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 7 March 2017.
Having recently created two issues of gender inequity, March for Science made their third foray into inappropriate gennder commentary less than a week later. By repeating one of science’s most infamous tales of fraud and sexism, the organisers once again proved that equity is not their strength.
March for Science has been inadvertently re-staging multiple problems with diversity in science. Since the project was launched, it has paid little attention to equity, inclusion and access, except to rebuff critiques by scientists. With an ever-shifting diversity stance and general lack of diversity awareness, the march organisers have been slow to respond to mounting critique that it is overly focused on the science of White, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied men.
People of colour have been leading these critiques, showing that the messaging around the march is exclusionary. Underrepresented scientists are using the hashtag #MarginSci to share the lack of proactive action on diversity and issues of accessibility with the march.
In the past week or so, the March for Science central Twitter account has made two major errors, reflecting that the organisers have limited awareness of diversity issues. First, they invited “ladies” to provide an explanation for the gender pay gap, and then they asked “females” to give reasons why they left science. If this sounds innocuous it is not. As I previously discussed, the literature has a wealth of empirical evidence about the structural dynamics that impact on gender inequality. It is not a matter of individual choices. Moreover, with a chequered history of mismanaging diversity discussions, scientists were fed up.
On the 1 March, just days after apologising for these previous issues, the March for Science Twitter account tweeted about Professors James Watson and Frances Crick’s “discovery” of DNA; thus subsuming the contribution of Dr Rosalind Franklin, whose work was stolen by Watson and Crick. By stumbling into one of science’s most infamous tales of fraud and sexism, the march organisers once again proved that diversity awareness is not on their radar.
At this point, it’s almost as if followers of March for Science are stuck in a never-ending story of exclusion.
I discussed the timeline of events, focusing on the how this latest issue was linked to broader problems with equity and diversity with the March for Science. Note that the timeline below is how it appears on the march’s Twitter timeline, which shows that there was a tweet celebrating Watson and Crick as the discoverers of DNA, before there was a tweet about Franklin. I did not realise this at the time, but this is because March for Science retweeted the initial Franklin tweet after they began receiving criticism (and then retweeted another version of their original tweet in their defence later still). In effect this exacerbates the issue, showing that the organisers did not understand the problem with their tweets (hence resharing their problematic statements multiple times).
The key issue here is that, as hundreds of scientists pointed out, Franklin’s stolen work gained Watson and Crick a Nobel Prize, while recognition for Franklin was withheld. This story is well-known; anyone who is committed to gender equity should know this sordid tale of a deserving woman being robbed of her scientific achievement.
The first issue is that March for Science’s social media team clearly do not know this background well enough to see how offensive their tweets were to women in science. Second, March for Science did not own the issue and instead doubled down. They retweeted a link to a story about Franklin which actually argues that Franklin’s story is a myth, a proposition refuted by Sienna Schaeffer (and many other historical accounts vindicating Franklin).
A geologist, CJ, pointed to a popular joke by Robby Kraft to demonstrate how well-established the Franklin story really is:
Hundreds of women scientists flocked to tell March for Science that their tweets were downplaying the significance of Franklin’s research. This went on for hours, but the organisers only responded to one person: marine conversation biologist Dr Matt Shiffman. March for Science pleaded their case to Shiffman, saying that the miscommunication was due to character limit (Twitter allows for only 140 characters). Even Dr Shiffman noted that women colleagues were being ignored, and he responded that he did not buy the character limit excuse.
Having responded to only one male scientist, March for Science did not respond to any other individual, despite the fact that the criticism was nuanced and important, and went on steadily for two days.
Instead, March for Science fled the discussion altogether and went on tweeting about other items. Their next interaction was retweeting a story about the death of a sweet dog.
“Not a political protest”
The March for Science organisers have maintained that they do not want the march to be seen as a “political protest,” despite its political origins (a response to the Trump administration’s anti-science policies). The organisers also say that the march “isn’t about scientists. It’s about science.” These two statements are in themselves political and go to the heart of the equity and diversity issues with the march.
Scientists who belong to dominant groups see their interests reflected in mainstream science. These issues are just “normal” and taken-for-granted. Because they are normalised, the needs of White male scientists in particular are not seen as “political.” Scientists that are not personally penalised by the system do not question too deeply the dominance of White men.
From science history, to what projects are funded, to what questions are asked in studies, and what knowledge and achievements are ignored, science is influenced by political and social context.
The fact that the March for Science organisers do not understand the profound injustice suffered by Franklin (let alone women from minority backgrounds) speaks volumes of their inability to comprehend the impact of equity and diversity on the work and lives of underrepresented scientists. It is alarming that the organisers are inadequately informed about one of the most denounced cases of gender inequality, involving one of the most famous White women scientists.
