Challenging the March for Science: Intersectionality at the Coal Face

This is the first of two talks I was invited to give in New Zealand in September 2017. It is fitting to share this today, on the second March for Science event happening in over 200 cities around the world, including Australia. I have throughly documented the equity and diversity issues with the last year’s March for Science. This talk was a reflection on the problems and costs of this volunteering work that I and many other people of colour, disabled scientists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) researchers did to try to make the marches more inclusive. I note that Black women scientists bore the worst abuse both within the March for Science movement and by the public advocacy they did.

I’m afraid that discussions this year were no better. Last week, I was one of a few Australian women reflecting on issues from last year’s March for Science, and the lack of transparency over plans for this year’s event. On my Twitter threads, in discussion with other minority women, organisers from the Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra marches reproduced many of the problematic arguments detailed here, all over again.

Some of the organisers of this year’s march blamed the lack of diversity amongst the committees and speakers on the low number of volunteers, while also insinuating that minority people should have volunteered in greater numbers. I noted that the same issue was raised last year to deflect minority researchers’ concerns with equity and diversity. In fact, the minorities who did volunteer and offered countless hours of free advice and public resources (as in my case) were met with anger. Women of colour were especially made to feel unsafe and unwelcome. Other organisers of this year’s march said they valued diversity but didn’t know how to improve things. I noted that there had been a plethora of free resources published last year as well as other resources that exist on how to make events more inclusive.

There is really no excuse for reproducing inequality in science or academic events, and in other spheres.

So with all these wounds freshly scratched opened, below are the notes for the talk that I gave at the University of Auckland, titled: Challenging the March for Science – intersectionality work at the coal face. I was a guest of the The Women in Science Network. Throughout this post, I provide tips for how to make science events (and other events and protests) more inclusive. At the end, I include a visual resource that summarises some tips for best practice that you can print off as a reminder. Feel free to put it up at your home office, work, school, university, or any other community space!


Before I begin my talk, I hope you might allow me to start off with an Acknowledgement of Country, as this is the custom in Australia. I would like to pay respect to the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Tāmaki Māori; and any elders, past, present and emerging in this room. It is upon their ancestral lands that we meet. As we share our own learning, research and equity practices may we also pay respect to the diversity of knowledge embedded forever within their Custodianship of Country.

Beyond this acknowledgement, I would like to thank the Women in Science Network for hosting me here today.

I’m going to use a diversity framework to take you through only a few examples of how White women and underrepresented minorities challenged the March for Science. This includes discussion of four social science concepts to organise some of the issues that emerged in the March:

  • Equity
  • Inclusion
  • Access
  • Intersectionality

Then, I’ll talk about how we might use this diversity framework in planning more inclusive science movements.


Protesters march down the street. A White man is seen in the foreground, holding a sign that reads
Science makes sense

Following the high profile of the Women’s March against the Trump Administration on 21 January 2017, the idea for March for Science grew from various social media conversations  by scientists who wanted to rally against the science policy changes, funding cuts, gag orders, and the administrative of overhaul of science organisations by the Trump Government [Zevallos 2017a]. The MfS was announced on 24 January, just three days after the Women’s March, and it had had an unusual trajectory for a social justice movement. Most organisations emerge through a collective of like-minded individuals who pass through four key phases of social action: forming, storming, norming, and performing. These phases lead to the articulation of public goals and actions [Tuckman 1965]. Instead, the march followed a rather haphazard path.

The two March for Science co-founders did not have a background in organising social movements. They gave an interview to Science Magazine claiming that they looked at the success of the Women’s March and thought: “We can do that,” not recognising the types of skills and knowledge it would take to coordinate a massive public event. The organisers also had no leadership experience, nor did they have any equity and diversity training.

The March organisers set up a website and social media communities before clearly explaining the goal of the March, and before recruiting and publishing their organising team. The March initially emerged as a Twitter account on 24 January 2017 [Zevallos 2017a].

Protesters gathered in Hyde Park, Sydney. Two women are dressed in capes. They are holding yellow signs. One says
“Academic freedom”

The march occurred globally on 22 April 2017 in over 50 countries and 400 cities. I published an analysis of the evolution of the March organising committee, through their media interviews and social media posts [Zevallos 2017a]. By mid-February 2017, the March for Science Twitter account had 328,000 followers; the public Facebook page had 365,000 likes; and the secret Facebook community hasd833,00 members.

Let’s look at the diversity issues of the march, starting with equity.


