When it was time for Johnson to decide what she wanted to do with her life, she chose to become a meteorologist. She loved the weather, but she also wanted to see more people of color talk about science on television.
“Someone has to be first,” Johnson said in a recent telephone interview. “I still stand on the shoulders of the few who have gone before me.”
In early December, Johnson was named the new chief meteorologist for WJLA (Channel 7), the ABC affiliate for the Washington DC region.
But even as black women like Johnson break down longstanding barriers, the path has been challenging 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 on television.
The American Meteorology Society (AMS) found that black and African-American meteorologists made up 2 percent of the total membership in 2020, the last year it collected data. The ratio of black men to women is 60 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 in the United States. About 46 percent of black meteorologists are women, according to Jason Frazer, chair of the NABJ’s weather and climate task force.
“While African Americans make up about 13.6% of the US population, they only represent about 5.5% of the meteorologists you see on television,” Frazer, a meteorologist and Fox Weather First co-host, wrote in a e-mail. “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 Association is in the early stages of collecting current demographic data on its membership. And while no major organization seems to have specific data on the number of top positions, in interviews with The Washington Post, three black women who served as chief meteorologists said they knew only a few others in the United States.
More broadly, a 2018 study conducted by Alexandra Cranford, a TV meteorologist in Louisiana, found that women make up just 8 percent of top meteorologists nationwide.
Johnson, an Emmy award-winning meteorologist, said she was passed over for a top spot twice — in 2010 and 2018. Both times, white men got the job. Many meteorologists, she said, get the chance to star after 5 to 10 years, but Johnson has been waiting “most of her career” for this opportunity.
After six years on 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 who analyze forecast maps and oversee a team of weather experts who create daily weather reports for multiple platforms.
For Johnson, her skill level or accolades haven’t changed in the years since she was passed over for the roles. The difference now is how a changing society around her means more people in the industry seem willing to give her opportunities.
“I know we’re still in the early stages of improving what really should have been years ago,” said Johnson, one of the few black women to hold the American Meteorological Society’s prestigious television seal of excellence and Fellow award. .
For Johnson and others at the forefront, pioneering black women in the field has added frustration and scrutiny.
Karlene Chavis, the first black chief meteorologist in the San Diego staffing market, understands the pressure to be “first.”
“I was a little scared, I’m not going to lie. For me in my career, I’ve always been the only one or the first,” said 37-year-old Chavis.
Betty Davis, who has been a broadcast meteorologist for 20 years, accepted early in her career that she would take any position given to her. She didn’t dream of climbing the meteorological ladder because as a black woman there was no 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 mind for yourself.”
Davis considered leaving the field altogether when she was an intern, after a news director told her she “wasn’t smart enough”. Chavis recounted one time when someone in a newsroom told her that “no one will accept it [her] seriously because [she is] a black woman.”
Now veterans like Davis, who has been chief meteorologist for nearly eight years, say they can see a change in the cultural tide.
“I’ve seen the business shift,” Davis said in an interview. “There are some executives who think beyond what they’re used to seeing in those roles and I think that’s what has opened and will continue to open doors for women of color in broadcast meteorology.”
Even as newsrooms take small steps to diversify the faces on television, viewers can also be an obstacle.
Chavis received a wave of backlash and hatred when she joined her station in San Diego. She described social media posts and emails containing offensive and often openly racist comments she was “too street to be on TV” and that she “only got the job because she was black”.
“All I could do was realize that I wasn’t doing this just for myself. I did this because of representation,” said Chavis, who has been a meteorologist for 13 years.
The underrepresentation in broadcasting roles is part of a wider lack of diversity in national newsrooms.
In 2020, the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed black people sparked a renewed nationwide call for diverse voices in news organizations. And in recent years, the NABJ has seen more black journalists promoted to newsroom leadership positions, according to association president Dorothy Tucker.
“There is still much more room for growth. Some companies have taken decades, even centuries to get black leadership,” said Tucker, a reporter at CBS Chicago. She added that NABJ is “excited” about the growth they’ve seen in meteorology.
Racial diversity in broadcast meteorology has grown slowly since the mid-20th century, when June Bacon-Bercey became the first black female television meteorologist in the 1950s. Bacon-Bercey was also one of the first black women in the country to earn a degree in meteorology.
Yet, nearly 70 years after Bacon-Bercey embarked on that path, hurdles remain for black women reaching for that role. Still, the small population in major meteorological positions say they want to build on the cobblestone foundation for anyone hoping to follow.
June Bacon-Bercey, pioneering TV meteorologist, dies at 90
Chavis said she hopes to sow hunger in future generations, and allow more women and minority communities to thrive in the field.
“I want the field to look like everyone who lives in the United States,” said Chavis. “Being a pioneer means I won’t be the last. I’m just the first.”
Despite the long wait, Johnson said the end goal is to “attract more women to positions like this. I want to be able to draw more people of color into positions like this because I’m here.
She added: “That is my obligation. If I don’t, it’s a shame.”