How do you define yourself?  By your profession?  By your relationship with others?  By your physical appearance, or the groups that you associate with, or by where you are in the cycle of life?

            How do others define you?  Are there conflicts between your definition of yourself, and the way that others see you?


            As a courtesy to a colleague who was offended by my original parable, and in an effort to work toward a reconciliation, I have removed my parable from this space.  I do so in recognition of a breakthrough in communication, and in an effort to expedite the publication of a manuscript that I have prepared on alfalfa pollination and the value of systems thinking. 

In its place, I offer this parable from probably the most famous of all tellers of parable:

2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:
3 "Listen! A sower went out to sow.
4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.
5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil.
6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold."
9 And he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.
11 And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;
12 in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'"
13 And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?

Mark 4, NRSV

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How do you define yourself?  By your profession?  By your relationship with others?

            How do others define you?  Are there conflicts between your definition of yourself, and the way that others see you?  Do you struggle to separate yourself from stereotypes and myths that others have created about you?  Do you succeed in gaining acceptance for the identity that you are aiming for?  Who do you alienate in your struggle for self-identity?

            We adapt our behavior to conform with the groups or people with whom we wish to identify, and we separate ourselves from groups or people with whom we do not wish to be identified.

            How we identify ourselves is a function of our particular experience.  Until 9-11, most citizens of the USA would not have defined themselves by their nationality, unless they happened to travel abroad.  After 9-11, we all became acutely aware of our national identity.   With that national identity we acknowledge a shared experience.   Conversely, a visitor from abroad is invariably defined by his or her nationality, because it is different from ours.

When we identify with an ethnic or religious group, family background, age group, or profession, we also acknowledge a shared history and experience.   If that shared experience is viewed as negative, we disassociate ourselves from the group in order to avoid particular people or to fit in to some other identity perceived as positive. 

            In its early stages, the civil rights movement focused on integration with the dominant culture, denying the inferior status of minorities projected on them by white values.  Later the "Black is Beautiful" and other movements stressed that there is a great deal to celebrate in the shared experience of African Americans. The shared experience is lost by identifying with the dominant white culture.  Persons of Color today still must negotiate the delicate and volatile balance between identifying with one's race or ethnicity, and transcending it.  Although we often see the two positions as a dichotomy, they need not be.

            Most of the successful women scientists that I know identify themselves as scientists and deny the importance of gender in their scientific identity.*  To succeed they fight against the traditional view that women are inferior at science and math. This means demonstrating that they can fit into a culture that is dominated by men and masculine values. For example, one successful woman scientist I know described herself as a "tomboy" when growing up. Another feels that her graduate advisor accepted her only after she beat him at racquetball.

As happened with the civil rights movement, a growing number of women in science - mostly relegated to the periphery of science - recognize that there is much about the culture of women; i.e., their shared experience as women, that is devalued in a culture dominated by men. The shared experience of childcare comes to us through identity with our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, teachers, friends, and through the media, whether or not we have children of our own. This shared experience places value on empathy, nurturing, empowering others, and conflict mediation not just within the family, but across society. However, understanding and empowering others is a slow process. (See "Hug O' War and Tug of Peace"). Thus, these skills conflict directly with one of the preeminent values of scientists and engineers, who tend to be "task-oriented" and highly focused on accomplishing a job quickly.

Empathy, nurturing, empowering others, mediating conflict - these are skills that are little appreciated in scientific culture. Absence of these skills in individuals who are accepted into the culture of science results in an accumulation of tensions and conflicts among individuals. These conflicts may ultimately cause a greater disruption in scientific productivity than the slower pace of individuals who foster these skills. It also results in the loss of some excellent minds that do not fit the traditional scientific culture.

I do not believe that these "feminine" skills are incompatible with scientific talent. I do not believe that there is an intrinsic conflict with identifying oneself as a woman scientist. Nor do I believe that ignoring or separating oneself from the shared experience of women as nurturers and empathizers is necessary for objectivity.  On the contrary, if one is unable to recognize the role of experience in shaping the questions that a scientist addresses, the methodology that she or he uses, and the interpretation of results, then one cannot truly be objective.  

(Have you been disagreeing with much of what I have said here?  You are in "doubting" mode.  Try the "believing" game.  That doesn't mean agreeing with what I say.  It means asking "what did she experience that she is writing this?"  You may formulate an hypothesis, but unless you ask, you won't know if you are correct.  Once you hear my experience, I will be interested to hear how your experience has led you to a different perspective. This may lead to the kind of positive interaction described by Gragg)

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Copyright December 31, 2002, Karen Strickler.  All rights reserved.
                Choose One Parable removed February 3, 2005.