and his son go on a hunting trip. Suddenly, their car crashes, the father dies, and the son needs surgery. Medics rush the boy to the hospital, but upon seeing the patient in the emergency room, the trauma surgeon says: “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” How is that possible?
The answer, as most of us would recognize instantly today, is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. But for years people would wildly speculate as to how the “surgeon” was male — e.g. the father must not have really died, the non-dead father and the surgeon were the same person, the surgeon was the boy’s stepfather, etc.
While some might say this story is no longer relevant given today’s society, I can testify that I used to present the riddle to my college classes, and while an increasing number had either heard it before or figured it out, there were still a number of mostly male but also some female students who would brainstorm contorted answers to fit an unconscious bias in their worldview. (Don’t feel bad if you failed this sexism test. Well, maybe feel a little bad.)
This experiment continues to resonate with me because as a veteran stay-at-home dad married to a female doctor, I often experience the flip side of such bias. For example, many institutions — schools, medical offices, insurance companies, banks — assume any question pertaining to a child should be directed to that child’s mother. Hence, my wife continues to get calls about scheduling our children’s appointments that should come to me first. She has literally had to have nurses field calls for her during surgery, which makes her feel compromised both as a surgeon and as a mother.
I doubt a male doctor with a stay-at-home wife (or a working wife, for that matter) gets such calls. We have tried to avoid this problem by highlighting that I am the “primary emergency contact” on official forms, but sometimes it still happens. In the riddle, the “default” surgeon is male; in today’s culture, the “default” parent continues to be female even if that female is a doctor, which helps neither men nor women.
Granted, a few disclaimers are in order. Even though I am lamenting that a kind of cultural gatekeeping is keeping dads from being the default parent, I fully acknowledge that a different kind of cultural gatekeeping continues to keep women from being the default fill-in-the-professional-title. As a father of two daughters, I am keenly aware that institutional sexism is more consequential for working moms than for involved dads. Women are also right to note that men often perceive that they do more parenting jobs and housework than they actually do. And finally, I don’t deny that I still occasionally meet a dad who takes pride in not knowing anything about his children’s daily life, as if such emasculating “women’s work” is beneath him (though this type of dad seems to be fading fast.)
Perhaps the problem relates to the notion of a “default” itself. A default is defined as “a preselected option adopted by a computer program or other mechanism when no alternative is specified by the user or programmer.” That is, when there is no forethought, we tend to follow old habits like robots rather than thoughtfully working to change the status quo.
So maybe the best approach is to rethink as many defaults as possible, especially when it comes to parenting. Some institutions have made progress on this issue, but more needs to be done. My goal would not be a vengeful reversal of the assumed default parent gender, since that is not in the best interest of the child. A healthier goal would be gender neutrality and equality that would make all sexist riddles obsolete. In other words, delete the defaults and try to live a more examined life.