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 6 March 2017.
Having already set off a thunderous round of critique the previous day on Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, the March for Science Twitter account published a nearly identical post asking women to share the reasons why they left engineering. The response from scientists was equally critical.
With the Girl Day debacle fresh in mind, where March for Science asked “ladies” to explain the gender pay gap in engineering, the March for Science organisers tried a similar angle on 25 February 2017, again, in celebration of Girl Day. Despite the fact that the previous day’s offensive tweet had been deleted as a result of the critique, the March for Science team thought it would be wise to try again.
I discussed the fact that scientists had already provided useful resources and advice to enhance the March for Science diversity practices. The recurring mistakes, particularly one day to the next, were perplexing.
I noted that the March for Science history was chequered on equity and inclusion. It started with a hastily written then heavily revised diversity statement. In fact, the only reason there was a diversity statement in the first place, is that it emerged in response to critiques by people of colour scientists pointing out flaws in the march communications. After Professor Steven Pinker derided the diversity statement on Twitter, the March for Science team seemed to distance itself from its early promises on supporting diversity and intersectionality (a concept linking gender inequality to racism and other forms of social disadvantage).
Especially problematic is the fact that March for Science does not actively moderate discussions. Instead, its various social media accounts publish problematic questions and lead to controversy. At the same time, the March for Science social media administrators do not respond to conversations. When it comes to diversity in particular, this one-way approach to communication comes across as a weak commitment to inclusion.
Equity and diversity work is difficult and requires perseverance. It is a specialist knowledge set that requires training and experience, whether through research, policy development or grassroots activism.
March for Science has made many promises to improve but it has not really delivered. Beyond a poor grasp of women’s issues in general, the organisers have not put a lot of public work on inclusion of people of colour; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) people; and people with disabilities (let alone acknowledging that many people belong to more than one of these groups, which increases marginalisation).
The lack of engagement with followers is especially perplexing on diversity issues where March for Science poses sensitive questions.
March for Science seems to have a narrow definition of its audience and community by extension. The march reproduces the hierarchies and inequalities that persist in science.
March for Science relies heavily on its social media, and posts most frequently on Twitter. It is making many amateur science communication errors that are having a negative impact on their public image, specifically generating mistrust amongst underrepresented groups.
With such a high profile project and around two million followers across social media, it has been puzzling how volunteers have been selected, given there are so many experts who have offered their services.
Many scientists from underrepresented backgrounds have expressed their reticence to join the March for Science team. Without a clear framework for diversity, and following so much public miscommunication, it is hard to have faith in their internal equity processes and make the leap to join the cause.
Accessibility has been one of the major areas where March for Science is struggling to gain scientists’ confidence.
Under the right guidance, all the mistakes made to date need not have taken place. Protest organisation is a specialist skill. With professional support, these issues could have been avoided long ago.
Response from March for Science
After its early missteps, March for Science acknowledged it needed to improve. They thanked people of colour in science for helping them see their errors. In recent times, however, the organisers have not reached out publicly to address the critiques. This is in spite of the fact that many scientists tag them in posts, let alone the public evidence of March for Science followers being attacked on the march social media posts.
White men in particular are coming to the defence of March for Science with racist attacks against underrepresented scientists who are trying to make diversity issues more visible to the organisers.
Community members are well aware of the toll of public critique. Women of colour, as well as White women and women with disabilities are doing the majority of support work in the face of this harassment. But where is March for Science’s concern for their own community?
The patterns of abuse from the public unfortunately comes with the territory of anti-racism and social justice work; however, other communities (both online and offline) take care to set up principles of public engagement. This includes explicitly disavowing abuse, and also investing in volunteers and social media managers to ensure the rules are being enforced. This helps to protect community members from attacks that can especially hurt people who are already vulnerable or marginalised, such as women of colour.
Three members of the March for Science National Committee have been doing more of the “front line” responses on behalf of March for Science: Dr Stephani Page, who curates BLACKandSTEM and who set up #MarginSci so underrepresented scientists could share concerns about March for Science; Dr Jacquelyn Gill, who has been trying to repair the diversity team’s public image of inaction; and Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnston, who seems to have joined the National Committee more recently and is eager to extend support.
I note that despite their valiant efforts, having three women (two women of colour and one White woman) do the bulk of the diversity work is a replication of gender inequity. Moreover, three out of over 20 core members on the central organising team is not a serious commitment to diversity by an organisation that has international influence.
March for Science has placed itself in a strange position of being a political movement that is trying to be both “apolitical” and “not a political protest.” It aims to challenge social policies on science, and yet claims to be about science, “not scientists.” In short, it has the hollow shell of a protest without any strong infrastructure and commitment to social justice. This is not how transformative protests work.
March for Science took close to 24 hours before it acknowledged its poor judgement. Even then the apology lacked reflection. While noting its phrasing undermined inclusion, they said sorry for “any harm we caused” and that they’re “learning” from the feedback.
The apology lacked impact as they did not specifically address what the issue was (reinforcing gender problems in science) and what they would do to stop this from happening again. Instead, the issue was ultimately the harm they “may” have caused, rather than the actual consequences of their words.
Responses from scientists
Some scientists pointed out that even a slight change in the language used by March for Science could be a good start for progressive changes. For example, avoid dated sexist words like “females” which dehumanise women.
March for Science was also encouraged to question the premise of their sexist point of view. Professor Deb Verhoeven argued that instead of asking women why they left science, why not ask men why they discriminate against women colleagues? Her emphasis was on what men could do to stop this devastating pattern, rather than leaving the burden to women, as March for Science had done.
Other scientists noted that this was simply the latest in a seemingly endless cycle of mistakes proliferated by March for Science.