March for Science protesters walk through Hyde Park, Sydney. A White, bearded man wears a bright green t-shirt in the front. Behind him one person holds a sign
“We love science. Educate me”

Less than two days after the March for Science was announced, White women and underrepresented minorities from around the world began to challenge the images, messaging and aims of the March.

First, there were issues with equity. Equity is a concept illustrating ways to identify barriers, issues and solutions to structural disadvantage. Through the evolution of the March for Science we could see the organisers:

  • Undermining women’s contributions
  • Flaming racism towards people of colour
  • Completely ignoring Indigenous leadership
  • Refusing to engage with experienced social movement organisers servicing minorities.

Remember that most people of colour scientists, like many other people of colour, have attended, organised or otherwise supported social activism from a young age.

By January 26, just four days after announcing the march, astrophysicist and TED Fellow, Dr Jedidah Isler, was fed up. She wrote on Twitter: “STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] is not a neutral enterprise, so if your STEM policy work and/or activism depends on it, we’re not fighting for the same thing.”

Screengrab of Twitter thread, from a reply to my tweets by philosopher Kelly Hills. She writes:
“I distanced myself from the March” – Kelly Hills

Despite escalating critiques, as more satellite marches were being organised in hundreds of cities, the organising teams:

  • Engaged in racist dog whistling
  • Ignored disabled researchers
  • Erased LGBTQIA scientists

Some disabled women scientists and students were told by the organisers that they weren’t ready to think about accessibility – even a month before the march. Others were told disability was not a concern.

Challenging equity issues

To challenge equity issues when we organise science events (and other types of public debates and protest), we should start by asking ourselves: who should lead?

Some tips for thinking critically about equity and leadership include these considerations:

  • Leadership should reflect and reinforce diversity
  • Centre Indigenous leadership
  • Recruit other people of colour
  • Bring in disability experts
  • Ensure LGBTQIA representation, especially transgender people
  • Value experienced social movement organisers
  • Consult with equity and diversity practitioners
  • Target specialist members, from junior to senior scientists


Inclusion is about actively seeking out, valuing and respecting differences.

Luke Briscoe, CEO of Indigilab presented the Indigenous Declaration of Science during the March for Science in Sydney (the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation). He then talked about damage of coloniaslim alongside the contributions that Indigenous people make to various science practices despite entrenched racism, exclusion and disadvantage. He sang songs about his homeland, dispossession and hope for communities through a twin approaches of advancing scientific activities alongside working towards a treaty for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. Briscoe notes that Indigenous science predates Western models of science.

Indigenous Declaration of Science

The Declaration of Science was created in support of the March for Science. It was signed by 1,862 people, with around half being Indigenous scientists from North America (the other signatories were allies). It begins with this truth: “As original peoples, we have long memories, centuries old wisdom and deep knowledge of this land and the importance of empirical, scientific inquiry as fundamental to the well-being of people and planet.” It also expands on the following points:

  • Deep knowledges of Indigenous people
  • Cultural frameworks of respect, reciprocity, responsibility and healing
  • Communities have been abused as research subjects, and continue to suffer the most today
  • Symbiosis of collaboration

On the final point, the Declaration states:

We envision a productive symbiosis between Indigenous and Western knowledges that serve our shared goals of sustainability for land and culture. This symbiosis requires mutual respect for the intellectual sovereignty of both Indigenous and Western sciences.

The Australian marches did not not live up to this Declaration, and neither did most satellite cities. Most of the marches failed to have at least one Indigenous scientist speaking, and few had Indigenous members on their committees.

How to remove barriers of inclusion

People march across Hyde Park, Sydney. A man dressed in a furry black and red onesie suit holds a red sign that reads: Heed our warning signals
“Heed our warning signals”

For individuals wishing to avoid the problems of the March for Science, some initial things to address:

  • Carefully consider event coordination to embrace inclusion
  • Publish clear equity & diversity statement at event launch
  • Regularly promote anti-harassment policies
  • Address safety for the event, especially for minorities
  • Form partnerships with existing social movements
  • Strategically promote event to minority communities
  • Remain flexible & use feedback from vulnerable groups
  • Craft an inclusive communication strategy, including for social media


Protesters at the March for Science travel across the road. A woman in a wheelchair is seen in the foreground. A man pushing a pram is in the background
March for Science, Sydney, 207

Access is about creating, measuring and redesigning opportunities to enhance participation by underrepresented groups.

