Analyzing the March for Science Diversity Discourse

By Zuleyka Zevallos, Ph.D.


Following the high profile of the Women’s March against the Trump Administration on January 21, 2017, the idea for March for Science (MfS) grew from various social media conversations by scientists who wanted to rally against the science policy changes, funding cuts, gag orders, and the administrative overhaul of science organisations by the Trump Government [Zevallos 2017a]. The MfS has 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, performing) that lead to the articulation of public goals and actions [Tuckman 1965]. The MfS has followed a rather haphazard path. A website and social media communities were first established, initially emerging as a Twitter account on January 24. MfS promoted the idea of a March using social media without having put together a formal team beyond its two founding co-chairs [Zevallos 2017a]. At the time of writing, these accounts have over 2 million supporters.[i]

The march is scheduled to occur globally on April 22 in over 400 cities. The aims and functions of the march have been drastically altered in the first two months of its existence, especially as the organisers began to receive critique from the scientific community. By early-March, the five “core goals” of the march were settled; one of which is: “Diversity and Inclusion in STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

In media interviews and through its social media communications, the organisers have undermined this goal. By early February, the organisers set up the march by making two problematic statements:

  1. the march was “not political” [St. Fleur 2017]; and
  2. the march was not about scientists, but instead, “It’s about science” [Zamudio-Suaréz 2017].

Inadvertently these two premises have created an anti-diversity discourse that has been subsequently adopted by a vocal majority of the MfS supporter base.

Discourses are tricky…entrenched

In sociology, the concept of discourse describes how language comes to convey and justify dominant ways of thinking, talking, and behaving [Weedon 1996]. 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 thus justify the reasoning, policies, and practices of groups that already have institutional control [Foucault 1965; 1994].

Discourses are tricky: they 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. Discourses often mask value judgements that support the rights of some groups over others. This means that discourses reproduce inequality without us taking much notice.

The idea that White men are the taken-for-granted norm of what it means to be a scientist is learned early in school, and then reinforced throughout education, career progression, prestigious prizes, the publications, and funding systems [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 will show how the MfS organisers have come to reproduce the existing discourse of science, by normalising the interests of scientists who are White and from majority backgrounds. I present an analysis on public reactions to the third (of four) MfS diversity statements that reflect this position (see the statements in Appendix A). I will illustrate how taking a proactive, counter-discourse position on diversity will improve current relations with underrepresented scientists who have lost confidence in the march due to issues of inclusion [cf. Zevallos 2017f].

March for Science FacebookThe purpose of this analysis is to encourage critical thinking about how the march organisers communicate with the public, and to strengthen awareness of how science discourses reinforce exclusion. Bear in mind that discourses are not always reflected consciously, and so the march organisers and commenters may not be aware of the historical and cultural impact of the ideas they express. Sociological methods make explicit the hidden meaning that individuals take-for-granted, placing ideas in broader social context.

I start by showing the organisers’ shifting diversity position.

Establishing an Anti-Diversity Discourse

As I have previously outlined, the march organisers quickly ran into trouble within two days of announcing its plans for a march, specifically regarding diversity (a term encompassing principles of equity, inclusion, and access) [Zevallos 2017a]. The organisers’ public communications have bungled through various diversity statements [Zevallos 2017b]. Communications have reinforced stereotypes that exclude minority scientists [Zevallos 2017c]. The organisers’ have made light of the gender pay gap in science [Zevallos 2017d] and the structural barriers that inhibit women’s careers in science [Zevallos 2017e]. The Washington DC organisers have also played into an infamous case of sexism in science [Zevallos 2017f], while the Los Angeles organisers engaged in racist dog whistling, suggesting that allowing minorities into the march would lead to violence [Zevallos 2017g].

The march was being criticised for its lack of knowledge about diversity issues leading to the four revised diversity statements [Zevallos 2017a]. The first statement, released by January 28, attempted to embrace the public critique of various minority scientists [MfS 2017a; see Appendix A]. Yet it still left out disability inclusion [Sauder 2017].

