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Can a Female MacGyver Correct Engineering’s Gender Imbalance?

A re-make of the hit MacGyver aims to do for women in engineering what Modern Family did for gay marriage. Can it work?
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(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Let’s give a word of thanks to Mitchell and Cameron, Bryan and David, and Blaine.

These characters on Modern Family, The New Normal, and Glee shaped the country’s support of gay marriage. In a 2012 poll conducted by the Hollywood Reporter and Penn Schoen Berland of 1,000 Americans, 27 percent said the characters made them more pro-gay marriage. The effect was even stronger among respondents under the age of 35, with 38 percent crediting the shows for increasing their acceptance of gay marriage.

In 2009, the year Modern Family premiered, Gallup reported that 40 percent of Americans supported gay marriage. Today, the latest Gallup poll shows that 55 percent of Americans do.

"Seeing this stuff makes it more socially acceptable," pollster Jon Penn told the Hollywood Reporter.

“No one has come up with an interesting way of portraying modern engineering that is not Dilbert-like. There is a need to change the conversation.”

Now, Hollywood and a national engineering group are pointing TV’s opinion-shifting powers at a gender imbalance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They’ve just finished crowdsourcing pitches online to re-make the hit 1980s series MacGyver—with a female engineer as a lead. The popular show, in which a science-minded spy routinely escaped some of the worst quandaries with a dash of ingenuity and some duct tape, not only hatched a new verb, but also spurred a generation’s interest in DIY science, MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff has said.

Despite a longstanding national focus on STEM, fewer than 20 percent of engineering Bachelor’s degrees go to women and the share of women in the engineering workforce has stagnated since 2001. A similar reality plays out on the big screen. An analysis of popular films released between 2010 and 2013 led by Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor at University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, found that male characters with STEM jobs outnumbered female characters with STEM jobs nearly eight to one. And when women were depicted as professionals in films, they were typically journalists (40 percent), doctors (15 percent), or lawyers (nine percent).

Casting a woman—and an engineer—in the role, Zlotoff told Agence France-Presse, might “inspire a new generation of young women interested in science and technology.”

But how?


When fictional forensic scientist Sara Sidle peered into a microscope on TV screens across the country more than a decade ago, she introduced a generation of girls to the possibility of a career in crime scene investigations. Sidle, you might say, stood on the shoulders of Star Trek’s Lt. Nyota Uhura, another strong female character and TV rarity in 1966.

“There was no one in the astronaut corps who looked anything like me,” Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, wrote in her 1994 autobiography. “There were no women, no blacks, no Asians, no Latinos. I could not reconcile the term ‘United States space program’ with an endeavor that did not involve anyone except white males.”

“I felt like I had a right to be anywhere in this universe that I belonged here as much as any speck of stardust, any comet, any planet.”

The power of one character, like Uhura, to shape viewers’ beliefs, expectations, or perceptions was dubbed the “drench hypothesis” in the 1980s. It’s the idea that one riveting portrayal can compensate for an overall absence of positive media depictions. Even decades after Uhura left Star Trek, a small 2013 survey of women studying STEM subjects or working in the field revealed that Uhura had influenced their interest.

“Once you see someone who looks more like you on screen, it introduces that possibility into your mind,” says Johanna Blakley, who studies the media as managing director of the Lear Center. Such images, she says, are particularly important given that females, more than males, are attuned to what’s called “stereotype threat.” This threat, researchers agree, can affect girls’ beliefs about their abilities and influence their educational and career choices.

Examples of this abound. In one study, female students said they felt like they didn’t belong in computer science and wouldn’t succeed after they interacted with stereotypical computer science majors (glasses-wearing geeks who played lots of video games) versus non-stereotypes (sports fans who liked music and Rolling Stone magazine). This was an opinion their male counterparts didn’t share.

Concerns about fitting in also were evident in research on female STEM majors. These women—all academic standouts at Stanford University—reported feeling more anxious after watching a video of an engineering conference where men outnumbered women. But when the young women saw a video with an equal number women and men, they expressed more interest in participating in a similar conference.

Yannis C. Yortsos, the dean of engineering at USC, which is involved in the MacGyver re-make, says the series aims to re-frame ideas about engineers and dispel stereotypes.

“People don’t always know what engineering is all about,” Yortsos says. “No one has come up with an interesting way of portraying modern engineering that is not Dilbert-like. There is a need to change the conversation.”


Change could likely come from our favorite pastime: TV. Americans, according to the latest government data, spend an average of almost three hours per day watching TV. And all that TV-watching shapes what we think.

In a study of civic attitudes among a sample of 1,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 49, 44 percent of respondents listed TV as the biggest influence on their views of government; 64 percent said TV shows offer realistic portrayals of government.

Because 40 percent of Americans name TV as a main source of health information, the medium increasingly has been used to convey wellness messages—with reported success. After watching an organ transplant surgery on the series Numb3rs, 10 percent of viewers said the episode prompted them to register as a donor. Similarly, women who watched an ER episode about breast cancer reported they were more likely than a control group to undergo screening for the disease.

TV viewers, researchers suggest, internalize the on-screen world after lengthy and continued exposure—your basic binge watching.

According to Blakley, viewers in some cases form what amounts to an imagined relationship with on-screen characters, cheering their success and ruing their failures. “It becomes real to them,” she says.

Lately, Blakley has studied the influence of Food, Inc., a 2008 documentary on food safety and the agricultural industry. Movie viewers, she found, reported changes to their food shopping habits, ate better, and encouraged their friends and family to learn about food safety—habits that continued in a follow-up survey conducted a year later.

A similar shift might be possible with women in STEM.

A recent study of middle school-aged girls found that the teens identified with TV depictions of strong, competent women scientists on popular TV dramas and that these positive images promoted girls’ “wishful identification,” essentially a desire to emulate the female scientists.

Blakley believes enacting a cultural shift through popular media is “the only way we’re going to beat this thing.”

“Look what we’ve seen with gay marriage,” she says. “It’s convincing people that certain lifestyles and professions are appropriate.”

While it’s difficult to say whether the MacGyver re0make will make a difference, and equally tricky to measure, media portrayals, in some cases, have ignited girls' science-minded dreams.

Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, recalled watching Lt. Uhura man the the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise as a young girl. The character, she suggested, helped “to fuel my whole idea that I could be involved in space exploration as well as in the sciences.”

Years later, she found herself soaring over Earth in the Space Shuttle Endeavor, “feeling very comfortable in the universe.”

“I felt like I had a right to be anywhere,” she told CNN, “that I belonged here as much as any speck of stardust, any comet, any planet.”

And, perhaps it went without saying, as much as any man.