Updated February 6, 2023 at 2:00 p.m. EST|Published February 3, 2023 at 6:30 a.m. EST
An earlier version of this article misstated when June Bacon-Bercey became the first Black female TV meteorologist. That happened in the 1970s, not the 1950s. An earlier version incorrectly labeled the American Meteorological Society as the American Meteorology Society. The article has been corrected.
For decades, broadcast meteorology has been dominated by White men — leaving out women, and particularly women of color. Of the hundreds of chief meteorologists at news stations across the country, few are Black women.
Now, Black women are fighting to climb the ladder and claim top meteorology roles. For Veronica Johnson, her journey took nearly 30 years.
When it was time for Johnson to decide what she wanted to do with her life, she chose to be a broadcast meteorologist. She loved weather, but she also wanted to see more people of color talking about science on television.
“Someone has to be the first,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview. “I’m still standing on the shoulders of the few that have come before me.”
In early December, Johnson was named the new chief meteorologist for WJLA (Channel 7), the ABC affiliate for the D.C. area.
But even as Black women like Johnson chip away at long-standing barriers, the path has been a challenge for those often hidden in the world of meteorology. And the data confirms what Black women in the industry have described: they are grossly underrepresented in meteorology — especially in television.
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) found that Black and African American meteorologists made up 2 percent of the entire membership in 2020, the last year it collected data. The ratio of Black men to women is 60 percent to 40 percent — indicating that Black women make up less than 1 percent of members. That data also includes the news industry. The National Association of Black Journalists says there are about 138 Black meteorologists in journalism across the United States. Of Black meteorologists, about 46 percent are women, according to Jason Frazer, NABJ’s weather and climate task force chair.
“While African Americans make up about 13.6% of the US population, they represent only about 5.5% of the Meteorologists you see on television,” Frazer, a meteorologist and co-host for Fox Weather First, wrote in an email. “That is significantly less than the number of Black TV Anchors and Reporters.”
The number of Black women in chief meteorologist positions is “low,” said AMS President Richard Clarke. The society is in the early stages of collecting up-to-date demographic data on its membership. And while no major organization appears to have specific data on the number in the top roles,in interviews with The Washington Post, three Black women serving as chief meteorologists said they knew of just a few others in the United States.
More broadly, a 2018 study conducted by Alexandra Cranford, a TV meteorologist in Louisiana, found women made up just 8 percent of chief meteorologists nationwide.
Johnson, an Emmy-award winning meteorologist, said she was twice passed over for a top position — in 2010 and 2018. Both times, White men got the job. Many meteorologists, she said, get the opportunity to move into a chief role after 5 to 10 years, but Johnson has been waiting for this opportunity for “most of her career.”
After six years at the station, Johnson also became the first female chief meteorologist in the station’s 75-year history. At many stations, chief meteorologists are the scientists that analyze forecast maps and oversee a team of weather experts who create daily weather reports for multiple platforms.
To Johnson, her skill level or accolades didn’t change in the years since she was passed over for the roles. The difference now is how a changing society around her means more in the industry seem willing to give her opportunities.
“I know that we’re still in the infancy of improving what really should have been years ago,” said Johnson, one of few Black women to hold the American Meteorological Society’s prestigious television seal of excellence and its Fellow award.
For Johnson and others in the top spot, being mold-breaking Black women in the field has brought added frustration and scrutiny.
Karlene Chavis, the first Black chief meteorologist in San Diego’s broadcast market, understands the pressure of being “the first.”
“I was a little scared, I’m not going to lie. For me in my career, I’ve always been the only or the first,” said Chavis, 37.
Betty Davis, who has been a broadcast meteorologist for 20 years, accepted early in her career that she would take any position that was given to her. She didn’t dream about moving up the meteorological ladder because, as a Black woman, there wasn’t a precedent.
“You don’t necessarily see a lot of women or Black women” as chief meteorologists, said Davis, who is a chief meteorologist in South Florida. “And because you don’t see that, you don’t necessarily have that in your mind for yourself.”
Davis considered leaving the field entirely when she was an intern, after a news director told her she “wasn’t smart enough.” Chavis recounted a time when someone in a newsroom told her that “no one is going to take [her] seriously because [she is] a Black woman.”
Now, veterans like Davis, who has been a chief meteorologist for nearly eight years, say they can see a change in the cultural tide.
“I have seen the business shift,” Davis said in an interview. “There are some managers who are thinking beyond what they are accustomed to seeing in those roles and I think that is what has opened and will continue to open doors for women of color in broadcast meteorology.”
Even as newsrooms take small steps toward diversifying the faces shown on television, viewers can present an obstacle, too.
Chavis received a wave of backlash and hate when she joined her station in San Diego. She described social media messages and emails with offensive and often overtly racist comments that saidshe was “too street to be on TV” and that she “only got the job because she was Black.”
“All I could do was just realize I wasn’t doing this just for myself. I was doing this because of representation,” said Chavis, who has been a broadcast meteorologist for 13 years.
The underrepresentation in broadcast roles is part of a wider lack of diversity in newsrooms nationwide.
In 2020, the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people renewed nationwide calls for diverse voices in news organizations. And in recent years, the NABJ has seen more Black journalists promoted to leadership roles across newsrooms, according to association president Dorothy Tucker.
“There is still much more room for growth. Some companies have taken decades, even centuries, to have Black leadership,” said Tucker, an investigative reporter at CBS Chicago. She added that NABJ is “excited” about the growth they have seen in meteorology.
Racial diversity in broadcast meteorology has progressed slowly since the mid-20th century, when June Bacon-Bercey became the first Black female television meteorologist in the 1970s. Bacon-Bercey was also one of the first Black women in the country to get a degree in meteorology.
Still, decades after Bacon-Bercey carved a start to that path, hurdles remain for Black women reaching for that role. Still, the tiny population in chief meteorologist positions say they want build on the cobble-stoned foundation for anyone hoping to follow.
Chavis said she hopes to spark a hunger in future generations, and that it will allow more women and minority communities to thrive in the field.
“I want the field to look like everyone that lives in the United States,” Chavis said. “Being a trailblazer means that I won’t be the last. I’m just the first.”
Despite the long wait, Johnson said the end goal is to be able to “pull up more women to be in positions like this. I want to be able to pull up more folks of color to be in positions like this because I’m here.”
She added: “That’s my obligation. If I don’t, that’s a waste.”