Lara Croft, Ally McBeal or Missus Beaton?
A lesson in social engineering
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."
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. ®