If this is how they approach gender issues for White women, it is no wonder that they are reticent to support racial and ethnic minority scientists.
To say that a science protest “is not political” is to be blissfully unaware of how history impacts the present-day reality of underrepresented scientists. This comes at a time when scientists from minority groups are facing ruthless police and state violence; unprecedented levels of deportation and visa insecurity; sexual harassment at work with impunity; alienation due to underdeveloped disability policies and infrastructure; discrimination linked to sexuality; and much more,
“This isn’t about scientists”
Having told the media that a big crowd is their key aim, the March for Science “no politics” stance has become synonymous with the diminished emphasis on underrepresented scientists, who have the most to lose from the current political regime.
I have run many large national and international social media accounts for research organisations, not for profits and businesses. To ignore or downplay mistakes was never an option. It’s clear that March for Science needs to reconsider its current procedures. This includes setting clear guidelines for both moderators and members, and putting in place a well-staffed roster of professionals who can respond to concerns and questions.
Without a well planned approach to social media that is integrated with gender equity and diversity principles, March for Science will continue to make the same mistakes. More problematic is that every one of these “gaffs” has the unfortunate effect of further marginalising underrepresented scientists.
March for Science continues to act like a one-way dissemination tool, which does not work well for social media. Traditional forms of mass communication were one-to-many: a television show, a newspaper article, a public relations statement released to the masses. In the past, there was never the expectation that the public would speak back immediately, unless it was mediated through letters to the editor. Social media is different. It is a conversation, many-to-many. It is strange that for a science protest, March for Science is unable to respond to critiques, let alone release a thoughtful apology.
The apology that was eventually released lacks impact because March for Science has been pressured to release several apologies. “We’ll do better next time” starts to lose its mojo when that next time plays out in the same, thoughtless way.
If the current tide continues, March for Science may well push forward without the support of scientists who value equity and diversity. It may still gain great numbers. Given the organisers’ emphasis on “the public,” this may suit them just fine. But who is “the public” in the eyes of the founding organisers? Due to the messaging about the march by organisers, it seems the march is deeply concerned with appeasing White, conservative elements of the public, at the expense of inclusion of Others.
It is widely reported that the Women’s March was attended predominantly by White women from majority groups. Women of colour, disabled women, and transgender women did not feel welcome. Nor did these women feel especially energised to attend a march that did not cater to their needs and interests. Some local women’s marches did better than others, but it seems few of the marches fully embraced principles of inclusion and access. The latter requires careful leadership, planning and consultation by informed minority stakeholders, who also shape the decisions.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, the March for Science organisers don’t worry too deeply about what the crowd looks like as long as the numbers are high. What will this truly achieve, other than to reproduce unhealthy and exclusionary practices from academia? And if the organisers are unwilling to stand up to White male privilege in science, how can it hope to persuade the Trump administration to reverse its dangerous science policies?
Response from March for Science
One of the March for Science committee members, Kishore Hari, dropped into the conversation and unfortunately added to the malaise rather than allaying concerns. Hari is Director of the Bay Area Science Festival and volunteers for March for Science as one of two Satellite City Coordinators.
First he suggested that Twitter discussions (“threads”) “don’t fix problems,” thereby dismissing the resources and critical dialogue that hundreds of scientists had already shared that day (let alone from the beginning; see also the research and solutions I have provided). Hari also suggested efforts would be better harnessed by volunteering with March for Science. The issue is that many scientists had tried to volunteer early but been ignored. The attitude of organisers, which Hari displayed, do not raise trust that minority women experts will be treated with respect.
Hari tweeted at me incessantly a few dozen times; below is just a few of his problematic statements, that centre his male authority and feelings over listening to women of colour. Bear in mind that in his first tweets he is speaking with two Latinas who have devoted their entire careers to the research, leadership and advocacy of minority scholars. As I’ve previously discussed, true allyship does not centre the emotions of allies.
Hari said was taking my tweets “personally” even though these were not aimed at any individual (and I had never mentioned or interacted with him before). He talked about feeling demotivated by general criticisms of the march and curiously said he would quit the march several times. (He didn’t quit by the way; he did come back to try to get a rise out of me one last time days later). Hari did not reflect on the fact that I was, at that same time, being flooded with racist and sexist comments that did not let up for days. I noted that abuse is, problematically, par for the course for any woman of colour on social media. With these dynamics, it’s no wonder that many women of colour and some White women scientists have noted they have no interest in joining the march.
Hari argued that “tweeting facts” about diversity is unhelpful. This dismissive position on scientific facts was called out for being at odds with any science activity, especially a march for science.
Women scientists noted the attitude on display, where women’s labour is devalued, makes March for Science an unappealing volunteering option. This is especially unattractive given that the march is not inclusive.
