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The surgeon who refused to operate: an equality and diversity teaser

Thumbnail image for McPherson, Blair.jpgby Blair McPherson, author of An Elephant in the Room an equality and diversity training manual published by

A serious road traffic accident results in multiple injuries to a father and his young son. The ambulance service is quick on the scene and the pair are swiftly transferred to the nearest Accident and Emergency department where two theatre teams are on standby. The patients are delivered to adjacent theatres but just as they are about to start the surgeon says “I can’t operate on this boy he is my son”. What is the explanation?

Which group of staff do you think would struggle most to explain this teaser, a young group of newly qualified social workers, a cross section of admin staff, a group of trainee finance officers, a group of mature care staff or a group of middle managers?

You might be surprised to know that age, gender, professional background and seniority status doesn’t seem to be significant. In my experience all groups take longer than you would expect to work it out.

Have you worked it out yet? Well the answer is not that the boy was adopted or that the surgeon was his step father. The clue is that this is an ice breaker exercise in an equality and diversity awareness training session.

In your mind who do you see when surgeon is mentioned? If you still haven’t worked it out the answer is at the bottom of the page.

What’s the significance of the fact that age, gender and an individual’s role within the local authority didn’t seem to make a difference in terms of how quickly people were able to work out the explanation?  I suggest that this illustrates that behaviour at work may have changed but thinking may not. The point being that without being conscious of it people make assumptions based on out dated stereotypes even when they are convinced they don’t.

(The answer is the surgeon is a woman)

About Simeon Brody

Community Care managing web editor