Women and Weather Jobs: The Big Freeze-Out

Decades after the heyday of the “weather bunny,” local TV weather is still a man’s world

Forecasting the weather in a market prone to extreme events—including lethal hurricanes, fickle patterns floating in off the mountains and the occasional ice storm—isn’t for those lacking in backbone. It’s even tougher for those who happen to be female. Get the forecast wrong, and you’re just another “weather bunny” who has been put on the air for her winsome appearance, not for her grasp of complicated meteorological conditions and ability to present them in a way that clicks with viewers.

Yet WHNS Greenville’s Kendra Kent persists. Kent is a member of a faction that’s just a little more common than a snowstorm in her South Carolina market—a female chief meteorologist at a TV station in America. Despite impeccable weather credentials, including a master’s degree in broadcast meteorology from Mississippi State and official seals of approval from the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the National Weather Association, Kent has found that weather-airhead stereotypes die hard.

“You’re constantly fighting the ‘weather girl’ stigma,” Kent says. “Whoever came up with that term really jinxed us these last few decades.”

Despite the significant strides women have made on television—40% of the U.S. station workforce is female, according to a 2010 Radio Television Digital News Association/Hofstra University study—they remain woefully underrepresented when it comes to the most vital component of local news. The gender percentages in local weather vary slightly, from the 18.5% reported in a 2010 George Mason University/University of Texas study on climate change, to the 21.6% from an RTDNA newsroom survey in 2008. The latter represents a negligible uptick from the 21% female representation in local TV weather found in 2005, and the 19% identified in 1999.

In fact, women just barely have a larger presence in weather news than they do in the traditionally male-dominated segment of sports. The RTDNA says just shy of 19% of the sports reporters at TV stations are female—and women in sports appears to be on the rise. “You could make the argument that women are making more headway in sports than they’ve made in weather,” says Bob Papper, RTDNA survey director and Hofstra University professor of journalism. “[Weather is] just not a strong area for women.”

Females at the chief meteorologist level—the skipper of a station’s crew and point person when severe weather approaches—have even poorer representation. While it’s difficult to quantify, TV station consultants and talent agents estimate that just 10% to 12% of the chief meteorologists at U.S. stations are women.

Weather Reigns

Weather’s importance at a TV station cannot be overstated. Local news typically generates 30% to 40% of a station’s revenue, and weather is the key ratings—and therefore, revenue—driver. Laura Clark, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates, says weather is the top reason given 80% to 90% of the time when viewers are asked why they tune into local news. “We’ve never seen a No. 1 station not be dominant in weather. If there is one, we’d be surprised,” Clark says. “Even in places where people might not think weather would score well, it’s critically important.”

Further indicating weather news’ importance to local TV, a recent Rasmussen poll showed that 54% of respondents get their weather news from local broadcast television—way ahead of the Internet (20%) and cable TV (19%).

And while many believe the weather bunny stereotypes are on the wane, several more say the bias—be it on the part of the viewer or the hiring manager—remains. To wit: Newspaper reports in December about suspended WABC New York weather anchor Heidi Jones fabricating an assault report at times referred to Jones as a “weather babe,” while message boards on the topic referred to Jones as a “weather bimbo”— and much worse.

The Website weatherbabes.org offers extreme close-up shots and full-body photos of the more attractive weather reporters around the country. Only women are featured. While stations are demanding much more substantial certification from their weather reporters than in decades past, it’s clear that a large contingent still views the forecasting females as nothing more than blow-dried teleprompter readers.

“Some managers, deep down inside, have a hang-up about putting women in lead roles in weather,” says Barbara Frye, VP of talent services at Frank N. Magid Associates. “They fear the women won’t have credibility.”

Back to School

While conventional stereotypes might suggest that women do not gravitate to the study of the meteorology sciences as readily as their male counterparts, the college ranks show a much more equitable representation of the genders than TV stations do. The main academic feeders for broadcast weather talent are Mississippi State and Penn State universities. The former’s meteorological program student body is 40% female—up 1% from where it stood a dozen years ago. The Penn State weather program is around 35% female—well above the 20% level from a decade ago.

“More women are going to school for meteorology and coming out now with expertise,” says Janice Huff, who succeeded Al Roker as WNBC New York’s chief meteorologist in 1996.

