Scientists call for a little bit of glamour

November 26, 2004

Ally McBeal has inspired a new generation of sassy female lawyers, but we need to create equally glamorous characters to draw young women into science and engineering, television producers were told this week.

Scientists and television makers met at the "Sex, Lives and Videotape" seminar, organised by the Public Awareness of Science and engineering (Paws) group, on Monday.

Annette Williams, director of the new UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, said: "If current trends continue, by the age of 18 the average child born today will spend more hours watching television than any other activity apart from sleeping."

Delegates were told that TV drama therefore offered one of the most powerful opportunities to present role models to the general public - and in particular to young women who are turned off science, believing that it is the exclusive territory of fusty, bearded old men.

But Nora Brambilla, a physicist at King's College London, admitted to the programme-makers that the stereotype of scientists was often true.

She said: "In theoretical physics, there are still a lot of people who look nerdy. I think they do it intentionally."

She said that having a female scientist on television who looked "smart and elegant" would help to make her subject more appealing.

But key figures from the television world warned that role models could not be made to order, and that those who created drama were interested above all in a good story.

Scriptwriter Moira Buffini explained: "If somebody said to me 'You've got to write a role model now!', it would gag me.

"Where does someone like me begin in trying to write a character who is believable and human and who does a job about which I know nothing?"

The audience was shown clips from inspiring programmes featuring women scientists, including the BBC's Silent Witness .

Amanda Burton, who starred as a pathologist in the drama series, is widely credited with causing applications for university forensic science courses to soar.

The Paws drama fund plans to launch script support grants next year for writers willing to introduce women engineers or scientists into their drama.

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