People of colour and White women scientists—especially women with disabilities—discussed how they had attempted to become involved with March for Science early on, but their volunteering nominations were rebuffed multiple times.
Hari and other detractors were reproducing the very problems of marginalisation that scientists were pointing out. The message being sent was that underrepresented scientists should stay silent rather than engage in dialogue with colleagues about how to improve the march. The phrase “identity politics” was being used as an admonishment of minorities and White women, as if the inequalities that impact on scientists’ identities do not have a place at the march.
As with previous problems created by March for Science, this latest round of communication was off-putting to scientists devoted to inclusion.
It would seem that beyond issues of equity and diversity, there are gaps in March for Science processes, especially social media skills, membership support, and public relations. While March for Science has been buoyant about professional societies endorsing the march, it has yet to definitively demonstrate how they are drawing on expertise of organisations representing the interests of minority scientists.
Diversity and inclusion
Some scientists noted that March for Science had rescinded their initial promise for diversity.
Scientists pointed out the strange logic of positioning the march as “not a political protest.”
Some scientists took issue with the March for Science apology over Franklin, the latest in a long line of justifications for sexism.
Other scientists compared the March for Science approach to exclusionary dynamics in the Women’s March.
Social scientists discussed that the March for Science was exclusionary in its vision of which disciplines constitute science and which are ignored. This is in spite of the fact that March for Science has said all sciences are invited to be part of the march, including the social sciences. Among the scientists making this case is cognitive neuroscientist Eve Forster who could see that elevating dominant discourses of the natural and physical sciences was, in turn, feeding the reproduction of gender and racial stereotypes within the march.
Since the social sciences and humanities produce the bulk of the research that combats bias and discrimination in the natural, physical and technological sciences, having an aversion to other sciences was a contributing factor to the inequality on display in the march communications.
Scientists discussed the legitimate reasons why minorities distrust science. This distrust was being triggered by the March for Science carelessly worded attitudes to underrepresented groups, including their identities and interests.
Immunologist Dr Caleph Wilson noted that the ongoing behaviour by the March for Science organisers was a push against underrepresented groups. He also notes that people of colour were doing a lot of free labour to educate the March for Science organisers, thereby compounding the inequalities and power dynamics of academia.
Allyship and self-care
I ended my discussion by giving some general advice on self-care, courtesy of Professor Sara Ahmed, who is a champion for equity and diversity advocacy in academia. I also provided a few parting resources and advice for allies.
Quote of the Day
As I highlighted in my last post on the March for Science, given the tremendous ongoing frustrations with marginalisation, I’m grateful for the humour that dances across my Twitter mentions. This counteracts the high volume of abuse that I receive daily, given I constantly post about equity and diversity. My posts on March for Science attracts even more vitriol than usual. Some people will argue with me for days about the march, quickly turning to ad hominem attacks.
Rather than a gif of the day as I shared last time, I have a quote of the day, from Dr Shiffman, who was a good sport about being pointed out as the only scientist worthy of a response to this sexist debacle. Perhaps both of us will need to get new business cards as a result of this mess.
Sadly, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that this was hardly the last problem with March for Science. Another equity and diversity issue would rise only a couple of days later, involving racist push-back to the involvement of minority scientists. I’ll bring you that very soon.
Here are the previous posts in this series about diversity and the March for Science.
March for Science Diversity Statements: early communications on the planning and administration of the march from the beginning of March for Science, in late January 2017, to mid-February, when criticism about diversity intensified even furthher. Only 14 tweets (out of 1,500) speak to diversity issues, mostly responding to critiques by scientists; and only two Facebook posts address the same (out of 78 posts).
Diversity Themed Social Media: review of the first three weeks of social media posts by March for Science (Twitter N=1,500 plus Facebook N=78). Around a dozen focus on diversity in general (such as the visa and immigration ban); around 50 focus on women in science; and few of these specifically on people of colour. There were no posts on disability and LGBTQIA inclusion. My article also includes a summary of the media reports that the march promotes about itself, which do not include any of the articles critiquing issues of equity and diversity.
Gender Equity and Diversity: analysis of the March for Science misguided posts on the gender pay gap for Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day (“Girl Day”). My article includes scientific literature and solutions to improve diversity of the march. I also put a special focus on the contributions of disabled women scientists, who are being ignored by the march organisers.
Women in Engineering: critical discussion of the damaging attempt by March for Science to address the reasons why women are pushed out of science careers. This was also in celebration of Girl Day. My post discusses the problems with leaving social media discussions un-moderated, as is the case with March for Science posts to date, and the toll of equity and diversity work on minorities, especially on women of colour. I also include some of the considerations from the global discussions for the March for Science in Australia.