It is, however, more of a man’s world at the American Meteorological Society, where women hold only 21% of the AMS seals of approval in the U.S.—and a scant 14% of the more rigorous certi! cations for AMS broadcast meteorologist.

No one is quite sure why there’s such a large drop-off among women going from college to the workaday weather world at TV stations. Some cite the increased presence of the Weather Channel, which employs a number of high-profile weather women; of the 32 network personalities featured on weather.com, a dozen (38%)—including big names like Stephanie Abrams and Crystal Egger—are female. Several sources say the cable channel, a unit of NBC Universal, offers a more predictable work schedule than local TV, making it ideal for women who double as primary caregivers.

“We are fortunate to have some of the most talented women in broadcast meteorology on our air, and you can find them across our schedule,” says Bob Walker, executive VP of marketing, cross-platform development and programming for the Weather Channel. “All of our most-watched shows feature female meteorologists.”

Some industry watchers believe the maledominated world of weather on TV stations perpetuates itself, creating roadblocks for female advancement for years to come. Young girls don’t see many females doing weather on television, or they see the under-certified “weather girls” from the days of yore. Many young women with TV-career dreams, seeing limited role models in weather, instead aspire to be news anchors.

And women frequently find themselves stuck behind a long-tenured male in a station’s weather department. When that man finally retires, the news director will likely hire another male to keep the all-important gender balance on the weather team intact. “It’s hard to break in for women in a lot of markets,” says Sandra Connell, president of recruiting agency Talent Dynamics. “If you have a big weather guy at one station who has the market covered for severe weather, it’s just hard to compete for women—or anybody.”

Those Who Made the Grade

The contingent of female chief meteorologists around the country includes Huff, WWOR New York’s Audrey Puente, KCTV Kansas City’s Katie Horner, KSDK St. Louis’ Cindy Preszler, WFLD Chicago’s Amy Freeze and WDSU New Orleans’ Margaret Orr. Kendra Kent is actually one of two female chief meteorologists in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., along with WSPA’s Christy Henderson.

More typically, women hold far less in" uential roles in local TV weather. Many present weather on the growing local morning programs, where a “perky” personality is often a bigger prerequisite than a meteorological degree. Kent estimates that as many as 70% of women in local TV weather work in the early a.m. hours, as opposed to the so-called newscasts of record.

Women are also much less visible in the severe-weather markets, where hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards can threaten lives. Kent says she was the only female weather reporter among all the news stations during her tenure along the tornado corridor at KFSM in Fort Smith, Ark.

Industry watchers are split as to whether viewers—and the news directors who hire talent, for that matter—still prefer their weather reports to come from an avuncular, middle-aged male. One news director in a major market says other than seeking a general balance in the news team, a candidate’s sex doesn’t come into play when hiring weather talent. “It’s about presentation, it’s about ease of understanding,” he says. “Gender never, ever enters into it.”

Others are less politic. “A lot of people think something coming from a man’s mouth is more authoritative,” says WNBC’s Huff, who adds this type of sexism seems to be declining somewhat. “I still think that happens in society—people like it better if a man says it.”

A Blessing, Not a Curse

To be sure, some believe having that X chromosome can be an asset in TV weather. In December, CBS’ wholesale shake-up of The Early Show saw Marysol Castro named weather anchor—the first time a woman has held the main weather role on the network program. Early Show executive producer David Friedman acknowledges that Castro is a smart fit for morning news’ female-heavy viewership. “Marysol is a strong, smart journalist— and a strong female,” Friedman says. “She’s a perfect example of a working woman.”

WWOR’s Puente suggests gender may have played a role in her rise to the chief title in the No. 1 DMA. “The fact that I’m a woman, that I’m Puerto Rican, and a meteorologist have all helped,” Puente says. “There aren’t many degreed female meteorologists in the field.”

But for what aspiring female meteorologists can only hope is a growing constituency, a weather anchor’s grasp of local meteorological nuance, a cool head in the face of natural disaster and a knack for delivering information in ways that viewers can easily digest count more than whether one is male or female. Guy Hempel, WHNS Greenville VP/general manager, says Kendra Kent was the ideal candidate to lead the station’s weather team due to her severe-weather chops, extensive academic credentials and smooth presentation.

“Kendra was well-certified and well-studied, and brought a lot of common sense to the job,” Hempel says. “She had the kind of experience we needed. She just happened to be female.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz