The Myth That Diversity Takes Meteorology And Related Jobs From Others

Marshall Shepherd
Written by Marshall Shepherd

I have wanted to study meteorology since I was in sixth grade. I was “bitten” by the weather bug after being stung while catching bees in the yard. After learning that I was allergic to stings, I shifted my sixth-grade science project to weather and kissed my dream of being an entomologist goodbye.  After acquiring the necessary undergraduate and graduate degrees, I began my career as a research meteorologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I quickly noticed that there were not very many African Americans in my field in the mid-1990s.

Sadly in 2018, this statement still holds even though you will see some people claim that jobs are being taken from others because of efforts to diversify the workforce. I saw a recent social media post in which these claims were being made in relation to meteorology positions so I decided to look at the facts.

diversity meteorology
A discussion with meteorologist Janice Huff of WNBC, NWS Director Louis Uccellini, and former FEMA Director Craig Fugate on The Weather Channel’s WxGeeks. Photo: Marshall Shepherd/WxGeeks/Forbes

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) is the largest professional society in the United States serving weather, climate, and atmospheric sciences professionals. I served as the President of the AMS in 2013. Periodically, the Society gathers data on its membership. Its most recent survey of its 13,000-14,000 members revealed that only 2.1% are African American. Numbers for Hispanic and Native Americans were even lower.  This is not unique to meteorology either.  A 2015 National Science Foundation report pointed out,

 …the gap in educational attainment separating underrepresented minorities from whites and Asians remains wide. In general, underrepresented minorities are less likely than whites and Asians to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn a college degree…….Although whites’ share of Science & Engineering (S&E) degrees has declined over the past 2 decades, they continue to earn a majority of degrees in all broad S&E fields.”

A recent paper published in Nature Geosciences is even more stark and specific. The paper is entitled, “No Progress in Diversity in 40 years.” It points out that at the doctorate level, ethnic and racial numbers are extremely low. In the past 40 years, 85% of doctoral degrees earned in Earth-related sciences were to people identifying themselves as non-Hispanic and White according to their study. In 2016, the United States population classified as minority was 31%, yet a mere 6% of geoscience doctorates awarded were to underrepresented minorities.

This brings me back to the field of meteorology. In a gem of a paper published in a 1978 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, legendary and history-making meteorologist June Bacon-Bercey examined minority numbers within the field of meteorology. Bercey was the first African American woman to earn the AMS Seal of Approval. I found this sequence of writing elucidating in her paper,

(Dr. William) Kellog’s group analyzed the results of the AMS 1975 questionaire sent to almost 9000 members….Kellogg considered it pointless to analyze responses from the black AMS members because there were so few (~25).”

She went on to point out that an NSF report estimated about 900,000 scientists in the United States in 1978 and that only 2.6% were black. Again, numbers were even lower for other groups. Her study also found that about 1.58% of meteorologists in 1978 were black. Oh, but things are better now Dr. Shepherd, right? Wrong. If you recall, I noted earlier that 2.1% of AMS members surveyed a couple of years ago were black. If you use basic number rounding that we all learned in grade school, both of these result in 2%. These statistics are fine, but my own eyes validate the numbers whenever I go to a Broadcast Meteorology, AMS Annual Meeting, or other high-level gathering within my field.

So why would someone blame others or assume that career opportunities are being “taken” because of diversity when the numbers do not support that? As a scientist, I like to dig a bit deeper in my writing. I was thinking that the concept of psychological projection explains what is happening. According to Psychology Today article (and the peer review literature),

Projection is a primitive defense mechanism that occurs in individuals, as well as within groups. A person disowns an unacceptable idea or impulse by projecting it or attributing it to another. This alleviates the anxiety and unfavorable self-perception it engenders in the projector.
However Professor Rheeda Walker, associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston, responded to my email with a more precise explanation and suggested that displacement is the real issue. According to Verywellmind.com, defense mechanisms are “unconscious psychological responses that protect people from threats and things that they don’t want to think about or deal with.” Displacement is one of those defense mechanisms. Professor Walker wrote,

One way of thinking about how people process overwhelmingly stressful emotions is displacement. It typically occurs outside of one’s full awareness. Nevertheless, the outcome is that individuals blame others for their shortcomings and failures or their mere frustrations
As the director of a major program in atmospheric sciences, I field calls all of the time from employers. My students are finding jobs, irrespective of their race or gender, because they are good, well-trained, and know their meteorology. I also hope this is what others will reflect on rather than blaming others.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President

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