The various accessibility issues that emerged throughout the promotion and delivery of the March for Science include:

  • “Forgetting” disabled people from first diversity statement
  • Delayed accessibility planning
  • Refused leadership of disabled scientists
  • Did not publish accessibility plan
  • Did not invite disabled leadership or speakers

Addressing access

When can you help address access in your science event? From the first day of planning to the day of the event, demonstrate active commitment!

  • Disabled experts must have decision-making power
  • Accessibility planning prior to venue choice
  • Disabled people to test venue/path prior to announcing site
  • Consult accessibility needs of diverse minority groups
  • Ensure all promotion materials are accessible
  • Incorporate hearing loops, closed captions, sign interpreters
  • Craft “virtual” resources with accessibility in mind
  • Don’t automatically schedule disabled speakers first
  • Consider timing of activities, rest stops, quiet areas & other needs


People are gathered at Hyde Park in Sydney. A woman of colour holds a young child in her arms. In front of her a White woman dressed in a superhero cape holds a yellow sign that reads:
“Social scientist. I change opinions.”

The concept of intersectionality addresses how gender and racial inequalities are interconnected and compound other forms of social exclusion, such as sexuality, disability, class, age, and so on. Intersectionality is central to understanding why science is not an even playing field.

The March for Science ignored calls to approach planning using a perspective of intersectinality. This included how:

  • Organisers abused the leadership of Black, Indigenous and other women of colour
  • Scientists supporting the march demanded emotional labour from women of colour, to make them feel better about the critiques of the march
  • Fans of the March for Science social media accounts and other commentators in media centred Whiteness.

Where do race and gender intersect?

Having a strong understanding and application of intersectionality will enable event organisers to:

  • Actively manage diversity to ensure everyone feels safe, welcome and represented
  • Proactively lead on structural inequities
  • Use photos, visuals, language and symbols in ways that properly reflect diversity
  • Equally reward of the work done by volunteers, especially minorities
  • Consider equity and diversity as part of media training
  • Effectively moderate of online discourse about your event, and take responsibility for hate speech by followers
  • Take away emotional labour load from people of colour
  • Apologise for mistakes and reflection by leaders on how to stop harm in future
  • Address the issues affecting underrepresented scientists as part of core business
  • Use White privilege constructively: don’t leave minorities of colour behind


Discourses of science

March for Science protesters in Hyde Park, Sydney. An older White man is in the foreground. Behind him someone holds a sign that reads
“Science gets to the root of the matter”

In sociology, the concept of discourse describes how language comes to shape and justify dominant ways of thinking, talking,  and behaving [Weedon 1987]. Discourses are built around the social identities, values, interests, and power of dominant groups [Foucault 1980]. This means that the stories we tell about “Why things are the way they are,” reinforce the status quo and benefit the groups that already have institutional control [Foucault 1965; 1973].

Discourses become firmly entrenched in our imagination as the “right” way of thinking because of the way we are raised, as well as how we are trained in specific professional fields.

The idea that White men are the taken-for-granted norm of what it means to be a scientist is learned early in school [Zevallos, Samarasinghe and Rao 2014]. Institutional mechanisms in science serve to reinforce a discourse that naturalises White men’s dominance in science [Zevallos 2017a].

Counter-discourses challenge the norm. They represent ways to resist and revolutionise existing power relations [Diamond and Quinby 1988].

So how do we establish a counter-discourse for science that embraces diversity as a strength? I’ll pick with up with you as a point of discussion at the end of this session, but first, let’s talk about some of the ways the March for Science inadvertently established an anti-diversity discourse.

The aims and functions of the march were drastically altered in the first two months of its existence, especially as the organisers began to receive critique from the scientific community.

Initially, the March mission did not include a diversity statement. By the end, the organisers produced four drastically different diversity statements.

By early-March 2017, the five “core goals” of the march were publicly articulated. One of these was: “Diversity and Inclusion in STEM.”

In media interviews and through its social media communications, the organisers undermined this goal in the first days since first announcing the march. For example, in early February, the organisers set up the march by making two problematic statements. They said that the march was:

Inadvertently these two premises created an anti-diversity discourse that was embraced by a vocal majority of the March for Science supporter base.

One of the key reasons why underrepresented minorities challenged the march is because this discourse is one of the key ways in which science practices and science cultures remain largely hostile to minorities. We see this clearly in the way March for Science supporters pushed back against having a diversity statement for the march.

