Carla Walton from HBO’s Silicon Valley

It’s Time for the Next MacGyver

Why Representing Women in Tech on TV Matters

In the conversation about the serious lack of diversity in the tech sector we hear a lot about the pipeline problem. There’s no denying we need to develop a robust set of solutions that address the many barriers to achieving a balanced tech sector, one that represents the diversity and creativity of women and men from all backgrounds. What’s talked about less is the crucial role the representation of women in tech in the media plays. It’s an important part of the equation.

Within the media landscape today TV has been elevated in a big way thanks to a proliferation of premium programming, new networks and the emergence of binge-conducive viewing platforms. So it follows that we need to insure the characters on TV reflect the diversity we hope to see, someday very soon, in the workplace.

Tech and digital are coming to define our culture more and more, so it’s no surprise we’re seeing this reflected on screens both big and small. What we need to ensure, though, is that there are enough women depicted in these fields who can provide young women with the role models to consider careers in STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics and related fields.

Thankfully we’re not starting from zero. There are some examples out there from engineer Carla Walton on Silicon Valley to scientist Cosmia Niehas on Orphan Black. These women are pioneers, and we have to make sure they are in fact paving the way for many others to join their ranks.

That’s where Lee Zlotoff’s Next MacGyver Competition comes in. Zlotoff created the iconic TV show MacGyver in the mid 1980’s, about a secret agent who solved complex problems, armed with just a Swiss Army knife and a keen sense for applied engineering. Years later — at a time when the numbers for women graduating with computer science/engineering degrees continues to lag, Zlotoff is leading the charge to create the next MacGyver, this time a woman. In his words:

“Women need to be a part of the solution to fixing the problems on this planet.”

He hopes this new on-screen female problem solver will inspire young women to pursue engineering and related STEM curriculum, just like Angus MacGyver did for so many young men.

To catalyze this effort the Next MacGyver Competition solicited over 2,000 pitches for the first iconic TV show with a female engineer main character. On July 28th 10 finalists were selected to pitch their show concepts to an audience and a panel of industry judges at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles. The finalists included rocket scientists and engineers, not exactly your standard Hollywood writers.

While the judges deliberated, I moderated a panel on the pitch and development process with four dynamic women who are keeping diverse representations of women front of mind in Hollywood: Ann Blanchard of CAA, Marci Cooperstein of ABC Family, Danielle Feinberg of Pixar and Ann Merchant of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. Their insights reinforced that there is momentum, but still much to be done, in making women in STEAM a mainstay on the big screen.

L-R: Ann Merchant, Danielle Feinberg, Marci Cooperstein, Ann Blanchard and Katherine Oliver. Photo courtesy of the Paley Center for Media

Feinberg, an 18 year veteran of Pixar who has worked as a Director of Lighting on hits ranging from Wall-E to A Bug’s Life spoke about the potential for characters on TV to teach girls what careers in STEAM actually entail and the continued resonance of the ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ sentiment:

“I think that one of the things that’s become really clear, going out and talking to girls all over, is that there are a lot of misconceptions about what a computer scientist does or, if you’re a scientist, what you do? What an engineer does? So I think having those characters to dispel those myths and to give them something else that they can see is a huge, huge thing.”

Ann Merchant, co-founder of the Science and Entertainment Exchange which helps open up a creative dialogue between writers and science practitioners, echoed Feinberg’s sentiment calling television a form of ‘accidental curriculum:

“Whether we want this to be true or not, people learn an enormous amount from what they watch on television.”

After hearing from fellow panelists, Ann Blanchard, a packaging agent at CAA, recognized the need to advocate for characters with STEAM careers when pitching a new show:

“Sitting here, I will now feel more empowered to pitch a scientist/engineering background when a client says what about (making the character) a doctor?”

Marci Cooperstein, VP of Programming at ABC Family (a network that’s actively depicting characters with STEAM careers), summed it up well:

“These stories are catching on — and the appetite for intelligent programming is only growing, and that beautifully marries with these (STEAM) themes.”

It’s now up to all of us to help these stories catch on. Not only will the girls and young women in our lives be better for it, the workplaces they grow up to be a part of will be too.

Next MacGyver Competition finalists and their mentors on stage at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles

About the Author: Katherine Oliver has long recognized the potential for media and technology to redefine the ways we communicate and foster the economic development of cities, citizens, and businesses. Guided by decades of experience in the private sector — where she launched and then managed Bloomberg LP’s international TV and radio operations — and the public sector — where for 12 years she served under Mayor Michael Bloomberg as New York City’s Commissioner of Media and Entertainment — Katherine is a founding principal of Bloomberg Associates, a New York-based consulting firm, through which she provides media and technology consulting services to cities worldwide.

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