Mothers and Sons

female health workers
Thai nurses and me at a rural clini

Did you ever hear the riddle about the boy whose father was a famous surgeon? The child grew up fine and strong, but when he was 15-years-old, he and his father had a car accident. By chance, they were taken to different hospitals. The boy’s critical condition required immediate surgery. When the surgeon was called, the doctor said, “I can’t operate on him — he’s my son.” (Hospital rules prohibited physicians from operating on members of their own family.) The mystery to explain is: who was the doctor?

Give up? Of course, the surgeon was his mother, and that is why she could not treat her child. If you took more than ten seconds to answer the riddle, you probably should admit that you’re struggling with gender stereotypes. Don’t worry. Women do not typically think of surgeons as female, either. That’s because in most countries, they’re not. High-level medical specialists, hospital administrators and ministers of health are — on the average — male. Nurses, lab technicians and medical secretaries, on the other hand, are mostly women. This gender hierarchy in health reflects a general trend in other science education such as engineering, environmental sciences, physics and mathematics. The same is also true in the multi billion-dollar health industry where women work mostly in the lower paying jobs.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women has recommended that governments take stronger measures to end the gender gap in science and technology education. But this will take considerable effort because we must undo centuries of male bias. For example, Britain’s elite Royal Society established in 1662 did not admit women until 1945. Unequal access to education, cultural biases against science and technology careers for girls and other lifelong limitations have meant that fewer women reach the top of their scientific fields. By the 21st century only 16 women were awarded Nobel Prizes in sciences and medicine compared to more than 200 men.

We have to learn more about how boys develop positive gender values. Yet we hardly know enough about this process cross-culturally. It would be fascinating to conduct an anthropological study of sons with mothers who are professionals in medicine and science. Do the boys adjust well to the idea that a woman can compete in a man’s world?  When sons grow up, are they more likely to be supportive husbands of working wives? Do they become better teachers so that female students are encouraged to pursue any career they want? My intuitive response is an optimistic “yes.” At least the opportunity is there.

Besides the influence of UN and government policies, changes in men’s attitudes can make a difference. In Sweden, the women’s movement has stimulated a men’s movement for gender equality. This is certainly an interesting trend that merits more attention. Women who have achieved recognition in science and technology can also influence a generation of young men to give gender equality for women and girls a chance. You see, boys need women as role models, too.