Publication: Making the Most of Diversity Lessons

This article was first published on Women’s Policy Action Tank on 24 April 2017.

Despite its special focus on diversity, the evolution of the March for Science shows that diversity has been an afterthought. Science and academia continually places scientists from underrepresented groups in the position of arguing for our rights. The issues for the global March for Science, as well as the national marches in Australia, are fundamental to issues of diversity in STEM around the world. The march is a microcosm of the battle to create a more inclusive culture in STEM that truly values and promotes diversity. 

Over the weekend, thousands participated in the March for Science, both in Australia and globally. Influenced by the Women’s March, the March for Science has struggled with reflecting the highly diverse scientific community. In today’s post, sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos provides a brief history of the controversies, explains why diversity in science is important, and provides practical suggestions for moving forward on stronger footing. 

March for Science crowd at Martins Place Sydney

Diversity is a quintessential tool in science

This past Saturday, 22 April 2017, Australia joined over 50 countries around the world in the March for Science, a protest that is being promoted (rather contradictorily) as “a celebration of science.” The global march is a response to the Trump Administration’s various science policy changes which include gag orders, scaling back focus on climate change research, withdrawing funding for reproductive health programs, and much more. The march has six core principles, ranging from “science that serves the common good,” to evidence-based policy, to “diversity and Inclusion in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics].”

March for Science Australia mirrors these broad goals with four aims: universal literacy; open communication; informed policy; and stable investment. You’ll notice that diversity is not among the stated goals of the Australian marches. There is, however, an “acknowledgement” on the March for Science Australia website, which begins with the passage: “Science belongs to everyone. It should be pursued for the benefit of all people and for the health of the environment we depend upon.” There is an address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people as the traditional custodians of Australia, and a statement of commitment for the right of all people to pursue science, regardless of socio-economic standing, age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and religion.

Thirteen cities in Australia hosted rallies and marches. But what does it mean to march for science in Australia, given the connection to American politics? And how do we grow meaningful policy changes from a march that “acknowledges” diversity, without incorporating this as a core principle?

Background on Diversity Issues

Despite its special focus on diversity, the evolution of the March for Science shows that diversity has been an afterthought.

Diversity is a broad concept that encompasses three distinct ideas. First, equity: identifying barriers, issues and solutions to structural disadvantage. Second, access: creating, measuring and redesigning opportunities to enhance participation by underrepresented groups. Third, inclusion: actively seeking out, valuing and respecting differences.

Since its inception, the march has been plagued by controversy surrounding its diversity stance. This started on 25 January, just one day after the March for Science was officially established. The communication from the organisers championed men’s achievements to the exclusion of women. In the days that followed, scientists pointed out various problems with the way in which the march was discussing science, from using problematic ideas that marginalise racial minorities; to omitting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual scientists (LGBTQIA); to ignoring issues of accessibility. In response to this scientific critique, the organisers released a diversity statement at the end of January, which failed to mention scholars with disabilities.

That diversity statement would go through another three revisions in the face of growing critique by scientists from underrepresented groups (particularly women from minority backgrounds). Meanwhile, the march has continued to suffer one communication and planning crisis after another, including an ill-informed discussion of the gender pay gap, racist ‘dog whistling’, and ignoring issues of accessibility. This was reflected in various media interviews where the march co-chairs and committee members reinforced, and fed into, an anti-diversity discourse, by saying that the march is not political but rather about science – but not scientists. The latter distinction effectively means that discussion of equity and diversity issues in science has been unwelcome by the organisers.

The Australian marches  fared a little better, but still lagged on diversity and an overall strategy.

March for Science Australia

Australia was the first country outside of the USA to express interest for a march, back on 26 January. Conversations about diversity started at the beginning of February, alongside questions about how the march would be contextualised for Australian STEM. What are we marching for in Australia? How will the march ensure inclusion and accessibility? For the next three months, colleagues and I engaged the organisers of the national committee as well as other local organising committees. Specifically, we encouraged the organisers to ensure ATSI scientists were part of the leadership committee to help implement an Australian vision for the march that reflected Indigenous scientific knowledge. We asked the organisers to include people with disabilities as part of its committees so that accessibility was being integrated into every step of the planning of the various marches. We noted that visible representation of LGBTQIA researchers was essential to the march, as well as the expert input of scholars of culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse backgrounds.

Much of this engagement was public; underrepresented scientists from around the English-speaking world have been using the hashtag #marginsci, started by Dr Stephanie Page, to encourage the global march and their local satellites to be proactive on diversity. We used this tag in Australia to provide scientific resources and constructive critique, as well as to give advice and to encourage transparency and accountability on diversity. We also provided private advice, including giving detailed feedback on equity, inclusion and accessibility, and providing a large list of contacts of experts and speakers.

We hoped the organisers would learn from the mistakes made by the organisers in the US and be inspired to plan a march that was focused on intersectionality. This is a framework for thinking about, and responding to, the ways in which gender and racial inequalities are interconnected and compound other forms of social exclusion, such as sexuality, disability, class, age and so on. For example, intersectionality helps us to see why the experiences of White men and women scientists are different from those of Indigenous scientists, who may need additional, unique supports in order to succeed. While women make up half of STEM undergraduate students, they represent only 21% of senior scientists. At the same time, ATSI people make up only 30,000 graduates (3% of those who complete a degree) and a tiny proportion of Australian doctorates (0.5% of people with PhDs).

Science and academia continually places scientists from underrepresented groups in the position of arguing for our rights:

In short, the right to be educated, work and thrive in a STEM environment which reflects the multicultural society we share.

After a couple of months, progress on equity remained relatively slow for the March for Science.

While there were some notably diverse speakers across Australia – for example, Karlie Noon, Upulie Divisekera, Luke Briscoe and Dr Penny Whetton – there were lengthy delays in confirming speakers and demonstrating a commitment to STEM diversity.

The national strategy for March for Science remains unclear. How will the march leverage the protest and rallies into policy change? What specific policies does it hope to affect? How will they address funding cuts? What is the vision on diversity in STEM? These and other tough questions remain unanswered.

It has recently emerged that the march appears to have a conflict of interest with the undeclared involvement of politicians in the march organising committee. Additionally, the Sydney march included the former leader of the Liberal Party, Dr John Hewson, despite the non-partisan remit of the March for Science.”

As it stands, both the global and local marches reflected much room for improvement.

Why Diversity Matters

The issues for the global March for Science, as well as the national marches in Australia, are fundamental to issues of diversity in STEM around the world. The march is a microcosm of the battle to create a more inclusive culture in STEM that truly values and promotes diversity.

We start with the backwards logic. The march began without diversity in mind. The diversity statements by the global march came only after various mistakes and in response to critique from underrepresented scientists. Locally, there is no publicised diversity statement in the first instance, let alone a detailed strategy for equity, inclusion and access.

Extensive, longitudinal research shows that diversity statements and policies alone do not lead to greater diversity in the workplace. In fact, individual programs, whether it’s mentoring women or one-off training, do little to advance (only some) White women’s individual careers, and many programs have little effect on women of colour and other minorities. This is because programs are designed to “fix” individuals, without committing to changing the system.

Diversity is effective, and pays dividends in productivity, where equity, inclusion and accessibility are at the core of leadership and organisational practice. For an organisation to realise the full potential of diversity, leaders must not only model behavioural changes, but also lead proactive planning, evaluation and targeted solutions to transform their workplace culture. Superimposing a diversity statement on the existing structure allows only a few individuals to succeed while White men’s dominance remains unperturbed.

Diversity is just one of many important STEM issues in Australia, and one that should not take a backseat role to other pressing science issues. In fact, diversity undercuts all STEM policy matters. For example, Indigenous science is vital to addressing climate change and developing sustainable practices, as well as being indispensable to health initiativestechnology R&D, and other STEM ventures. Scientific potential will never be met unless Indigenous Australians lead STEM programs and activities, moving away from a deficit model to one of self-determination and empowerment in STEM. This includes activities like the March for Science. Imagine how an event that aspires to be a critical moment of change in STEM would have looked like with 60,000 years of ATSI wisdom leading its strategy!

We’ve been doing STEM in this country for a very long time and inequalities persist despite good intentions to make change. It’s time to stop accepting the status quo as an inevitable outcome of STEM careers and instead institute what we know to be best practice. A protest is not really a celebration, but a time to reflect on, and demand, changes to a system that stops science from flourishing. Whether you chose to march or not, let’s use the lessons from the March the Science to stop accepting “business as usual” in STEM. Let’s decide as a community to start seeing diversity as a quintessential tool in building a more robust scientific landscape, uniquely tailored to meet Australia’s research challenges and opportunities.

Read more on Women’s Policy Action Tank.

March for Science crowd at Martins Place Sydney
Diversity is a quintessential tool in science