Women scientists at NCAR: We’ve come a long way

Peggy LeMone, Senior Scientist Emerita

To mark the 50th anniversary of UCAR and NCAR, Staff Notes will feature occasional articles this year on the organization's rich history. Here, Margaret "Peggy" LeMone outlines the progress of women scientists since the 1970s. Recently retired from NESL/MMM, Peggy was the first woman to become an NCAR senior scientist. This year she is presi­dent of the American Meteorological Society. She is a regular contributor to NCAR & UCAR Currents on topics connecting research with "backyard science."  

Peggy LeMone

When I arrived at NCAR to join ASP in April 1972, there were few other female Ph.D. scientists out of the roughly 100 Ph.D.s on staff. Joan Feynman (Richard Feynman's younger sister) was in HAO, and Sue Anne Bowling was in ASP with me. Cicely Ridley, a Ph.D. in mathematics, worked on model codes in the computing division. There were also about a half-dozen female scientists with master's and bachelor's degrees.

In fact, women in meteorology were a rarity na­tionally (see graph). When I met Joanne Simpson, she greeted me like a long-lost sister—it was so exciting to meet another woman in the field! As we talked, each telling the other how many women meteorolo­gists we knew, we decided it was time to really find out. So over the next year and a half, we contacted every woman meteorologist we could find. The many letters we received told a rich story, which was published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorologi­cal Society (BAMS) in 1974.

I arrived at NCAR more interested in doing science than furthering the cause of women. That quickly changed. NCAR, in a move to enforce its anti-nepotism rule, terminated Nancy Knight's appoint­ment after she had worked 11 years as a casual, studying hail with her husband, Charlie Knight. In addition, the situation for women scientists was being affected by recently enacted equal opportunity and affirmative action regulations. These events galva­nized a group of women across the institution to form the Council for NCAR Women (C4NW). We polled the UCAR universities to learn about their anti-nepotism rules. It turned out that many were more progres­sive than NCAR. UCAR responded positively, ending the anti-nepotism rule entirely, and Nancy had her job back. But it wasn't until Alex Dessler came to NCAR a few years later to head the cloud physics group that Nancy was given a regular M.S/B.S. scientist job. C4NW faded away not long after that.

Logo for C4NW.Logo for C4NW, designed by Ed Danielson. The screw shape reflects the edgy humor of the early 1970s.

Aside from the sometimes onerous institutional hurdles, women had to face some more mundane ones as well. Every woman scientist over a certain age has at least one bathroom story. My favorite involved the lack of women's restrooms at an old airbase in Michigan that we used as a base of operations during a field program in 1970. There was a men's room that seemed to be the size of an auditorium, and a locked women's room used only by the base secretary. When she was out, I had to have someone yell into the bath­room/auditorium to announce my arrival, and hope that no one came in before my departure.

Also, pin-ups were abundant well into the 1970s. In the GATE operations center in Dakar, Senegal, the radio room was literally wallpapered with Pent­house and Playboy centerfolds. This must have been bewildering to the Senegalese women who worked there, particularly when they saw the reaction after they posted a male centerfold from an issue of Playgirl that showed up one day in the data analysis room!

Graph of women atmospheric scientists in ASP versus women atmospheric scientists as a whole. Percentage of female atmospheric science graduate students versus percentage in ASP. Source: Curriculum for the Atmospheric Sciences and NCAR.

The number and fraction of women scientists at NCAR began to increase during the 1980s and 1990s, especially within ASP, as a result of new affirma­tive action laws, outside reviews, and more women entering the field. Many who showed up during these years brought a new dimension to the institution, and several of them continue to serve as NCAR leaders and senior scientists. Linda Mearns (CISL/IMAGe) worked with people from many disciplines on the impact of variability in future climates on crops. Beth Holland (NESL/ACD) looked at the nitrogen and carbon cycles, and their role in the Earth system and Bette Otto- Bliesner (NESL/CGD) studied paleoclimates.

Around 1990, women scientists organized again. Linda Mearns, Kathy Miller (RAL), and Barbara Brown (RAL) formed the Boulder-wide Women in Atmospher­ic Science (WIAS). This group facilitated the develop­ment of a clear maternity policy based on a survey of the UCAR universities (this time by HR) and became the first of several groups to recommend a UCAR day care center, which materialized a number of years later. WIAS also provided a friendly audience for young women scientists to hone their public-speaking skills.

After this group faded, part of its role was taken over by division equity committees, which looked for ways to increase fair practices for all employees across the institution. In the mid-1990s, Susan Solomon, who was acting director of ACD at the time, led an effort to modify the NCAR promotion policy to allow stop­ping the tenure clock to mitigate the impact of family responsibilities or unusual work responsibilities on sci­entists who had not yet achieved a tenured position.

A view from outside

The women scientists organized for a third time in 1999, in response to a small meeting called by Bob Serafin, NCAR director at the time, to examine ways to better the situation for women at NCAR. The means fell into our laps. The Committee for the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) was having a site visit at CU at about that time, and one of the panel members stayed with my husband and me. The CSWP evaluates the climate for women in physics departments using a panel of prominent female physicists who understand the culture, know the lessons learned by previous panels, and have sufficient clout to be listened to. The department only has to pay the panel expenses.

Peggy LeMone and Diane Johnson in 1975 at AMS conference. In 1975, Peggy (left) organized the first-ever AMS session on the role of women in atmospheric sciences at the society’s annual meeting. On the right is Diane Johnson, who worked in NCAR’s Information Office at the time. 

This process seemed ideal both to us and the NCAR administration. After some negotiation (the CSWP had never visited an institution like NCAR before), the committee agreed to come. The process involved a written survey and on-site interviews with groups of scientists, both men and women. The findings were similar to earlier CSWP evaluations. Many problems perceived as unique to women scientists were com­mon to all junior scientists, and once again, a day care center was recommended. Out of this grew the Early Career Scientist Assembly and a Standing Committee on Women in Science. Thanks to the efforts of Katy Schmoll, UCAR vice president for finance and adminis­tration, employees gained access to a day care center, the Children's Creative Learning Center, in 2004.

Today, women make up 28% of NCAR's scientific staff and 10 out of 78 senior scientists. We have had two women (Susan Solomon and Anne Smith) as interim directors of ACD, and Anne was also the NCAR Scientists' Assembly representative to the Director's Committee. Maura Hagan (HAO) is the first female deputy director of NCAR. Some of the divisions and labs have active women's groups. While there is a sincere effort to hire qualified women, the emphasis has shifted to making the workplace a place in which all employees—men and women—can contribute to the best of their abilities. And there is no shortage of bathrooms.


For more about Peggy, read "Recollections from a pioneering woman scientist," Staff Notes, December 2004.