Storify is closing and over the coming weeks, I will be migrating my posts to my blog. This is an archive of my article first published on Storify on 23 February 2017.
On 23 February 2017, the March for Science DC Twitter account attempted a discussion on an important equity and diversity issue: the gender pay gap. The approach brought to light recurring problems with diversity; namely how inclusion is imagined by the march organisers.
The tweet that sparked a series of important critiques has now been deleted, but colleagues screen capped a copy. The tweet asked “ladies” to explain the gender pay gap ahead of the Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day (“Girl Day”).
March for Science responded to my tweets, saying that they had women (“female”) engineers on their organising team, who were “curious” to hear answers about the gender pay gap from “current students and others.”
This perspective is baffling. Why would the coordinators of the largest international science movement in recent times want to elicit personalised answers to gender oppression? The literature is clear on why the pay gap exists. It would be more useful to lead an informed discussion, beginning with some statistics, trends from the empirical literature, and then the solutions, which are well documented.
That’s not what happened.
March for Science then asked me to “propose” some solutions, with an almost defeatist attitude to gender equity: “what society has been trying isn’t working.” It was clear, however, that the organising team does not really understand what has, or hasn’t been “tried,” and what has been effective. If the organisers understood the issue, this communication would have happened differently.
The patterns affecting the gender pay gap in engineering are not about individuals. The issues are structural. Colleagues encouraged Science March to focus on the scientific perspective: consult the literature, be informed, educate, and avoid replicating the issues of inequity that Girl Day is set up to avoid.
March for Science took on a big responsibility by representing the political interests of science. (This is in spite of the fact that the organisers maintain that the march is not political – a stance that scientists have been critiquing.) By taking on the public face of protest, the organisers have an imperative to represent all science issues, and scientists, in a nuanced and informed way.
Starting a conversation about the gender pay gap should not be to crowd-source personal experiences. Given their audience, which on Twitter alone is currently 330,000 (and growing), the March for Science organisers might better understand that people look to them to educate and advocate.
It should not the the job of their women followers (as well as “students and others” as they put it), to demonstrate the importance of the gender pay gap in engineering. They have a platform; they should use it to disseminate science. I provided some scientific resources to illustrate the issues. They had already stopped listening by this stage. I hope they return and reflect on these materials.
While the Girl Day debacle received a lot of attention over the past 24 hours, scientists have been collectively voicing concerns about the March for Science approach to diversity for weeks, using various hashtags. We are now using #Marginsci, curated by the fearless Dr Stephani Page. Dr Page is the inventor of BLACKandSTEM, a robust, interdisciplinary resource on Black scientific excellence and a trusted support network for Black researchers.
Lived experiences from women engineers
At the same time as I was tweeting about the research, women engineers responded to March for Science by sharing their own experiences as well as structural issues that impact on the gender pay gap.
Professor Holly Witteman, who currently works in medicine, also has a background in human factors engineering. She reflected not just on women engineers’ lived experiences, but on the empirical evidence of the gender pay gap.
Critique from other scientists
Alas, much earlier on in the conversation, March in Science deleted their original tweet asking for explanations to the gender pay gap. This had not deterred scientists from continuing a thoughtful discussion on the impact of asking women to describe the pay gap.
Scientists continued to tweet at March for Science for hours to come. We did not get any further responses from this point forward.
Professor Kisha Delain, astronomer, makes an important point: that March for Science is inviting responses on inequality from those most vulnerable. Publicly discussing the gender pay gap can have negative consequences in academia. Discussing pay is taboo, especially for women academics.
Many scientists from various fields had already been tweeting to March for Science about engineering organisations and equity and diversity resources that would have better shaped the discussion on the gender pay gap. Engineer Kim Curry named a just a few, showing that established information resources and professional societies might avoid problems of simply canvassing women for answers.
Ongoing issues with diversity
Other scientists called out the fact that March for Science has made numerous errors in judgement in their approach to diversity and inclusion. Many scientists have been asking the organisers to respond to these concerns. The scientists who spoke out have long been involved in various professional activities, research projects, activism and educational roles specifically focused on equity and diversity. These researchers have been diligently addressing the marginalisation of underrepresented groups by March of Science’s approach to diversity.
An excellent discussion by scientists who have disabilities tackled March for Science’s seeming unwillingness to address accessibility in their public planning and discussions. Jess Shanahan, astrophysicist and co-founder of the American Astronomical Society Working Group on Accessibility & Disability, discussed having offered her expertise multiple times to the March for Science organisers, only to be turned down.
Archaeologist Hanna Marie shared a similarly harrowing experience. Having contacted the March for Science organisers several times, she was rebuffed and given incorrect links when she tried to formally register her interest as a volunteer. She was met with uncivil and sarcastic responses for demonstrating the vital need to have accessibility become a central organising principle of the march.
