I don’t remember a lot about the day of my husband’s emergency brain surgery. Less than 24 hours after being admitted to the hospital for a headache and extreme dizziness, he was in the operating room.
After the surgery, I remember the humming, beeping, and clicking of machines keeping him alive. The corners of his mouth drooped around the breathing tube. The dried blood crusted around the symmetrical screw-sized holes in his forehead, twisted into his flesh to secure the skull clamp.
I remember a rotating door of medical professionals: his personal ICU nurse who told me a piece of my husband’s skull had been removed. A respiratory technician who explained the alarm beeped on the monitor when his heart rate dropped below 50. The tall male doctor, with facial scruff and greying around his ears who told me all about the surgery – that it was a brain abscess, an infection, in the left side of my husband’s cerebellum. How they went in and mostly drained it. How my husband was on a broad-spectrum antibiotic until they identified the bacteria; had anyone from infectious disease come to see me yet? I asked about prognosis – when will he wake up? When will he be home? Will he be okay? I rubbed my round belly and sort of laughed. “This is going to be happening very soon.” He peered at me. “Oh, are you pregnant?” How ridiculous, I thought. It was obvious at eight months. Neurosurgeons have an odd sense of humour, maybe from spending so much time in medical school.
And I remember the female doctor, with her brown hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, and her flat, black loafers. “You the wife?” she asked. She asked other questions too – did I know when the dizziness started? How long did he have a headache for? Had he been out of the country recently? She didn’t say much else about the surgery, and I didn’t ask. I had, after all, already spoken with the neurosurgeon.
My sister-in-law came later that day, and I left to get something to eat from the cafeteria – a smoked meat sandwich with extra pickles. The lady behind the counter gave me two more than I asked for, “for the baby.” See? I thought. It was obvious! I went back up, and my sister-in-law innocently said “The neurosurgeon came by. She’s great.”
The neurosurgeon was a she?
My thoughts spun like a top, making me dizzy. I flashed back to my earlier conversations that day, and my stomach dropped.
The neurosurgeon was a she.
I had assumed. I saw a male doctor and assumed he was the neurosurgeon, the head honcho, for no other reason except that he was male.
I just caught myself in the middle of a bias. Dead centre of making it. My cheeks burned. I felt ashamed.
Unconscious bias exists, I know this from my studies in psychology. Our brain has to sift through and manage so much incoming information, so it takes shortcuts, looking for patterns based on the accumulation of what we have been exposed to in our lifetime. It tries to bring order quickly through categorizing.
Unconscious bias exists, but isn’t it one of those things that only happens to ‘other people’? If you asked me outright, I would tell you that I strongly believe girls can be neurosurgeons and anything else they want to be. But that’s the thing about unconscious bias – we’re not aware of it, and it’s often contradictory from our conscious thoughts and values. It’s often not the same as who we actually think we are.
I have never experienced this moment before, this moment of awareness of automatic assumption. It’s like thinking of red when someone asks you the colour of an apple and feeling surprised when they remind you that apples can also be green. I see myself with a shifted perspective, and the duality of believing myself to be one way and seeing myself as another leaves me unsettled, like my eyes are unfocused and won’t clear, even after rubbing them.
I caught myself in this one. But how many times have I NOT caught myself making a bias? About gender? About race? About anything at all?
At the time of my husband’s surgery, I had a 2-year-old daughter at home and was pregnant with another. How could I be sure to raise my girls not to have these same implicit gendered assumptions? How do I raise them in a society that does? In a society that has such low expectations of them as girls?
My toddler loves The Wheels on the Bus. She learned the song at daycare, and at home lines up chairs like bus seats. She asks to watch it on the iPad every morning. When I search for it on Youtube, different versions appear. In each one, the bus’ wheels always go ‘round and ‘round and the wipers always go swish swish swish, but sometimes the bus goes to the farm, or to the airport, or breaks down and needs a tire change. The one consistency in all the variations is the bus driver – he is always male.
In other videos, when mama calls the doctor because her five little monkeys keep jumping on the bed and bumping their heads, the doctor is male. So is the farmer on Old Macdonald’s farm, E-I-E-I-O. These types of representations must influence the way my daughter is learning to make sense of the world around her.
But it can’t just be the video depictions she sees. What about books? Most of the books we have at home have been gifted to us. Anecdotally, and in talking to other parents, gender bias exists here too. In general, most characters are male, there are more male characters than female characters, and boys are portrayed as heroes and leaders having adventures, and girls as sidekicks. Books with strong female protagonists exist but need to be sought out.
If unconscious bias comes from the cumulative effect of what my daughter’s exposed to, in addition to videos and books, this must mean movies, posters, conversations….
Oh boy. Conversations. When I think about how I talk to her, how I try to teach her, I realize that I create a world of masculinity through the language I use. A list of things I masculinate on a daily basis:
-the bumblebee eraser on the end of a pencil (where did he go?)
-the plastic tyrannosaurus rex from the Jurassic Park Junior Lego set (what is he eating?)
-the grey squirrel running across the wires (He’s running!)
-the cat we see in the window on our way to daycare (He’s awake now.)
-the ant in our living room (How did he get here?)
-the giraffe at the zoo (He’s got such a long neck!)
As writers, we’re familiar with the power of language. Choosing the right words can make a sentence surge and explode with meaning, sharpen with precision, or fall flat and limp. Words matter. Language creates our reality. It affects our cognitive capacity and the way we think about things.
I’m sure each of my statements in isolation didn’t have a huge impact but taken together, I’m unintentionally helping to create a world of masculine dominance for her. I want her to know she has a voice and a place in this world, just as much as anyone else. That she can be anything that she wants. I can’t control the way characters are depicted in the videos she watches or in the books she reads, but I can control the way I talk to her, and what I teach her. The best way to combat unconscious thought processes is to bring awareness to them and make them conscious.
So I focus on the language I use when I talk with her. I purposefully use SHE now when describing the ant, the squirrel, the bumblebee eraser, and anything else in our daily conversations. I seek out books that have strong female protagonists. I explicitly use words like firefighter, police officer, mail carrier instead of their male counterparts, and I point out when we see females in these roles in our community. When my daughter is a bit older and more comfortable with new people, I will bring her over to them to say hello in person. I will encourage her to be aware of her own gender biases, and to challenge them. I will expose her to as many strong women doing more ‘traditionally masculine’ things as I can, including within her own family; like her aunt who lived in a trailer in the badlands working for a museum and digging for dinosaur bones, and her mom who used to box. And I will most definitely let her know it was a female neurosurgeon who operated on her daddy’s brain and saved his life.
Lina Lau is an emerging writer who lives in Toronto with her brain-injury-recovered husband and 2 daughters. Her work can be seen in Skirt Quarterly and The New Quarterly website. Lina is new to Twitter at @LinaLau_. Follow her there as she tries to figure out how it works.