The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women are being passed over for ‘chief meteorologist’ jobs at an alarming rate

(John J Young/Flickr)

When Doug Hill announced he was retiring in May, a chief meteorologist position was suddenly open in the D.C. television market. Hill, who was signing off from WJLA-ABC7, was something of a D.C. institution, delivering weather to the DMV for more than 30 years.

His departure saddened his fans and triggered rumors about who would fill his shoes. His colleague Veronica Johnson, who actively sought the position, appeared to be the perfect fit. Not only does she hold a degree in atmospheric science from the University of North Carolina and the sealed approval of the American Meteorological Society, she’s also — by ABC7’s own characterization — a “D.C. veteran meteorologist.” Johnson has been in the D.C. market since 2000, and the Baltimore market before that.

In August, the station announced it was hiring outside talent — a well-loved weatherman from the Columbus market.

The announcement that a man would become the new chief shouldn’t have come as a surprise. A new study confirmed (again) what women in the field have long known: that they are grossly underrepresented in TV meteorology.

The study was conducted by Alexandra Cranford, a TV meteorologist in Louisiana. She found that, nationwide, women make up just 29 percent of all TV weathercaster positions. That number in itself is alarming and unfortunate. But even if you attempt to rationalize that fraction, you can’t excuse the study’s next finding — that just 8 percent of women are in the “chief meteorologist” role.

It’s a pitifully low fraction of a pitifully low fraction.

“Naturally, it’s not that we aren’t qualified,” Johnson told The Washington Post. “Although strides to advance women up the ladder have been made, we continue to see struggles in the workplace.”

This was the second time Johnson had been passed over for chief in the D.C. market. She previously sought that role at NBC4 when Bob Ryan left the station.

WJLA — which is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group — told The Post it’s their policy not to comment on personnel matters.

Despite the disappointments, Johnson says she “likes to win, and the TV business is a team business. When a new player joins the team you wish them well. Then go out and win like a team”

“Sometimes the reward may not be in getting it yourself,” Johnson added, “but in paving the way for others underrepresented to get there.”

The promotion is what on-camera meteorologists dream of. Put simply, the chief meteorologist is “the weather boss.” At a typical TV station, the chief runs the weather department, decides how the team is going to forecast and generally has the final say — especially in critical weather situations. At the vast majority of stations across the United States, this study finds, those decisions are made by men.

The disparity may be a reflection of who’s doing the hiring. As of 2017, news directors were largely male and white. Just 30 percent of all news directors were women, a recent survey found. Minorities made up just 15 percent of all TV news directors. But years of research shows that by not hiring women and minorities, newsrooms could miss out on the innovation, creativity and harder-working employees that come with diversity.

Cranford said her research results on the number of female chiefs was surprising, but she actually set out with a much simpler question.

“I wanted to know if there is this ‘weather girl’ stereotype, where people kind of think women weathercasters may not be as qualified and might just be hired for their looks or whatever,” Cranford told The Post, “could there be a little truth to that?”

Indeed, the lack of women in meteorology overall probably has deeper roots.

“It became clear in the 1950s that women could in fact be accepted as weathercasters — as long as the focus was kept on clothing, hairstyle, or anatomy,” writes Weather Underground blogger Bob Henson in his book, “Weather on the Air.”

Enter, the “weathergirls” — women who were hired to sexualize the forecast and boost ratings, bathing suits and all, Henson writes. The embarrassing history of women in weather and the potentially lingering stereotypes may prevent young women from entering the field at all.

Cranford found that women were slightly more likely to not hold a degree in meteorology than their male counterparts, which suggests there’s another metric by which news directors are measuring them.

The study found something else that may or may not be surprising — that weekend positions are most commonly held by women.

Cranford says her research didn’t try to answer why things are the way they are, but she wants to see a follow-up that examines it.

For her part, it’s not a question of desire or motivation. Though her undergraduate school didn’t have a meteorology program, she took the requisite calculus and physics courses after graduation, and, while working full time in news, Cranford got a master’s of science in applied meteorology from Mississippi State.

“I have not been promoted to chief at any of my stations,” Cranford said. “Yes, I would like to one day become a chief.”

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