Despite engaging in critical discussions on issues of accessibility on Twitter, Marie received hideous abuse from supporters of March for Science. This behaviour is not acceptable in any context. To see members of the scientific community heap abuse on a woman scientist who has a disability, simply for promoting dialogue on inclusion and access, is an ugly reminder of why we need equity and diversity experts to drive the March for Science strategy.
Ecologist, Professor Jacquelyn Gill, one of the speakers at the recent Rally to Stand Up for Science, which was woven into the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual meeting, will be proposing an accessibility team to the March for Science organisers. This will be a much welcome, urgently-needed resource.
Inclusion and participation
In other side conversations, scientists also reflected on why the Girl Day discussion had illustrated why they were reticent to embrace the central organisation’s vision for the march. This is especially the case for some White women; people of colour; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) people; people with disabilities and those who belong to multiple underrepresented groups. Kate Hannah, historian and Executive Manager at Te Pūnaha Matatini, expressed support for her local march in New Zealand, but apprehension of the “global rhetoric” of the march.
Neuroscientist H.a.p.p.i. raised the possibility that the timing of Girl Day tweets was ill-conceived or rushed, as the tweets were published in the evening, Washington DC time.
Curry drew a parallel from the March for Science discussion to the #GaslightingDuo discussions on social media, referring to two researchers who had published a flawed study on gender equity in STEMM.
Deleted tweets and public responsibility
Scientists discussed the impact of March for Science deleting the tweet that kick started the Girl Day discussion. The deletion happened without acknowledgement of the damage, the resources discussed, and the valid criticisms. A key lesson for equity and diversity work is this: intent has no bearing on consequences. That is, even if someone means well, when their actions and words hurt, exploit or exclude those with less power, the effect will be the same, irrespective of what they may have otherwise wished.
Biologist Dr Caleph Wilson was amongst the first to notice the deleted tweet, while neuroscience student Christine Liu noted that the sincerity of Girl Day was undermined by the words and actions of March for Science.
As Liu points out, deleting tweets undermines the transparency of a grassroots group that has assumed the voice of science not just for the USA, but on a global scale. March for Science is an international movement. The expectations of professional conduct are high.
In discussing the deletion of the original tweet, astronomer Alessondra Springmann leads a discussion on the sexism of the March for Science language and the power imbalance in asking women to define the problem of gender pay.
Summary of the issues
The conversation continued into the next day.
Professor Dawn Bazely, ecologist and diversity and inclusion advocate, summarised some of the key issues plaguing March for Science to date.
It would be encouraging to end on a high note, but, unfortunately, the problem only expanded. I received abuse from two White scientists; one was a man who took issue with the “tone” of my tweets to March for Science. This is known as “tone policing” – focusing on perceived language and emotions of another person as a distraction from their message. Don’t do this; it’s bad for science, it’s an exercise of power, and it further entrenches inequality. The other person was a woman scientist who took issue with Dr Wilson and I leading critiques of Science March. She argued that, as neither of us are engineer women, we should stay silent. Notwithstanding the racist dynamics of silencing people of colour scientists while they work to address equity and diversity problems, this went on for hours. What had we done, my colleagues and I, other than to use scientific evidence to point out gaps in a protest movement?
The organisers have stressed that March for Science speaks for science, and that all are welcome. How are all White women scientists welcome if they can’t critique the framing of the gender pay gap? How does March for Science speak for people of colour academics if we are told to be silent, or if our words are met with silence by the organisers? How does the march embrace the scientific talents of people with disabilities if queer disabled women are undervalued while other women with disabilities are abused? Where do LGBTQIA researchers take up a placard if they aren’t being invited into the conversations at all?
Worst of all is that despite this spirited discussion, the March for Science organisers would go on to make the exact same mistake all over again, less than 24 hours later. I’ll Storify my responses later; but for now, there is at least one positive take-away. Scientists who are proactive on equity and diversity are working together. March for Science may delete their comments and remain disengaged, but that will be to their detriment. The rest of us will continue to fight for inclusion in science, not for one day, not in response to one administration, but because we have always done so.
As is often said in social justice movements, the fight for equality is a marathon, not a sprint. Whatever happens with March for Science— and I do hope it’s positive progress—we will still be here, beyond 22 April. We will be fighting for the rights of all scientists to be recognised for their scientific contributions and expertise, with anti-racism at the core of our work. We will fight for all researchers to be paid fairly and to reach their full potential, irrespective of their gender. We won’t stop until every STEMM worker is included in policy and decision-making, in a way that embraces researchers with disabilities as an irreplaceable asset to leadership. We will continue to support the important contributions of LGBTQIA scientists, so that Girl Day, and every other day, isn’t another example of exclusion by omission. We will work to end the marginalisation of academics who belong to multiple minority groups.
Latina author Flavia Dzodan famously coined a protest call to arms, showing that feminism needed to be reformed through intersectionality. Intersectionality shows how gender inequality is impacted by racism and other forms of oppression. An example of this is the gender pay gap. Paraphrasing Dzodan’s immortal words: our science protest will be intersectional or it will be…