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December 2004 - January 2005

Recollections from a pioneering woman scientist

The day that lightning hit Peggy LeMone’s house, it sparked not only the roof but also the 8-year-old’s interest in weather, so much that she took some of the roof debris to show-and-tell at school the next day. Peggy’s budding meteorological career, however, almost got sidetracked when she found herself attending an all-girls high school in the early 1960s that wouldn’t allow her to take both math and science at the same time. Teachers thought it would have been harmful to her brain, which was already dangerously advanced for a girl her age.

“So I fed my science habit by studying the Daily Weather Map,” Peggy says. “I remember my greatest discovery was seeing low-pressure areas develop on the lee side of the Rockies.”

On November 30, several dozen staffers listened to Peggy’s presentation, “Women in the Atmospheric Sciences: Progress, Barriers, and Opportunities.” Now a senior scientist in MMM (she became NCAR’s first female senior scientist in 1992), Peggy was part of the core group of women in meteorology who not only experienced but helped propel some of the social changes of the past 40 years. She and her peers worked from the 1960s onward to create career opportunities and workplace conditions for female scientists that are now practically taken for granted.

“I think the major challenge now is to make sure we don’t lose what we have today,” Peggy told the audience.

As an example of the problems women currently face, she pointed out that scientists are increasingly funded with soft money. With soft money come hard deadlines, which can complicate matters for women wishing to take maternity leave or reduce their workload. “When I was having my kids, I was 100% base-funded, so it was relatively easy not only to take maternity leave, but to work part time for five years,” she said. “But now this is a huge issue.”

War and Sputnik

Regardless of how women grapple with maternity leave, Peggy made it clear in her presentation that women in science have come a long way. Western philosophers, she explained, saw science as an inherently masculine endeavor, and even as women became more educated in the late 1800s, they were still seen as far too emotional for something as rational as scientific thought.

It wasn’t until World War II, when American men went overseas, that women were recruited for jobs in meteorology and defense-related fields. Many of these women were promptly sent back to their homes after the war, but it was too late to reverse social changes. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 gave rise to a competitive era that required American educators to place a stronger emphasis on science education. A decade later, just as this generation of Sputnik schoolgirls reached college and graduate school age, public funding for higher education became increasingly available.

As a graduate student at the University of Washington in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Peggy came of age as a scientist in a frustrating yet inspiring time for women. She arrived at NCAR as a postdoctoral researcher in 1972 and joined the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP) Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE) field experiment one year later. Walt Roberts, NCAR’s founding director, subsequently invited her to chair the American Meteorological Society’s new Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women in Meteorology, and she presented a session on the subject at the AMS annual meeting in Denver.

Shortly after, the AMS formed its Board on Women and Minorities, with Peggy as chair. In 1980, she represented the board when it asked the AMS Council to join other scientific organizations in boycotting states that opposed the proposed equal rights amendment to the Constitution. She also visited the White House during the Carter administration as the board’s representative.

Despite the legal and cultural strides women have made in recent decades, Peggy says women can still face barriers in the atmospheric sciences. Girls and women are less likely to find good science mentors that encourage them to pursue the field. Paternalistic attitudes toward women in science still exist, and even innocuous things like using sports analogies to teach science can make the subject unappealing or inaccessible. Women are sometimes more willing to spend time on domestic chores than men, making it harder for them to commit enough time to their careers.

Friendly workplace policies, family sick leave time, reliable childcare, and supportive spouses all help, Peggy says. So does the right attitude. “Have confidence in yourself, separate big tasks into little ones, find what you enjoy, and work hard,” she concluded.

•Nicole Gordon

On the Web

Another tribute to a pioneering woman scientist

Also in this issue...

The 2004 Outstanding Accomplishment Awards

Prospecting for ice

IMAGe comes into focus

Native American visitors

Turning off the juice

Delphi questions

Happy Holidays!

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