Women and minorities in meteorology

Posted: 24 April 2002. This work is copyrighted ... anyone wishing to use it should please contact me at cdoswell@earthlink.net for permission.

As with all my essays, feel free to express yourself regarding this topic and my treatment of it.


It's a known, albeit sad, fact is that meteorology is a white male-dominated profession; participation by women is far below the roughly half of the population they represent. Non-(White/Anglo-Saxon/Male) meteorologists are few and far between. I'm first going to focus on the issue of women, in particular.

I believe that the level of participation by women in meteorology simply reflects a general tendency throughout our society to minimize the role of women in all of the physical sciences. There are many who believe this fact to be related to a real difference in the ways women relate to the world in comparison to men. That is, the assumption is that gender does indeed play a role and that women are indeed less disposed as a class to excel in physical science (and mathematics). There are many women who explicitly or implicitly believe this to be the case, and who argue that women approach science (and life) differently from men. They say that this difference in styles means, among other things, that women are systematically excluded from participating because of the "sociology of science" having been set by males.

Perpetuation of prejudice

In my opinion, having such views is simply perpetuating sexism! The definition of prejudice, whatever specific "ism" label it carries, is that you believe you know something about another person simply because of their gender, their race, their religion, or whatever. In spite of continuous and overwhelming evidence that prejudice is an invalid view of humans, people stubbornly maintain this assumption, for reasons that escape me completely. Perhaps our egos require us to feel superior to someone else. Perhaps we prefer not to have to think about individuals and find it easier to apply labels to groups. Whatever. It's my belief that you simply cannot make any perfectly valid assumptions about a person based on their race, their gender, their religion, their nationality, or any of a large number of irrelevant bases for making default assumptions. Anyone with even half a brain knows exceptions to virtually any such prejudice, and even one counterexample is sufficient to negate the validity of the assumption. The fact is that you have to base your opinion about any person on what that particular person does, not on stereotyped irrelevancies like their gender, etc.

To generalize about the way women approach science is also absurd from a different perspective. I refuse to believe that there are such things as "male science" and "female science"! What does exist is the dichotomy between good science and bad science, but I maintain that any differences that exist between the science done by women versus that done by men are completely the result of social forces and not something inherent in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Not all women do science in a "certain way" that differs categorically from how men do science. Science can be said to involve (a) formulation, (b) testing, and (c) revision of models of the natural world. What about that process can be identified as gender-specific? Some women excel at science, most don't. So just how is that different from men? Science is inherently gender-blind ... if science as actually practiced is not blind to gender, then we need to change that, as quickly as possible!

The fact is that women thrive in virtually any profession in other societies. There is absolutely nothing in the way of a profession that a sufficiently determined woman cannot do. Supposedly unbreakable barriers to participation by women have been broken time and again over the years. Why should we systematically exclude women from anything? Is it because the male ego cannot withstand the assault? Well, I know for a fact that there are women who are stronger, faster, and smarter than I am ... somehow, I manage to live with that. What's the damned problem? If you can accept the fact that some other men are stronger, faster, and smarter than you are, why can't you accept that the same might be true for some women? Geez ... get real!

Women are the majority of medical doctors in Russia. Women are fully integrated into the military in Israel. Women scientists gravitate toward the life sciences generally and some excel at it, not necessarily because they're uniformly inclined to some sort of "nurturing" cliché (or whatever other bogus assumptions people make) but because society has been willing to let them in to those particular sciences, for some reason. Women do well (some do better than their male peers, naturally) in mathematics and science in the United States through about the 8th grade, and then begin to drop away. Is this likely to be the result of an inherent inability of females to grasp the concepts of algebra, trigonometry, and calculus? Balderdash!! I know individual women whose mathematical and scientific capabilities are well beyond the levels of high school and undergraduate college classes. Therefore, there simply cannot be anything that inevitably predisposes all women to mediocrity in math and science. I don't know factually if there are general tendencies or not, but even if there are, we should never make judgments of individuals based on general tendencies! That's prejudice, pure and simple, and is both demonstrably incorrect and inexcusable. I believe it to be virtually totally associated with the expectations imposed on women by their peers (male and female!), by their parents, and by their teachers. Whatever general tendencies might exist should never be used as an excuse to discourage individual women from participating in whatever they choose. If we stop discouraging individual women from their interest in math and science, I predict that individual women in considerable numbers will rise to the tops of their chosen mathematical and scientific professions, as they already have done in whatever fields that currently happen to allow them to do so.

Reverse discrimination

There currently is considerable movement in fields like meteorology to give preferential treatment to women, simply as a way of addressing the historical underrepresentation of women in meteorology. Strictly speaking, this is just discrimination, but its intentions are honorable. [Of course, the road to perdition is said to be paved with good intentions. Discrimination is inevitably wrong, at least in principle.] Be that as it may, I hear a certain amount of harrrrumphing from members of the white male majority, to the effect that positions in the field should be filled on the basis of qualifications, not gender. Apparently, they are of the belief that women (and minorities) are inevitably less well-qualified than their white male counterparts. But let's ask ourselves, "Is every white male filling a position in meteorology really and truly qualified for that position?" I think the answer to that is a resounding "Certainly not!" I think all we're really asking for is that women (and minorities ... I'll get to them soon) have the same chance to be incompetent as white males have! That is, a certain number of incompetent women may indeed be hired by this preferential treatment, but it's not clear to me that their percentage of incompetents is necessarily higher (or lower) than that of the white male majority!

