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Lara Croft, Ally McBeal or Missus Beaton?

A lesson in social engineering

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PAWS has not given up its work, however. Dr Andrew Millington, who runs the campaign, says he is continuing the organisation's subtle approach to promoting the cause of equality in sci/tech.

It is a shame the kinds of stereotypes equality campaigners don't like stick so easily in popular imagination. The stereotypical combination of women and technology usually involves big breasts, or at least a swimsuit, just as it does with cars or war planes.

University of Southampton researchers have found that girls' interest in technology plummets when they reach the age of puberty. Attributing the fall to social stereotyping, they cite the example of a teacher who used a copy of soft porn and gadgets magazine Stuff as a prop in a computer class. Another asked students to create databases of their top ten "fittest women".

“By displaying women’s relationship with technology in a sexual way, women are displaced in the IT sector as submissive to men," the Southampton team says.

"These connotations clearly reinforce the message that the IT sector is a play thing ‘for the boys’ – a sector where women have no clear place,” they say.

You can't blame teachers for pandering to popular imagination to catch their pupils' attention, but you can understand why feminist academics think it's outrageous. It is akin to having Jordan, the unfeasibly big breasted glamour model, drafted in to take school classes in her underwear.

Which brings us to Lara Croft, the star of computer game Tomb Raider. She undoubtedly contributed to a rise in male gaming. She even became a rogue feminist icon because she kicked ass in a sports bra.

Douglas Copeland, the Generation X author who wrote contributions for a coffee table book about Lara Croft in 1998, told geek magazine Wired at the time: "I think women are becoming much more kickass...there have never been many examples out there for them to look at. Now there are lots."

Curiously, the proportion of women working in the UK's IT sector started falling in 1997, about the time Lara Croft became a sensation.

McHale, meanwhile, has retained the rights to Happy Valley, turned it into a five part drama, and is trying to sell it to the BBC, warts and all. ®

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