Other scientists highlighted the insincerity of the March for Science apology…
While other scientists made a connection between previous “gaffs” and the current problem. This includes: losing credibility amongst scientists committed to equity and diversity; inability to thoughtfully respond to scientific critiques; and devaluing equity and diversity work.
Scientists were baffled by March for Science’s continued reluctance to bring on more experts with specialist knowledge of equity and diversity, and science communication.
Some colleagues also emphasised that a few women of colour had already provided ample advice and resources that was being ignored by March for Science. I given some examples by my followers, though I note that other people of colour, especially Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, have been leading the charge.
Scientists reflected on the need for better responses and leadership on diversity. Planetary scientist and geology student Divya M discussed the frustration of being asked to discuss why women leave science, when in fact women like herself reach out for help in numerous ways, only to find inaction. Sexual harassment, erosion of professional confidence and the inhospitable environment in academia make staying in science a difficult feat on a day-to-day basis.
Other scientists and educators noted that accessibility remains a clear gap in March for Science operations. Event planning requires accessibility considerations from the very beginning, yet despite this being pointed out by numerous scientists, the organisers of the march seem to have made little progress.
Summer Ash reshared some of the comments she had made during the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, which also had trouble addressing accessibility. Even a simple issue like roaming microphones for the crowd make an event restrictive for those who can’t walk up to a standing microphone. From small to big issues, accessibility considerations must be anticipated and catered for as part of the planning process. Again, there is a wealth of information on this, starting with the discussions on #AccessibleOrganizingMeans.
March for Science is also setting up barriers by not including people with disabilities as part of its leadership team and by not responding to and supporting the needs of disabled scientists.
As noted, Dr Jacquelyn Gill is on the March for Science National Committee. She has been reaching out to individuals to respond to concerns on accessibility and inclusion. Many scientists are watching closely for changes and hope these can be made soon.
I have previously noted that March for Science has not mentioned LGBTQIA people at all in its public communication. This pattern entrenches the erasure of gender and sexual minorities in science. Given that the Women’s March was criticised for being unwelcoming of transgender women, this is an issue that must be in the foreground of March for Science planning.
Alaina Daniels is a transgender woman middle school teacher who blends science and activism in the classroom. She is also an organiser of the New York City Trans* Teacher Network. She noted the importance of #MarginSci discussions and the multiple benefits in having a role model like herself attend the March for Science. The inclusion of Daniels and other transgender women educators and researchers is quintessential to progressive change in science.
Turning away from the march
A few scientists, notably women who support intersectionality, have voiced their withdrawal of support for March for Science as a result of its continued mismanagement of diversity. Here are some examples.
Freelance journalist Brite Pauchet noted that many science organisations had publicly endorsed the March for Science, and wondered whether they’d be as supportive if they saw these exclusive dynamics.
Ramifications for March for Science Australia
Microbiologist Dr Carly attempted to engage a conversation in Australia about diversity issues. She asked the central Australian march as well as the local march in Melbourne what they planned to do about inclusion. She also challenged Australians to think about what would be unique about a march for science in Australia and how this might be communicated more broadly.
Dr Carly encouraged the Australian organisers to be proactive by reflecting on the global conversations about the central march in Washington and how to preempt such issues in Australia. It seems that the Australian organisers have not yet thought too deeply on diversity, although there is an acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alongside a diversity statement on their website.
Hopefully the Australian march makes swift progress on diversity. As Dr Carly says, it’s one thing to say diversity matters, but another thing to actually take steps to ensure diversity is central to the activities of the march.
Even has I write there have been further issues with March for Science on diversity, which I will bring you soon. I’m afraid that this is a case study of ongoing problems, rather than a lesson of progress.
More than a series of mere “blunders” of language, as the March for Science organisers tried to downplay, the problems with diversity and the march can not easily be dismissed as “learning” mishaps.
Any grassroots organisation needs to take responsibility for its planning, transparency, public outreach and outcomes. March for Science continues to behave as if, because it is new at social protests, it has carte blanche on making mistakes. In this case, the “mistakes” reproduce the structural barriers and everyday harassment that people of colour, White women, disabled people, and LGBTQIA people face every day.
An organisation that has yet to tackle accessibility head-on is an organisation that has been set up to reproduce ableism, whether they consciously intend to or not. A social movement that hasn’t trained its committee members and outreach team to address public dialogue on inclusion is a movement that expects Whiteness to be the norm. A protest that has not put in place provisions to address the needs of LGBTIQIA people is one which does not deeply care whether gender and sexual minorities are properly represented, let alone whether they feel safe attending the march.
In short, the co-organisers are setting up an event that expects its supporters to look like the type of people that would feel comfortable at a Trump rally.
Doubtless, this is not the intention of March for Science. Without actively tackling its internal unconscious biases and the bigotry of its supporters, they will end up with a parade that does very little to bring together an accepting and multicultural community that loves science.
Social justice work is very difficult. It is expressly about changing the world. Science policies are never going to be changed by a group that is afraid to look inside itself and ask: who are we leaving out? And are we really askng for change, or are we supporting the status quo?
Gif of the day: reach for the stars
Providing public critique to a hugely popular account like March for Science is rewarded with incessant harassment, especially by White men who are relentless in their abuse. One of the ways to take away the sting and mental strain is to indulge in a little levity in conversations, particularly between women showing one another solidarity during tough discussions. In this spirit, I bring you the majestic gif of the day, thanks to Summer Ash.
During public discussions, men often try to establish their superiority by overemphasising their knowledge, even when they are not experts in our fields. Summer Ash reminds us that if White men can claim to be experts in equity and diversity in order to dismiss the importance of having underrepresented minorities at the March for Science, maybe a sociologist can pretend to build a spaceship and fly to the moon… where she can hopefully avoid online abuse as well as being called a female who must account for why she left science/Earth.