11/15/2011 10:10 am ET Updated Jan 15, 2012

A Long-Awaited Answer to a Riddle

It's Father's Day and the 11-year-old boy and his father are on their way to spend the day at an amusement park. They never make it. The car they are riding in is struck by a drunk driver. The father is killed instantly and the boy is barely clinging to life. There is one surgeon at the General Hospital who can save the boy's life. Prepped for surgery the boy is wheeled into the operating room. The surgeon, presented with the details of the case enters the room, but hesitates. "What's wrong, Doctor?" the nurse asks. "I can't operate on this boy. He's my son."

Who is the doctor? I remember hearing this riddle some time in elementary school way back in the 1970s. Ms. Magazine was new and Betty Freidan's work was just starting. We were all stumped. The riddle spread through our school and across the country, and we were all stunned by our own bias in not coming up with the answer right away: the doctor was the boy's mother.

I told the story and the riddle to a group of high school girls not long ago and was surprised that many of them were as stumped as I was back in the 70s but maybe for slightly different reasons. Sure today there is Dr. Yang and Dr. Grey and all we had growing up was Dr. Welby and Dr. Gannon. A smart young woman, on her way to a biology major and a job with the EPA, was more thrown by the way Dr. Mommy speaks up. With all of the equality in the career world that we see going on we still don't expect a woman to have so strong a voice. "Nurse, is it okay if I don't do this surgery?" Is what we'd expect to hear from a mother.

As women we're trained to negotiate, sometimes subjugating our own strong beliefs so that those around us feel their needs are being met or that they are not being excluded. We're encouraged to make our way by giving way. It might take us a little longer to get there, but we do and people still like us. Maybe girls full of sugar and spice can't help but be conciliatory. We're congratulated for it in school and it is expected of us at the office and on that blind date. A woman that declares anything in active rather than passive voice is labeled "difficult", or a "bitch."

The blogs caught fire early in my career when word got out that I was calling myself "chef." Being called chef, they complained was arrogant. I was asked to soften it by calling myself Chef Gillian (or perhaps Miss Gillian would have been more suitable and I think with that I would then be expected to trade in my chef coat for a gingham dress and apron). The truth is all of us use that term. A man or woman leading a kitchen is called chef, much the way we call a ship's captain -- tits or no tits -- "sir."

Direct-speaking women are not born that way. We're nurtured by our female examples and our career path. I know when to be conciliatory. I don't remember my mother or grandmother not speaking their mind when they could. But I also remember women in my family holding their tongue when they had to. In my mother's America, soft speaking to a black woman -- and man -- often meant the difference between a night in the ER or getting home safely. My grandmother paid the price when in a firm voice she insisted a pack of police officers stop clubbing her husband.

It is the careers we choose that most often demand a strong voice from us. If we are successful -- good at what we do -- we form strong opinions about ourselves and our profession. Not unlike our male counterparts. In my case, leading a kitchen demands I shout over the churning dish machine and the roiling oil of the fryer. But a chef -- man or woman -- needs to shout over the voice in each cook's head.

Doesn't matter if he's just out of school or been cooking for years, a cook thinks his way is the best way; even if it means tossing my delicate crab cakes into the deep fryer at the order. Only a strong voice and perhaps an added threat of bodily harm ("you're going into that fryer right after that crab cake") is the most efficient way to get a cook to do as he's told. It's probably the most difficult part of the job -- getting all of the brains and independent thinking to act as one big brain -- Chef's.

Nobody can speak in that voice and have anyone believe it -- especially the cook itching to toss the menu into the deep fryer -- unless there is firmness and unwavering confidence behind it. I could never present my crab cakes to the dining public and expose it to the review of restaurant critics unless I believed with all of my heart that they are the best in the world. The surgeon isn't going to get anyone to respond with life-saving speed if she says, "Nurse, when you get a sec, would you mind handing me that scalpel you've got over there please?"