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“I Can’t Operate, that Boy Is my Son!”: Gender Schemas and a Classic Riddle


To study the power of lived experiences and conscious attitudes in helping individuals to overcome nonconscious gender schemas, U.S. university students (n = 152) were administered a classic riddle requiring the gender schema-inconsistent realization that a surgeon could be a woman. Fewer than a third of participants (30%) responded that the surgeon in the riddle could be a woman. More participants (36%) responded to the riddle by noting that the surgeon could be a second father in a same-sex marriage. Regression analysis tested whether demographic, experiential, and attitudinal variables predicted the realization that the surgeon in the riddle could be a woman. Having an employed mother or female physicians, identifying as a feminist or a political liberal, and reporting low levels of sexism did not predict the realization that the surgeon in the riddle could be a woman. Only identifying as female predicted a greater likelihood of this response. In the present study, the historically newer role of father in a same-sex marriage was more accessible to research participants than the gender schema-inconsistent role of mother as surgeon. We conclude that the gender schema that impeded the realization that a surgeon could also be a mother lies so deep that it is largely unaffected by personal attitudes and experiences.

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The authors of the present study would like to thank Amanda Tarullo, Karen Gareis, and Lauren O’Brien for critical assistance with this research, and the Bobo-Hart family for stimulating the initial interest in this topic.

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Correspondence to Deborah Belle.

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All procedures performed in this study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Belle, D., Tartarilla, A.B., Wapman, M. et al. “I Can’t Operate, that Boy Is my Son!”: Gender Schemas and a Classic Riddle. Sex Roles 85, 161–171 (2021).

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  • Gender schemas
  • Implicit association
  • Social role theory
  • Role schemas
  • Gender roles
  • Stereotyping
  • Feminism