All the coverage of Sandy on the television over the last few days had me thinking about the days when all hurricanes were given female names, and the brouhaha that surrounded the change to that tradition. Sandy, of course, is a nice androgynous name, but it is difficult to believe that as recently as 1979 people would say in public that hurricanes should be given female names because women are more likely to be stormy and unpredictable. . . (for the record, Sandy is on the list as a woman’s name, sandwiched between Rafael and Tony).
The next thought in this train had to do with the number of women covering Sandy – whether standing in the downpour or fighting to remain vertical against the wind or warm and dry in the broadcast studios, women’s faces were on every screen. And I remembered that broadcast meteorology was one of those careers in which women were severely underrepresented – and in fact, that the long tradition of “weather babes” (sometimes slightly less blatantly called “weather bunnies”) had made it even more difficult for women to be taken serious in meteorology than it was in other science careers.
So here’s a short tribute to American women in weather.
Sarah Frances Whiting was the first professor of physics when Wellesley College opened. Like many scientists of the 19th century, her interests were wide-ranging; like many women of the era, she fought an uphill battle to be allowed to study and to advance in her field. After being invited to join the New England Meteorological Society (the first woman so honored) she established a course in meteorology at the college and built a weather-data collection center there, as the United States Weather Bureau had no observation stations in the area.
Joanne Malkus Simpson, who died in 2010, was recognized as one of the top meteorologists in the world. Appropriately enough for this post, she was an expert in tropical storms, one of the two scientists who in the 1950s explained how and why hurricanes form in the tropics and move across the oceans the way they do. Simpson had developed this knowledge as a part of her pioneering work in cloud studies, a field so untouched that a professor at the University of Chicago approved of her work, saying it would be a good area “for a little girl to study.’’
Bernice Ackerman got her start as a weather observer with the WAVES in WWII, and after the war went on to earn advanced degrees in meteorology. Like Simpson, she studied clouds and wind, and became an expert on tornados and on manipulating clouds to cause rain.
June Bacon-Bercey became the first woman broadcast meteorologist in the United States in Buffalo, NY in 1970, breaking two barriers at once, as she was also the first African-American in that role. Although she got the job for being in the right place at the right time (she was a science correspondent for NBC in Buffalo when the chief meteorologist at the station was arrested and fired), she proved more than adequate to the job.
There are in fact several dozen well-respected women among the annals of meteorological science, but the broadcasting world has been slow to recognize them. In television, especially, the accepted wisdom was that the serious scientist in the weather department was a man, and the role of a woman was to be eye candy. As in so many scientific fields, the images of women promoted by the broadcasting industry have had significant impacts on the entry of women into the field. To some degree this is still true, particularly in markets outside the US and UK, but things are finally changing in the United States. As recently as 2008 studies still showed a dramatic lack of women at the top of the weather departments in local and national news organizations, but in the last two or three years a number of large markets have shifted, with several or even all the local newsrooms having women as their senior meteorologists.
My non-scientific observation of the broadcasting around Sandy was that the male-female ratios were pretty evenly divided. As changing climate and weather become ever more important in our lives, it’s good to see that we are not relegating women to the role of visual aid any more.