Sexism and Culture: An Object Lesson

A young man is wheeled into surgery on a gurney. He was gravely injured in an auto accident that killed his father. The young man is transferred to the operating table and prepped for emergency surgery.

The surgeon leans over the young man and gasps in dismay, “Oh, my son, what have the done to you?”

Who is the surgeon?

This was a real stumper for folks in the late 1960s. WC’s girlfriend sprang this one on WC, in fact. Trying to guess, they’d say, “His minister?” or “His grandfather?” Can you get it? WC will give you a moment [cue Jeopardy theme] . . .

The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, and the point of the story is that it was inconceivable that a woman might be an emergency room surgeon. The inability of folks to discern that a woman might be a surgeon is an insight into the way gender bias affects our perceptions of the world. We think we are unbiased; we think we are open-minded. But escaping your biases is tough. Even as recently as 2014, a Boston University study found only 15% of children and 14% of college students got the right answer. About 78% of “self-described feminists” were wrong.

Gender schema, the maps we all carry in our head that tell us who we are, who others are, and how it fits together, are extremely slow to change. At a time when nearly half of medical students are women, two-thirds of women doctors report experiencing gender discrimination.

WC mentions this because Nikon,1 touting its new Nikon 850 camera, published a display ad showing 32 professional photographers who had evaluated the new camera. Every one of those photographers was male. Since at least Dorthea Lange, and probably earlier, women have been among the very best photographers in the world. It’s outrageous that Nikon apparently didn’t consider that reality.

What sexual discrimination looks like

What sexual discrimination looks like

Nikon’s blatant sexism was egregious enough that even the New York Times noticed. BBC had some harsh things to say. Nikon made a truly lame “apology,”

Unfortunately, the female photographers we had invited for this meet were unable to attend, and we acknowledge that we had not put enough of a focus on this area.

This unfortunate circumstance is not reflective of the value we place on female photographers and their enormous contributions to the field of photography.

WC won’t presume to speak for women, but doubts that Nikon did itself any favors by blaming the victims for its sexism. WC strongly suspects that among senior management, their gender schema would still trip them up if they were asked about the surgeon.


  1. WC, of course, is  Canon customer.