When it comes to pioneers, legends like Oprah Winfrey come to mind, while others are less well-known but every bit as important in their groundbreaking efforts. When it comes to being an inspiration, June Bacon-Bercey (October 23, 1928-July 3, 2019) is one such individual. Her influence in meteorology, as well as her determination to continue pursuing her career in the face of sexism, makes her an important historical figure.
The many firsts of June Bacon-Bercey
Where to start with her groundbreaking accomplishments? Let’s start with her amazing educational accomplishments.
June Bacon-Bercey was the first African-American woman to earn a meteorology degree. She received her BA from the University of Kansas in 1954 and went on to obtain her master’s a year later in 1955 from UCLA.
Her career began with work for the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. From there, she was hired by NBC in Buffalo, New York as part of their news team. After the resident weatherman was let go, Bacon-Bercey took over the position.
Shortly thereafter, in 1972, she received the American Meterological Society’s (AMS) Seal of Approval distinction for excellence in on-air weather forecasting. June Bacon-Bercey was not only the first woman in history to earn this title, but also the first African American person to do so.
Encouraging equal opportunity
As if that’s not already trailblazing, there’s more! Just 5 years after the AMS distinction, Bacon-Bercey won $64K on a television game show called The $128,000 Question. With these earnings, she began a scholarship fund for women pursuing careers in atmospheric sciences.
As she told the Washington Post in 1977,
“I was discouraged (from becoming a meteorologist), and other women were discouraged. If they feel they’ve got some money behind them, it might be better.”
As for what this discouragement was, it was sexism if I read correctly an academic paper titled the Role of Women in the Atmospheric Sciences. This text suggests she received many inappropriate questions during her graduate studies. Instead of being asked what field she wanted to pursue, she was asked how she would handle evening shifts, being a female boss, lengthy field outings, and balancing husband and family (page 876).
Reading about that historical moment made me not only uncomfortable for her but angry too. These questions were nonsense then and now, yet still some people have their doubts as to whether women can do as good a job as men in STEM and other career fields. Meanwhile, men wouldn’t be asked how they can maintain a family and also work to their full capacity or how they’d do on long travels.
Ahem, back to the scholarship June Bacon-Bercey established.
Between the scholarship’s commencement in 1978 through to 1990, a total of 12 women received the scholarship to help them pursue education toward becoming female meteorologists. These women would advance to not only careers in meteorology but also the related fields of oceanography, astronomy, geochemistry, and physics. The positions of these women include weather reporting at TV stations and senior roles at NASA, MIT, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
The AMS Board on Women and Minorities
June Bacon-Bercey was also instrumental to starting the AMS Board on Women and Minorities (BWM), which still exists today. It was designed to encourage females and minorities to pursue atmospheric science professions.
Inclusivity and diversity remain central to this Board. However a recent AMS report reveals that female participation has only improved a little and that racial and ethnic involvement has had even less advancement.
A few of the key findings from this 2017 report from the AMS Board on Women and Minorities are:
- Women’s participation in AMS has doubled since 1999 but still is below male members. Furthermore, fewer women hold leadership roles than men within the organization.
- AMS members as a whole do not report feeling unsupported in STEM, while other studies show negative experiences for many members of the LBGT community.
- In the water, weather and climate science profession, people with disabilities continue to lack access to tools and resources.
- AMS members of African-American or Hispanic backgrounds are still considerably underrepresented; numbers have changed little between 2005-2014
While there’s a lot to get disheartened about in that list, at least the BWM is trying, which is more than some other organizations. They have several initiatives in place to address inclusion in geosciences, including the Color of Weather Reception. This yearly meeting between students of color and leaders provides a safe space for open, genuine conversations about barriors to success, how to improve access to resources, internal discrimination, and more.
June Bacon-Bercey: The takeaway message
Whether you are entering a career in meteorology or a related field, or you are doing work traditionally seen as male, such as a home or business owner applying heat wrap for pipes, I want you to know that you can do anything you put your mind to. If you get frustrated at the obstacles to moving up the career ladder, including sexism, please don’t give up.
Only by questioning unfair treatment, not listening to those who doubt us, and working to instill new, just practices can we truly make a difference. The life of June Bacon-Bercey shows us how to lead and live with the attitude that making positive change around us begins with our own actions.
Feature image: Modified from Public Domain via Wikimedia.