Many young women I've talked with over the years have expressed considerable worry over accepting such preferential treatment. While I commend them for their sense of fairness and unwillingness to accept what might well be thought of as condescension or "charity" treatment, my response is conditioned by an experience I had a number of years ago. There was a charismatic black woman I met who was in a position of considerable power and authority in Federal meteorological circles. She as much as admitted that she had been given the job simply because she was a black woman, so I asked her how she felt about that. Her answer was that "They picked the right person for the job!" That answer hit me like a thunderbolt! What a perfect answer it was! ... so I now say to young women (and members of historically underrepresented groups of all sorts) who are reluctant to take advantage of the preferential treatment they might encounter, "Go ahead and take advantage of the opportunity!" Show them they picked the right person for the job by what you do with the opportunity! Never be ashamed at being given an opportunity. Once given the chance, the only thing that matters is that you demonstrate by your deeds that you deserved what you were given.

Sexual harassment

A lot has been said and done in the last few years about sexual harassment. I'll state categorically that it's still rampant in meteorology! I've seen this firsthand, and I'm sorry to say that some well-known meteorologists are guilty of this reprehensible behavior, including some within the Norman weather community. They're protected by a "good old boy" network of those who apparently tolerate such actions. Women are often afraid to speak of this, for fear of reprisals. In spite of years of effort, even in the Federal government, the conspiracies of silence go on. I've been asked not to pursue this aggressively by the victims, who feel that if I were to call attention to them and what happened, bad things would befall them. They may indeed be right in fearing retribution, unfortunately.* I can only say that if we continue to let these detestable actions go on unchallenged, no matter who the perpetrator is, then they'll simply go on.

Even so, if some of us are occasionally hurt by vigorous efforts to eliminate this inexcusable activity from our profession, I'm willing to accept that as "collateral damage" in preference to letting sexual harassment in any form be tolerated.

"Minorities", in general

Having said the preceding about women, it's but a simple step of logic to realize that it applies to virtually all people. If particular groups (ethnic or otherwise) are historically underrepresented in any profession, is it because of some inevitable predisposition to mediocrity and failure they collectively exhibit? The existence of exceptions to any general tendency makes it clear that these are primarily social forces at work, not valid genetic generalizations or accidents of birth! In virtually all cases, the failure of particular groups to achieve proportionate representation is due almost entirely to prejudice, sometimes self-imposed. No doubt it's true that most members of any group don't want to be meteorologists but I simply don't believe that a career in meteorology is incompatible with any group's capabilities [ignoring the group of folks who have various real (as opposed to perceived) intellectual handicaps, of course]. Does intellectual capacity follow along certain human group lines? The issue is controversial, naturally, but I'm willing to let individuals show what they can do, instead of presupposing that the members of some group would never be capable of something like meteorology.

Storm Chasing

Finally, let me comment about women and minorities in the primarily frivolous activity of storm chasing. I myself made an incorrect default assumption .. that my wife could not possibly be interested in storms and storm chasing. Owing to a complex set of circumstances that don't bear repeating, I found out to my dismay that I was wrong. Flat-out wrong!! When I took her out chasing, she loved it and is increasingly enthusiastic as time goes on. Since I corrected my mistake, my wife has become my regular chase partner and her contributions to the process have been increasingly valuable as she has gained experience. She's not a meteorologist and has no intentions of becoming one, but that doesn't mean she can't be a valuable storm chase partner. If she did want to become a meteorologist, it wouldn't be any problem for me! I'm pretty sure she's capable of it, simply because I know that many people are capable of it, and she's at least as good as most people at anything she tries seriously to do.

It's the desire to achieve something that matters. Most people are born with the capability to almost anything if they want it badly enough. [There are limits to this, but you never truly know your limits until you make the effort.] Whatever tendencies might be associated with a particular grouping of people are simply not a valid basis for default assumptions when it comes to individuals! As a scientist, I need compelling evidence to believe that hypothesized tendencies associated with groups are indeed based on fact, and I am not in the business of collecting such evidence myself. If groups indeed have tendencies toward this or that, it still is not pertinent when I deal with people, which is always on an individual basis ... I choose to try not to let stereotypes and prejudice mar my judgment, at least insofar as I am able to prevent this. As my wife showed me, I still make such mistakes, but when pointed out, I'm at least willing to correct them.

Making default assumptions about individuals on the basis of gender, ethnicity, etc. is simply a sign of ignorance. Unlike stupidity, you can do something about ignorance! So let's do it.


* Curiously and sadly, *I* was accused of "sexual harassment" by a colleague at NSSL who apparently was offended by a fur-lined jockstrap that I'd put on prominent display in my office. I'd received this silly item as a gag gift after a trip to Winnipeg for a conference and I innocently thought it was just funny, not sexual at all! What really bothers me is that this person didn't have the courage to ask me to remove it (which I certainly would've done!), but rather sought redress through an anonymous grievance procedure, from which I basically had no appeal. I believe I know who did this to me and, if I'm right, it's a woman I tried to encourage to pursue a Ph.D. in meteorology, as I believed her to be quite gifted in science. I'm hurt that she chose me to accuse of harassment, and anonymously, at that. I regret having offended her, but surely it would have been better simply to ask me than to have forced this impersonal action on me.