Female scientists need screen role models, TV producers told

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The Independent Online

More Silent Witness-style dramas starring women scientists must be shown on television to encourage female students to follow careers in science and engineering, an influential group of scientists and programme makers will say today.

More Silent Witness-style dramas starring women scientists must be shown on television to encourage female students to follow careers in science and engineering, an influential group of scientists and programme makers will say today.

The makers of soap operas such as EastEnders and Coronation Street should also be encouraged to include female scientists as ordinary characters who just happen to work in science to show that scientists are normal people rather than "geeks".

Applications for forensic science degrees soared after the success of series such as the BBC's Silent Witness, starring Amanda Burton as a pathologist, Professor Sam Ryan.

Other crime dramas such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Waking the Dead have also been credited with making science attractive to school leavers.

But scientists and engineers will meet with television writers and producers today to discuss how to encourage the screening of more science-based television dramas starring female characters.

Annette Williams, the director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), one of the organisations behind the new initiative, said that scientists needed to use television to get their message across.

"TV is a powerful medium," she said. "If current trends continue, by the age of 18 the average child will have spent more time watching TV than any other activity except sleep.

"And after leaving school, for the overwhelming majority of people in Britain, science is experienced almost wholly through television and broadcast media.

"We hope that this project will result in more female role models appearing in the media, capable of inspiring future scientists and engineers."

The meeting follows the publication of a damning report into the recruitment of women into science which concluded that, although there are now more women scientists than a generation ago, the increase had merely lifted the figures from "abysmal to very low".

The report, produced by the Public Awareness of Science and Engineering (Paws) Drama Fund, concluded that "little has changed over the past 20 years. What seems to be needed is a major change in attitude and culture."

It called for urgent action to be taken, including short-term measures to make female scientists more visible as role models and more accessible to television writers, to longer-term measures to improve the status and perception of science in society.

The Paws project, which is sponsored by UKRC and six other scientific organisations, was launched after widespread concern about the lack of young people, and particularly women, pursuing careers in science and technology.

Women are particularly under-represented in science, engineering and technology and account for just 8 per cent of the engineering workforce.

It is estimated that an additional 10,000 young people will be needed to fill engineering apprenticeships.

A lack of public understanding about jobs in science, engineering and technology is thought to be a large part of the problem. Television drama is recognised as one of the most powerful ways of changing perceptions.

Television producer Andrée Molyneux is optimistic. "The elements are there in science, engineering and technology for a writer to weave into a compelling narrative capable of attracting several million viewers," she said.

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