I’ll take you through an overview of this discourse now, and we can pick up a discussion of how these dynamics play out in the broader STEM cultures and in equity and diversity programs. This relates to the third of four Diversity Statements published by the march organisers. The final version was much less direct. It was subsequently watered down after Professor Steven Pinker criticised the march, followed by intense racist, sexist and ableist push back from supporters of the March for Science.

My analysis shows that there were two broad camps amongst March for Science supporters. First, there were 188 comments made about the third and most comprehensive Diversity Statement that were discouraging of the intent of to address equity and diversity. This was on the grounds that the Diversity Statement was politicising the March for Science (88 comments); that diversity discussions were dividing the followers (49 comments); that diversity was depreciating from people’s subjective understanding that science was already inclusive (27 comments); and that diversity discussions were distracting from the core business of the march (24 comments).

Table 1: March for Science followers who were discouraging of the March for Science Diversity Statement

Arguments that were discouraging of the Diversity Statement (N=188) Examples of typical comments
Politicising (N=88)

57 men, 90 women, 1 gender unknown

“Stick to the science.”

“Identity politics.”

“This is what we are marching against.”

Dividing (N=49) 

(30 men, 19 women)

“Diversity is divisive.”

“Stop pandering.”

“This happened with Women’s March….”

Depreciating (N=27) 

(10 men, 17 women)

“Science is already diverse!”

“Science is equal and inclusive by nature.”

“Science is neutral. It doesn’t discriminate.”

Distracting (N=24) 

(10 men, 14 women)

“Diversity is important but don’t let it derail your message.”

“Please don’t put diversity over merit.”

“All are welcome but don’t let it fracture us.”

Second, 148 comments were encouraging of the third Diversity Statement published by the March for Science organisers. Three women said the nod to diversity was informing the reality that science is dominated by straight White men. A further 145 people said the Diversity Statement was enhancing the aims of the march, and broader moves to make science more inclusive.

Table 2: March for Science followers who were encouraging of the March for Science Diversity Statement

Arguments that were encouraging of the Diversity Statement (N=148) Examples of typical comments
Informing (N=3)

(3 women)

“Science is dominated by straight White men.”

“Science has been unwelcoming to many groups.”

“As a marginalised woman in science, thank you!”

Enhancing (N=145)

(57 male, 87 women, 1 gender unknown)

“Diversity is making steps to be inclusive.”

“Intersectionality matters to the whole protest.”

“Diverse thinking needs diverse people.”

Challenging the anti-diversity discourse

To fight against the discouraging comments and pushback to diversity, minority scholars used a range of strategies and collaboration:

  • Organised using social media
  • Took collective action
  • Changed the discourse using #marginsci (a hashtag invented and curated by Dr Stephani Page and still going strong to this day)
  • Provided one another public and private support
  • Used science to make our case for diversity
  • Discussed empirical data on lack of equity, access, inclusion and intersectionality in science
  • Documented discussions using technology (Storify, Twitter Moments and more)
  • Published research
  • Gained attention of mainstream media
  • Wrote op eds
  • Gave interviews

I want to wind down now, leaving you with two thoughts.

Peggy McIntosh
“White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions…” – Peggy McIntosh. Image: Zuleyka Zevallos

First, educator Peggy McIntosh, who is a White American woman, provides a framework for how to think more critically about White privilege, or the benefits of race for White people. She says: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks. Describing White privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about white privilege must ask, ‘Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?'”

Second, political scientist and author Ijeoma Oluo, who is American of Nigerian background, has written extensively on intersectionality. One of the most striking aspects of her work is that she’s able to encourage her readers and followers to self-reflect on power relations. She says something that bears wisdom for what happened with the March for Science, and ways to do better when responding to the resistance scientists and science enthusiasts have towards diversity.

Look for where your privilege intersects with somebody’s oppression. – Ijeoma Oluo. Photo: Ijeoma Oluo; image adapted by Zuleyka Zevallos

Questions for us

Let’s consider some of these questions, or let me know if you have other reflections on what you’ve heard.

  • Would I know true equity when I see it?
  • How can I better support inclusion?
  • How I can make my next event accessible?
  • How can I begin to practice intersectionality in event planning?
  • What discourse do I contribute to?
  • What will I do to lesson racism inequity?
  • Where does my privilege intersect with someone’s oppression?

I’ve put together this resource for you to take away. (Download the free double-sided A4 poster.)

Accessibility: read descriptions of the images and the text.

3 thoughts on “Challenging the March for Science: Intersectionality at the Coal Face

Comments are closed.