Better Leadership through Diversity: A Case Study of the March for Science

A Science March attendee in Washington, DC (Photo by Brian Engler,

Promoted as a “celebration of science,” the March for Science was held on Earth Day, April 22, 2017, in over 600 cities around the world. Despite its noble aims, the march quickly ran into problems. Beginning with the early use of stereotypes to promote the march, the organizers would go on to engage in sexism, racism, and ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities). The march also completely ignored the scientific contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) researchers and minority scholars from various other minority backgrounds.

In the interest of science and best practices, The March for Science here serves as a case study of why it’s important to better incorporate diversity experts within leadership and planning.

Diversity studies encompass three broad processes:

  • Equity: addressing the challenges arising from structural disadvantage and leveraging opportunities for change;
  • Access: identifying, evaluating, and improving participation of underrepresented groups; and
  • Inclusion: recognizing differences and respectfully addressing the specific knowledge, needs, and experiences of minorities.

In science, diversity research shows that systemic barriers stop white women and minorities from reaching the same levels of success as white men from majority backgrounds. It’s especially vital to understand how gender, race, and other inequities are interconnected. While girls and boys from a wide range of backgrounds show the same aptitude in science, children are socialized from a young age to recognize one dominant image of scientists: white men in lab coats. This stereotype permeates the way in which science is taught. Teachers’ unconscious biases lead to ongoing hurdles for students from minority backgrounds, who don’t see viable career paths as they struggle for structural support.

Diversity policies and programs have not gone far enough, focusing on hiring but not on promotion, and on individual training and limited mentoring programs. At best, these measures help only a small portion of white women, but ultimately do little to bolster career progression for most white women and minorities.

The best way to redress the inequities in science is through structural reform. This means reviewing policy through an evidence-based process. A more productive approach to diversity focuses on responsibilities of leaders to enhance measurable results. In other words, for science to make the most of everyone’s talents, leaders must “walk the talk,” modelling best practice and promoting accountability for themselves and other managers.

Here is where the March for Science, like so many other science activities, fell short.

In failing to take responsibility for diversity in a methodical and transparent manner, the March for Science leadership made four major errors. First, the organizers attempted to set up the march as “apolitical” without having thought about equity, inclusion, and accessibility. The organizers failed to connect with diversity experts and activist groups. Their diversity statement was first released due to criticism from underrepresented scientists (using the hashtag #marginsci, started by Dr. Stephani Page). In reaction to growing critique, the initial diversity statement would be revised another three times.

Second, the march organizers did not proactively manage the anti-diversity discourse that their supporters engaged in. My analysis of the public responses to the March for Science diversity statement shows that the most vocal opposition framed diversity as “politicizing” science. People additionally said that diversity causes “division” amongst science lovers and that diversity “depreciates” the inherent value of science. Others claimed that diversity was “distracting” from the goals of the March for Science.

Third, the march used an ineffective communications strategy that exacerbated poor diversity practices. The organizers were forced to issue a dozen apologies for their problematic social media posts and interviews.

Fourth, the organization was not welcoming of diversity. Several women publicly left over dysfunctional dynamics and lack of support for diversity. Women of color were especially made to feel unwelcome at their local marches. Disabled scholars and LGBTQIA scientists were ignored.

In short, rather than learning from similar problems of exclusion that emerged from the Women’s March, the March for Science replicated them, particularly by marginalizing people of color and community activists.

A march that should have united instead separated issues of human rights  from the long tradition of scientists who have worked to enhance their societies.

The DC march and satellite marches drew sizeable crowds—some 5,000 people in Paris; 11,000 in Berlin; up to 12,000 in London; and 40,000 in Washington DC. Yet the DC March did not appear to draw a diverse crowd. Moreover, the turnout was nothing compared to other protests this year. In DC alone, the Women’s March brought together 500,000 people. In Australia 10,000 marched around the country for science, but three months earlier, in January, 50,000 marched in the city of Melbourne for Indigenous rights, along with another 11,000 people in other states.

Imagine if the March for Science organizers had worked closely with these activists, drawing on their leadership and connecting with more diverse community groups to maximize their scientific engagement.

There are lessons here for the humanist movement, which has historically struggled to address issues of diversity. A vision for social change that eliminates existing inequalities must incorporate the leadership, professional expertise, and lived experiences of minorities from diverse backgrounds. Without decision-making power to shape the strategy and planning of any event, program, or organization, minorities remain on the margins. Subsequently, lacking the active representation of humanity, the full benefits of science and social justice endeavors will be limited in influence and impact.

Science will never reach its full potential if large segments of the population are locked out from participating in, and shaping, its future.