By January 29, under mounting pressure from underrepresented scholars, the organisers released its second diversity statement, which now included disability [Zevallos 2017a; see Appendix A]. This focused heavily on ideas expressed by minority scientists, notably the historical impact of colonialism on present-day inequalities.

Within 24 hours, the organisers would scale-back this diversity statement, immediately following high-profile critique from a famous senior male scientist [Zevallos 2017a]. Thus, by the end of January, the organisers released its third diversity statement on the front page of its new website [MfS 2017b; see Appendix A]. This statement would stand until yet another revision on March 9 [MfS 2017c].

Due to the sustained scientific critique by minority scientists, the organisers went on to form a diversity team and implement an anti-harassment policy. At the same time, the organisers continue to communicate damaging ideas about diversity. The diversity team lead recently said: “There has been some push by some people to centralise diversity in a way that diminishes science” [Sheridan 2017].[ii] This reinforces the discourse that diversity has a negative impact on science.

My analysis will now focus on the public responses to the third and longest-standing diversity statement to date. My analysis will show that opposition to the diversity statement is connected to the discourse of science as the domain of White men from dominant groups.

Responses to the Third Diversity Statement

In late January, the MfS public Facebook page announced the release of the third diversity statement [MfS 2017e]. The MfS admins said they were taking seriously the calls for inclusion. The Facebook post promises to centralise diversity in its leadership, speakers and goals of the march, and expresses solidarity to various racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexuality, and disability groups. As of the mid-February 2017 when my analysis was undertaken, there were over 3,300 “likes” and reactions to this post, plus an additional 354 “top level” comments that I analysed.[iii] Note that the comments have been anonymized according to established online research protocols [Eysenbach and Till 2001; Townsend and Wallace 2016]. The quotes presented reflect typical ideas rather than direct quotes to protect privacy. I have analysed common themes in the comments, a method similarly employed in other studies on social media responses to issues of equity in science [for example see Moss-Racusin, Molenda, and Cramer 2015; further discussion of methods in Appendix B].

Of the 354 comments analysed, 164 commenters presented as men, 187 presented as women, and three commenters had a gender that was not easily discerned (“gender unknown”). The latter group seemed to be Facebook pages rather than personal accounts.[iv]

Very few people self-identified as minorities in the comments. Everyone else had avatars and names that suggest most people commenting on the MfS diversity statement were White or from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds. Whiteness was also reinforced in patterns of speech, by identifying minorities in the third person (“they” rather than “us”).[v]

A small proportion of people self-identified as science practitioners. This suggests that most commenters were general members of the public.

There were two broad response types to the March for Science diversity statement on the public Facebook page: comments were either discouraging or encouraging the organisers’ diversity statement.

1. Discouraging the Diversity Statement

There were 188 discouraging comments; 107 by men, 93 by women and two by people whose gender was unknown. Of the top 10 most “liked” comments, eight were discouraging of the diversity statement. Collectively, the top-rated discouraging comments received 1,992 “likes” and 175 replies. This means that, while there were slightly more discouraging comments overall, more people engaged with, and supported, discouraging comments in comparison to the comments that were encouraging of the MfS diversity statement. This suggests that of the MfS supporters who stopped to read the diversity statement on Facebook, a greater proportion agreed with the dissenters.

The discouraging comments fell into four sub-groups: people who felt that diversity was either politicising or dividing the practice of science; and those who felt that diversity was depreciating or distracting from the goals of the march more specifically.

1.1 Politicising

First, there were 88 comments expressing the belief that the diversity statement is politicising science. Forty-three of these commenters presented as men, 43 as women, and two were of unknown gender. These commenters made reference to the idea that science is apolitical or bipartisan, and they consequently argue that diversity discussions have no place in science. Typical comments were “Let’s stick to the science;” “Don’t get bogged down by identity politics;” and “This is what we’re marching against.” They said things like, “The focus of this march is science. There will be other marches for minorities.”

The discourse established by the organisers in media interviews and in social media posts is a clear influence on this group of supporters. The idea that science is not political leaves undisturbed the norm that White men’s interests are the default universal position that should remain unchallenged. It might seem counterintuitive that women as well as men were equally likely to see that diversity was politicising science, but not so when considering that Whiteness was the distinguishing feature driving these comments. That is, people largely read “diversity” as a racial descriptor.

