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On International Women’s Day, these atmospheric scientists inspire us

Joanne Simpson (left), Eunice Foote (top right), and June Bacon-Bercey (bottom right). (NASA/NOAA/Family Photo)

On March 8, International Women’s Day, people around the world celebrate and recognize women for their achievements and reflect on the courage and determination of women who advance gender equality.

This day of recognition was born when Clara Zetkin, the leader of the Women’s Office of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, proposed the idea at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910.

We have clearly come a long way since then, with women making huge strides in the global workforce.

What better way to celebrate such achievement than with a roundup of some inspirational women working in climate and atmospheric sciences?

Standing on their shoulders …

Joanne Simpson (1923-2010)

In the field of atmospheric science, no list of great scientists (of any gender) is complete without Joanne Simpson. In 1949, she became the first woman to earn a PhD in meteorology from the University of Chicago. Her research helped advance the field of tropical meteorology.

From 2010: Legend of meteorology drifts off

But the path wasn’t easy for a woman at that time. A faculty adviser told Simpson no woman would ever get a PhD in meteorology, and even if she did, no one would hire her. It was her interest in clouds that got her through. Carl-Gustaf Rossby, then-chair of the university’s Meteorology Department, thought that clouds were not very interesting, so it was a good subject “for a little girl to study.”

Simpson’s research, conducted with Herbert Riehl, eventually proved that clouds are not just a result of weather, but phenomena that drive the weather and are an integral component of the atmosphere’s circulation.

Eunice Foote (1819-1888)

If you ever wondered who discovered the greenhouse effect, you may have come across the name Joseph Fourier, who first described the process in the 1820s. But a woman helped make a critical discovery in how the greenhouse effect works.

In 1856, Eunice Foote began conducting research on how gases such as water vapor and carbon dioxide affected the temperature of air exposed to sunlight. She actually figured out adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would cause the planet to warm three years before physicist John Tyndall, frequently credited for this discovery. Foote’s research serves as the one of the building blocks of modern climate science.

June Bacon-Bercey (1928-2019)

It was 1954 when June Bacon-Bercey became UCLA’s first Black woman to earn a degree in meteorology, having resisted advice to major in home economics. Like many of us, she was passionate about weather. She became chief meteorologist for a Buffalo news network.

Obituary for June Bacon-Bercey, pathbreaking TV meteorologist

Despite being the first woman to earn the American Meteorological Society Seal of Approval, she still had to fight the “weather girl” cliche. She is credited as one of the founders of the AMS Board on Women and Minorities and led many efforts to increase participation of women and minorities in science. Since her death in 2019, the AMS renamed its Award for Broadcast Meteorology the June Bacon-Bercey Award for Broadcast Meteorology.

Bacon-Bercey, Foote and Simpson, among others, have not only paved the way for all women in science, but have advanced our understanding of weather and climate.

Now, there are many women working to expand the field and make it more accessible. Here a few of them.

Leaders of today …

Suzanne Van Cooten

Suzanne Van Cooten serves as the hydrologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service’s Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center. Her extensive résumé includes chief scientist of the Weather Service’s National Data Buoy Center and deputy chief of the Warning Research Development Division at the National Severe Storms Laboratory. She is also a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and has published research in the Bulletin of the AMS on the underrepresentation of Indigenous scientists in science.

Fadji Zaouna Maina

In 2020, Fadji Zaouna Maina made the Forbes 30 Under 30 Scientists list and was also named one of the 100 most influential Africans of 2020 by New African Magazine. Originally from Niger, she is now an earth scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, studying the impact of climate extremes and wildfires on water resources. She’s an inspiration to all academic researchers for what she has been able to accomplish in such a short time, and her achievements have been particularly noted in her home country: Last fall, Niger’s president congratulated her on being the first Nigerien scientist to work at NASA.

Mika Tosca

Mika Tosca is a climate scientist and assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has published research on using observations to prove that smoke from fires inhibits convection and now researches how art can help improve science. Not only is her work in climate science interesting and unique, she is also a role model for young girls in the LGBT community. In 2019, she published an article in Eos on art and science, and she frequently gives talks on how her experiences as a transgender scientist at a nontraditional university are helping her bridge the divides among scientists, artists and the public.

Women in STEM: Some statistics

With all of these women paving the way, the world must now be filled with women advancing weather, water and climate science, right? Well, sort of.

While there are many women actively working to expand our knowledge of Earth and its atmosphere, a significant gender gap remains in science, technology, engineering and math fields as a whole. Men still greatly outnumber women in STEM, and the gap is not closing as fast as one would like.

Although women have made gains — from 8 percent of STEM workers in 1970 to 27 percent in 2019 — men still dominate the field. Men make up 52 percent of all U.S. workers but 73 percent of all STEM workers, according to data from the Census Bureau. And yes, there is still a significant gender wage gap, with women consistently earning less than men — 82 cents, on average, for every dollar a man earns. The gap is larger for women of color.

Women and minorities in weather and climate fields confront harassment, lack of inclusion

Unfortunately, covid-19 has sent the numbers in the opposite direction. According to the Fawcett Society, the United Kingdom’s leading membership charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights, the gender gap has widened during the pandemic. The Society says women have been more likely than men to lose their jobs or be furloughed, and while both men and women have done more child care since March, the gap between the amount of time mothers and fathers spent grew.

Now for some irony.

According to U.N. Women Australia, research shows that female-led countries are handling covid-19 more effectively than those led by men. Countries led by women reacted more quickly and decisively in the face of potential fatalities and, as a result, saw fewer overall cases and deaths. And, focusing on STEM, it has been argued, gender diversity is actually crucial to science.

Despite the statistics, we continue to be inspired by the women advancing the fields of weather and climate every day. Women deserve a seat at the scientific table, and we will continue to press forward and close those gender gaps. Until then, we celebrate those women who came before us to shatter the glass ceiling, as well as the men who supported those efforts.

To that, we say Happy International Women’s Day. Want to show your support? Wear purple and #DressForSTEM on March 14-15 to support women in STEM!

Becky Bolinger is the assistant state climatologist for Colorado and a research scientist at Colorado State University.

Kerrin Jeromin is an American Meteorological Society-certified broadcast meteorologist with more than 12 years of forecasting experience and has covered everything from winter storms to hurricanes to natural disasters and major climate events.