Riddle me this.

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he's about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, "I can't operate--that boy is my son!" How can this be?

For decades, confused individuals have blurted out wrong and random answers: "The father is a ghost/God/angel!" or "It's his stepdad!" or "The son has two fathers!" While that last one hints at some of our changed progressive thinking, the fact that the obviously correct answer seems so out of reach of our collective minds is staggering. 

After all, why is it so difficult for us to grasp the point that the surgeon is the boy's ... mother?

What a crazy concept, right? A female surgeon. Who'd a thought it. 

The fact that 80-90 percent of people to this day still can't solve the riddle is telling. It invites the question: How much progress have we really made in terms of gender equity and women's representation in the workplace, especially in male dominated industry like medicine? 

The riddle is still a riddle. It continues to stump us. And that's exactly the problem.

A couple of recent research projects have looked more into this. There are learned insights and lessons for organizations and brands looking to continue the difficult but important battle of eliminating gender bias in both the marketplace and workplace.

Gender bias is a generalized phenomenon

Men and women are equally unable to solve the riddle, in the 80-90 percent range. Furthermore, similar rates were found for people in India, suggesting it isn't an American bias. 

In one of the studies, researchers also presented the riddle to young adults at a female-majority university. These were 22-year-olds, many of whom have mothers who are working professionals, including doctors. Eighty-six percent of the respondents guessed wrong.

Gender biases come early in life

It must be an adult thing, right? Maybe an innocent child, still unencumbered by gender norms will see the mother-surgeon association more clearly. Afraid not. Children between the ages of 7 and 10 were just as bad, with 85 percent guessing incorrectly. 

Gender biases are stubborn

Surprisingly, even self-described feminists aren't spared from the bias. They did slightly less bad, with a 78 percent incorrect guess rate. I tested this hypothesis with my wife, a professional educator, social justice advocate and ally who has committed her life's work to helping young girls in marginalized communities feel more empowered.

Even she couldn't get the correct answer. That's how stubborn the bias is. On a conscious level, one can live by a code of values and core beliefs (i.e., conscious brain: "Duh. Of course, women can be surgeons"), but the societal narrative of stubborn gender norms is buried deep within our memory networks (i.e., unconscious brain: "A woman surgeon? Not possible").  

Language matters a great deal

There is some good news. In one of their studies, the researchers found that exposure to gender-neutral language, such as saying "child" instead of "son," reduced the stereotype expression by up to 50 percent. 

The implications should be obvious. These sorts of occupational stereotypes may prevent women from entering male-dominated fields; or they may send signals to the women already in those fields that they don't belong or that they don't possess the right skills to be good at their job.

As businesses continue to invest in DEI, it is critical for senior leaders to invest wisely. A day of training to combat gender bias in your workforce is laughable -- and a complete waste of money. Leaders need to recognize that these biases run psychologically deep; and to bring them to the surface will require collective effort, values-based business decisions, and smart scientific thinking. 

Our goal for the next five years is to get the point where, upon asking that question, the person in front of you says, "His mother is the surgeon -- obviously. Crappy riddle if you ask me." 

It's been 50 years of us being stumped. It's high time the question becomes just that: a boring, silly old question, and not a riddle at all.