1.2 Dividing

In the second sub-group of discouraging responses, 49 comments argued that diversity is dividing people who love science into oppositional groups. Thirty of these commenters presented as men and 19 as women. These commenters said: “Diversity is divisive.” They felt personally affronted by the diversity statement, saying that diversity forces people into categories: “Why do you have to label us?” A few people said that if diversity went ahead, they would withdraw their support from the march: “I was going to come but now I’m disappointed you diluted your message.”

Men’s language was loaded with metaphors of violence, referencing the “war on science” or that “science is under attack.” They saw that MfS would “lose the battle” if it played into “social issues” that will be quickly dismissed by the Trump Administration. They also worried that “the right” and “alt fact” groups would not take the march seriously if there was a focus on diversity. They emphasized that the march would lose its broad appeal and that “the group” would subsequently “break up.” Other White men said they felt “blamed” by the statement and unwelcome at the march because they belong to a majority group. “I’m a White man, can I still come?” In short, these men personalised the diversity statement as a personal attack on them as White people.

Some women discussed the “division” with reference to the Women’s March and Pantsuit Nation, which they felt had been soured by diversity discussions. This reflects similar patterns of White women who reacted negatively to a focus on diversity in the aforementioned groups [Desmond-Harris 2017; Zevallos 2017h].

The “dividing” narrative is premised on the notion that privileges would be taken from White people and that this would, in turn, be detrimental to the institution of science. The dividing commenters most directly expressed the discourse that the rightful beneficiaries of science should be White people, hence, diversity was an affront to the status quo.

1.3 Depreciating

In the third sub-group, 27 commenters said diversity is depreciating what they see as the inherent equality of science; 17 of these commenters present as women and 10 as men. They referenced the fact that there are various science disciplines to argue that diversity was already well-established (for example, they listed disciplines in the natural and physical sciences as evidence of diversity). They said that a diversity team was not needed because they perceive that science is neutral and non-discriminatory. “Science is already by equal nature and it is inclusive.”

These views that diversity is depreciating the value of science reflects the existing discourse about science: everything is just as it should be; equality is presumed to be norm. Anything that questions this ideological equilibrium would, in fact, destabilise the fantasy that science practices sustains anything but perfect unity. Scientific evidence shows otherwise, but to engage with this evidence seriously would undermine the established discourse.

1.4 Distracting

The fourth and final sub-group of discouraging comments were those who said they supported the idea of diversity but that it was distracting from the goals of March for Science. Twenty-four of these people presented as women and ten as men. They pleaded directly with the MfS organisers: “Diversity is important but don’t let it derail your message. We’re here to protect science.” They said that the focus on diversity for the march potentially undermined scientific merit and unity.

There is “lip service” to diversity; but, it is someone else’s problem to make that happen, outside of the march. This view has been precipitated by the march organisers, who sent mixed messages. On the one hand, the march is not political and not about scientists. On the other hand, diversity is something that is important (but only after minorities demonstrated so). This sub-group reflects how a weak and belated commitment to diversity only serves to reinforce the existing discourse that science does not really have to change.

2. Encouraging the Diversity Statement

There were 148 encouraging comments in response to the March for Science diversity statement. Of these, 90 commenters presented as women, 57 as men, and one was classified as gender unknown. There were two sub-type of comments: those who felt uniquely positioned to be informing others about why diversity is important to the march, and others who thought that diversity is enhancing science more generally. Only two of the top-ten highest rated comments were encouraging of the diversity statement. These top-ranked comments collectively received 456 “likes” and 27 replies; demonstrably less support than the top-rated discouraging comments.

There were 11 references to intersectionality in the 354 comments responding to the diversity statement. Intersectionality is a concept demonstrating how gender inequality is impacted by racism and other forms of inequality [Crenshaw 1989]. This concept has been central to public critiques of the march [Zevallos 2017a]. Nine of these references to intersectionality were encouraging the inclusion of minorities.

