Women in weather.

Yesterday AMS and Northrop-Grumman put on a Google Hangout on Women in Weather.

women in weather

Their tagline?

According to the National Science Foundation, out of the 14,000 professionals employed in atmospheric sciences, only 2,000 are women.

That’s only 14 percent.

Join us on March 25 at 12:00pm ET for a Google Hangout On Air as we discover all of the exciting possibilities women have in the weather enterprise.

Compelling viewing! Built momentum as the hour went on, and could fruitfully have run a great deal longer.  A lot to think about and digest.

Last evening, though, I heard from a colleague. Her message made me realize any contemplation on my part was way-too-shallow/complacent. She had this to say:

“I must confess that I really would prefer that some organization (maybe AMS) to eventually (no rush!) organize more discussions *among MEN* about the value that women bring to the profession.   Explaining why/how/etc the field would be less complete without them.   It is clear that men hold many of the leadership positions in atmospheric science.  They — not women — are the ones largely setting policies, mentoring/employing younger (often male) colleagues. 

I get a little frustrated when I see repeated, women-only lunches & discussions (tons of women in the room, with a small handful of men).  They can be positive in that they are empowering (sisterhood!) and provide supportive words  —  analogous to how  “Lean In” suggests that women need to be more assertive and step up to the table more.  But it’s my rather strong belief that I don’t think anything will significantly change even if all women start doing this (which they won’t)… it really needs to be MEN who take ownership on the issue and start convincing their male colleagues that certain strategies and steps are needed in order to increase the success rate of women in the field… “

When asked, my colleague was kind enough to let me repeat her remarks verbatim as a means of opening up the topic on LOTRW. You may agree or disagree with what she had to say, and perhaps after a night’s reflection, she might want to tweak a word here or add a phrase there. Other viewers and members of our community would undoubtedly offer quite different takes.

Perhaps we can agree at the outset that there’s never been a moment in history or prehistory when gender equality, with all its implications and ramifications, hasn’t been a defining issue for the human race. Second, we’ve made little or no tangible progress across that vast span of years, despite the attention and writings of evolutionary and behavioral biologists, anthropologists, political and business leaders, and discussions of men and women, husbands and wives, in settings ranging from the United Nations, the halls of Congress and corporate boardrooms, to households, schools, churches, and coffee shops. Dysfunction is rampant, the topic consumes us, men continue to be complacent[1], and women continue to be frustrated[2].  No papering it over; this is a serious problem. And (full disclosure – in fact, telling you only what you knew already), this single post, with its limitations of length and haste, cannot offer resolution.

The issue is profound; what’s more, at its heart, the issue is an ethical, moral – spiritual one. Given that, the issue has company. It’s mirrored in failed race relations, our treatment of children, the elderly, the poor, and other vulnerable groups. So… with respect to these important issues – not only are we failing to progress… but shame on us.

That said… two comments. One is global; the other more limited, but holds global implications down the road.

First, although the issue is at its heart ethical, moral, and spiritual, it has transcendent and hugely practical implications. Our failure to ensure that women are at the table as decisions are made locally everywhere and worldwide in every context compromises our ability to solve the intractable 21st-century real-world problems we face. This is not a new thought. Bernard Lewis, a noted Middle East scholar, addressed this in a little book he wrote in 2002 entitled What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. Lewis’ idea is that for the past 500 years, the once-dominant Islamic world has failed to modernize or to keep pace with the West. He notes that many Islamic scholars and leaders see this as opening the door to disastrous Western influence across the region. He and others speculate that this failure to modernize has come about because women have been excluded from decision-making and influence.  

Closer to home, we can revisit and expand a bit on some of the thinking in LOTRW the blog and LOTRW the book (pp 115-119). There it’s suggested we face an obdurate three-fold  simultaneous challenge: garnering natural resources, especially, water, food, and energy; protecting the environment; and building resilience to natural hazards. Our only option?  To bring to bear the whole of the world’s brainpower, in its fullest diversity.

Here’s some homely speculation to illustrate the idea. It’s not good science; it’s not even science. But please indulge me. It goes like this.

Suppose we have some number, say twelve people, in a room trying to solve a tough problem. Let’s suppose that all of them are male. Let’s also suppose, life being what it is, that most of the diversity in the room is embodied largely in the first six men; those last six men more-or-less duplicate the range of thinking already represented at the table. They don’t add that much. Now let’s suppose further that the spread of problem-solving possibilities the discussion brings to light changes with the size of the group in a combinatorial or factorial way rather than in a purely linear way. In other words, the sixth person coming into the room doesn’t just add 17% to the problem-solving capabilities of the room. Instead, because he can engage any of the other individuals in sub-conversations or groups of two or more in sub-conversations that’ll lead along additional paths to novel ideas, that he’s enhanced the problem-solving-power of the room considerably, maybe not a factor of 6, but by a significant amount. Note, however, that the last six men coming into the room don’t add much to the problem–solving power at all. They duplicate what’s already there.

Now… replace that second contingent of six men with six women, so we have six men and six women. Those six women aren’t duplicating the six men; they’re bringing different experience and perspective. Those additional six people haven’t just doubled the problem-solving-power of the people in the room. Again, because the new participants will partner up with multiple subsets of people in the room in differing ways, and because they’re bringing fresh perspective to bear, and because the discussion is enriching in a combinatorial way, they’re increasing the range of available options by factors of ten or hundreds.

Easy to find fault with the details here. But not the flavor. By bringing to bear the full diversity of society (starting with gender, for today’s purposes) to solving our problems, we’re not just doubling our chancing of working through to effective solutions and coping strategies, we’re increasing our social brainpower manifold times[3].

Second, just a bit closer to home, here at the American Meteorological Society we’ve been running a leadership development program for early-career scientists – the Summer Policy Colloquium – for the past fourteen years. We’ve put 500 people through the program over that span of time (INFOMERCIAL: you still have time to sign up to participate in this year’s Colloquium, which runs from May 31-June9 here in Washington, DC).

Half the participants have been women. This is not an artificial result produced by a quota system of some kind; applicants for the Colloquium self-select. Women have been drawn to the challenge and supported by their host institutions out of proportion to that 14% statistic for the demographics of our field mentioned in the Google Hangout.

Ask yourself: what does that say about the future for our field – and by implication, for the fortunes of seven billion people wrestling with resource-, environmental-, and hazards issues? A heartening sign? Or just more complacency on my part (male, and a fairly senior one at that)? After yesterday’s Google Hangout and correspondence, I’m hesitant to say.

I’ll know better when/if I hear back from my colleague, or from you. She/you are better positioned to judge.


[1] Word software offers a host of horrible synonyms for this word: satisfied, self-satisfied, smug, unworried, content, contented, self-righteous.

[2] The Word software synonyms here are chilling: unfulfilled, irritated, unsatisfied, upset, angry, exasperated, discouraged.

[3]There’s a huge literature on the subject of diversity and problem solving; Googling that phrase provides a starting point for diving in. It would be useful if some of the social scientists among the readership could offer links or references to specific peer-reviewed literature or research on this subject they’ve found credible.

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One Response to Women in weather.

  1. William Hooke says:

    Offline, one reader of LOTRW questioned the statistics in the Google Hangout tagline: she offered this link: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/2013/tables.cfm
    as an alternative source.

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