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A lesson in social engineering

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Do-gooding social engineers have bungled an attempt to get more women into sci/tech industries with a TV soap that depicts them making a success of careers traditionally pursued by men.

Lobbyists trying to break the masculine mould in sci/tech jobs came up with the idea that in order to get more women into nerdy jobs, they needed female role models for girls aspiring to be the next Marie Curie or... Carol Vorderman?... er, Wendy Padbury?

So, The Public Awareness of Science and Engineering (PAWS) Drama Fund commissioned a soap opera. Sort of like vanity broadcasting for a charitable cause. But it has failed to find a buyer.

Tony McHale, the award-winning television writer commissioned to pen the pilot, says he supported the cause, but was sceptical of its chances of success.

"People say, why don't you do a science soap? My reply is that no one will commission it, because it's boring," he says.

Campaigners regularly cite the examples of television heroines whose appearances have presaged a flood of applications from hopeful, skirted school-leavers.

Kylie Minogue is supposed to have encouraged girls to take up tools with her portrayal of a bubbly tomboy mechanic in the Australian soap Neighbours. It is said Ally McBeal has single-handedly brought equality to all but the top levels of the law profession.

But it looks like PAWS' attempt to do the same for sci/tech - a series about a science campus called "Happy Valley" - has come a cropper because it tried to fly too high. In fact, it failed to even get off the ground.

McHale knows a thing or two about strong female leads. He was sought out because of his work on Silent Witness, a police drama that starred Amanda Burton as a forensic scientist. Burton is attributed with attracting scores of women into scientific sleuthing.

McHale says he predicted the soap would not get commissioned because British television is already saturated with soaps. He also had to deal with the naive expectations moral champions often have of the media.

"They were keen to show science in a positive light," he says. "But I argued that if it were to be a soap there would have to be some villains...the whole essence of drama is conflict. It's hard to do a happy-go-lucky drama."

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