Both the informing and enhancing responses act as counter-discourses to established narratives about the dominance of White men in science.

2.1 Informing

The first sub-group was categorised as informing other readers about the reality of diversity in STEM. This included three women who self-identified as underrepresented women in STEM. They were differentiated by their focus on the lack of diversity in STEM and how this negatively affects scientists from minority groups. These women expressed their support for the diversity statement specifically in connection to their lived experience and knowledge of the science sector. They said they were marginalised in science, and noted that science is dominated by heterosexual White men. One woman said that MfS needed to take more care to address the exclusion of minority groups while another woman thanked the organisers for being inclusive of her identity as a marginalised woman in science.

Unlike most commenters, these women not only self-identified as minorities but also as scientists. While these women’s views contradict the established discourse in science, their lived experience of inequality matches the empirical evidence on how women become marginalised in science [Zevallos, Samarasinghe and Rao 2014].

2.2 Enhancing

These commenters said they valued diversity as a general principle and they could see that the diversity statement is enhancing science. This group included 145 people, 87 presenting as women, 57 as male, and one as unknown. These commenters strongly positioned the march as a political event, which was the opposite of those who made discouraging comments. A comment that summarises the common thread was: “Science innovation depends on the diversity of scientists.” These commenters largely praised the Women’s March and the fact that it attracted protesters with different motives, and that the same should be encouraged by MfS.

Here we see the opposite of the dividing group, in which women also referenced the Women’s March; but, in this case, it was to affirm the aspirations of the MfS diversity statement. Minority scientists have repeatedly appealed to the march organisers to work with, and learn from, the Women’s March not just due to its high turn-out, but also because of the mistakes made on inclusion and accessibility [Zevallos 2017i].

The enhancing group communicated a counter-discourse about science, identifying diversity as a source of strength to the march. They presume that diversity should be the norm, even though they recognise that science is not as diverse as it should be.

Counter-Discourse: Diversity is a Strength

People in the first two sub-groups (politicising and dividing) focused on what they saw as the negative impact of diversity on science, while the next two groups (depreciating and distracting) spoke more specifically about the adverse harm to the march.

The encouraging commenters saw that diversity is vital to science (informing) and they welcomed the potential to broaden the reach of the march (enhancing). Notably, only a miniscule number of people in this group (as with the entire sample) self-identified as a minority (N=6). This means that they encouraged diversity despite belonging to majority groups. This shows an avenue of hope to make the march more inclusive.

The critical difference between the discouraging and encouraging groups is that the latter put less energy in establishing their position. The encouraging commenters supported the will of the organisers and most expressed this with matter-of-fact brevity. The discouraging group wrote longer and more emotional responses. This could suggest that discouraging commenters had a stronger ideological investment to refute the diversity statement [cf. Zevallos 2014]. Studies show that people who have a vested political interest on specific issues are more likely to spend a lot of time responding to world views that contradict their own [Taber and Lodge 2006]. Conversely, those who do not feel personally affected, are less likely to expend the same energy in arguing against presented evidence.

4th diversity statement…states…science is political

Significantly, the discouraging commenters received the most support from the 3,300 who read the post. One top-rated discouraging comment alone received 1,188 “likes” and 103 replies. As it stands, the MfS community is one that drowns out support for diversity due to more vocal opposition.

Unfortunately, through various miscommunications, including from the co-chairs and other key members of the MfS committee, the MfS audience has been primed to reinforce the established discourse about science. It took the better part of two months of constant lobbying and external pressure from minority scientists for the MfS organisers to finally reverse their stance. The fourth diversity statement finally states that science is political. At the same time, more recent media interviews that position diversity as a “distraction” undermine this stance.

The encouraging group represent a support base to increase engagement on diversity. The organisers will need to put more effort into galvanising the active support of similar supporters to make their voices be heard as loudly as those who are discouraging diversity.

Discourses reflect the history, culture, identity, and politics of those in power. To make the MfS truly inclusive, the organisers need to think more strategically about how to manage their own taken-for-granted assumptions about science. The leaders of MfS will also need to win back trust from minority scientists, communicate more effectively, and address concerns about equity, inclusion, and access. To successfully establish a counter-discourse position that diversity enhances the march, the organisers will need more than shifting token gestures. They have less than one month to pull this together.

The MfS will either succeed in embracing the multiplicity of people who undertake, benefit from, and fight for, enhancements in science; or, the organisers will inadvertently maintain the perilous story that science serves only the privileged. Time is running out to make positive change.


March for Science public Facebook page. (Credit: Facebook)


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The citation for this article is:
Z. Zevallos (2017) Analyzing the March for Science Diversity Discourse.
DiverseScholar 8:1

Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos is a Latin-Australian sociologist and Adjunct Research Fellow with Swinburne University. Dr. Zevallos is an applied researcher who has run several state and national research programs and policy initiatives. This includes developing and managing the first national equity and diversity program in Australia for science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. Dr. Zevallos writes extensively on social justice issues at Connect with her on Twitter @OtherSociology. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


[i] At the time of analysis in mid-February 2017, the MfS Twitter account had 328,000 followers; the public Facebook page has 365,000 likes [MfS 2017e]; and the secret Facebook community has 833,000 members.

[ii] On March 23, the MfS organisers said the diversity lead’s words were taken out of context and asked the publisher for an amendment [MfS 2017d]. The quote cited is from the revised article.

[iii] At the time of analysis, there were 3,300 “likes” and reactions to the post. At the time of writing in late March 2017, this had doubled. The number of comments have remained the same during this time. From February to the present day, there were 390 comments on this post; however, Facebook automatically filters out spam and non-English comments (N=36), leaving 354 “top level” comments that were analysed. I exclude from analysis the additional sub-thread replies to these 354 top level comments.

[iv] I use the phrase “presents as” to denote gender. To record gender, I used individuals’ names, avatars, and their self-identified language in their public comments (“As a woman I think…”). I note that gender is fluid and subjective, and as such the commenters may have more complex interpretations of their gender. Other similar studies, such as by Moss-Racusin, Molenda and Cramer [2015], also approximated gender using commenters’ names.

[v] Race and ethnicity are socially constructed categories that are not easy to approximate from appearance or names. At the same time, speech patterns further reflect that commenters who did not directly identify themselves a minorities otherwise did fall into dominant racial and ethnic groups. For example, many people spoke about minorities in the third person (“they”), irrespective of whether they were making positive or negative comments. It is notable that Twitter is the primary mechanism by which self-identified minorities have been openly challenging diversity within the march, and that discussions on Twitter by underrepresented scientists about the public and private Facebook groups are largely negative.

Appendix A: March for Science Diversity Statements

Image 1: March for Science Diversity Statement 1
Source: Screenshot via K. Sauder 2017, Twitter, March 23
March for Science Diversity Statement 1

Image 2: March for Science Diversity Statement 2
Source: Screenshot via K. Sauder 2017, Twitter, March 4
March for Science Diversity Statement 2

Image 3: March for Science Diversity Statement 3
Source: Screenshot via Z. Zevallos 2017
March for Science Diversity Statement 3

Image 4: March for Science Diversity Statement 4
Source: Screenshot via Z. Zevallos 2017
March for Science Diversity Statement 4

Appendix B: Methodology

The results are drawn using thematic analysis. This is a qualitative technique used to identify and categorise common patterns in textual data; in this case responses to a Facebook post. While the data are drawn from publicly available comments [MfS 2017e], the data have been anonymised to protect the identities of individuals, following established ethical guidelines for online research. As a public group where individuals post opinions on a topic not considered vulnerable or sensitive, this analysis conforms to existing social media research methods [Townsend and Wallace 2016]. I note that MfS has a secret community on Facebook for people who wish to post outside of the public eye.

Nevertheless, to further protect confidentiality, the quotes presented are generalised, to reflect commonly expressed ideas and recurring statements, rather than using verbatim quotes of particular people. This is best practice for online research of public online communities [Eysenbach and Till 2001]. This follows the conventions of similar studies on public reactions to social media posts on gender equity in science [for example see Moss-Racusin, Molenda, and Cramer 2015].

The thematic analysis involved de-identifying data and then reviewing comments for common words and ideas conveyed through written text. Next, a coding schema was developed to reflect typical and atypical trends in the way in which people discuss ideas. The coding schema reflects common characteristics of speech patterns; in this case, a positive, neutral or negative reaction to the diversity statement; value judgements about diversity for science in general; the perceived value of diversity to the march more specifically; and typical phrases used to convey these dispositions. A typology was then developed from the coding schema (discouraging or encouraging the diversity statement), with sub-types reflecting a combination of perceived values about diversity in the march. Next, all individual comments were classified into either one of four sub-types discouraging diversity or one of two sub-types encouraging diversity.

The table below summarises the types of responses to the diversity statement.

Table 1: Public Reponses to March for Science (MfS) Diversity Statement on Facebook

(Focus of argument & exhibited belief)

Discouraging Diversity N=188
(93 men, 93 women, 2 gender unknown)*
Response: rejection of diversity statement


(43 men, 43 women, 2 gender unknown)
Focus: negative impact of diversity on science

Belief: Science is apolitical/ bipartisan and diversity discussions have no place in science
Negative: diversity is irrelevant because science is about “facts” Negative: diversity compromises the impact of MfS by focusing on politics and identities “Let’s stick to the science and the facts.”

“Don’t get bogged down by identity politics.”

“This is what we are marching against.”

(30 men, 19women)
Focus: negative impact of diversity on science

Belief: Diversity discussions are divisive
Negative: diversity alienates most people potentially interested in science Negative: diversity undermines goals and legitimacy of MfS by fractioning supporters “There’s a war on science. Diversity is divisive and it will break us up.”

“Here we go again! This happened with Women’s March and Pantsuit Nation.”

“Stop pandering to criticism. Was anyone even being discriminated against?”

“I’m a White male and a Republican. Am I welcome?”

(10 men, 17 women)
Focus: negative impact of diversity on MfS

Belief: Diversity discussions take away from meritocracy of science and are superfluous to MfS
Neutral: qualified perception that science is inherently diverse even though diversity is inconsequential to MfS Negative: diversity redirects focus of MfS away from science “Science is already diverse! Biologists, physicists, chemists, geologists.”

“Science is already equal and inclusive by nature.”

“No need for a diversity team. Science is neutral. It doesn’t discriminate.”

(10 male, 14 women)
Focus: negative impact of diversity on MfS

Belief: Diversity is abstractly “good” but is peripheral to MfS
Positive: qualified perception that diversity is good but only if it does not interfere with the status quo Negative: qualified support for diversity in general except in relation to MfS, where it is a threat “Diversity is important but don’t let it derail your message. We’re here to defend science.”

“I agree there should be some diversity at the march. But please don’t put diversity over merit or it will lose all meaning.”

“The conversation should be that all are welcome but don’t let it fracture us.”

Encouraging Diversity N=148
(57 men, 90 women, 1 gender unknown)*
Response: support for diversity statement


(3 women)
Focus: positive impact of diversity on MfS

Belief: Lack of diversity in science is documented and reflects experiences of underrepresented scientists
Positive: self-identified minority women scientists say that increasing diversity improves the work of scientists Positive: inclusive representation enhances participation of scientists in MfS “Science is dominated by straight White men.”

“You cannot march for science without acknowledging that science has been unwelcoming to many groups.”

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

(57 male, 87 women, 1 gender unknown)
Focus: positive impact of diversity on MfS

Belief: Diversity will strengthen MfS
Positive: diversity improves science Positive: MfS is political and diversity will widen its audience and outcomes “Diversity is not drawing resources from the main purpose, it’s making steps to be inclusive.”

“Thank you, intersectionality matters to the whole protest.”

“Diverse thinking needs diverse people. The women’s march showed that people will participate for their individual causes.”

Notes: *Gender coded as how individuals present—that is, they may identify differently, but their names, avatars, and self-descriptions (“as a woman…”) were used to code their responses.

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Last updated 5-Apr-2017,
Orginally published 27-Mar-2017