MacGyvering the
Gender Gap


A MacGyver Toolkit. Image: Mario Klingemann.

A master of turning rudimentary objects into precision crime-fighting tools, Angus MacGyver inspired a generation of engineers and scientists. The long-running TV series that showcased his skills endures as a cult classic, and as an Urban Dictionary synonym for improvised technological genius. Now MacGyver’s creator hopes to re-engineer the popular character to inspire a new generation of future STEM professionals. But this time around, MacGyver will not be a “guy.”

Series originator Lee Zlotoff envisions a new series – likely the first ever – featuring a woman engineer or scientist as a strong main character. And in a MacGyver-esque manner, he’s come up with a novel use of technology to get the job done. To ensure this next-generation MacGyver resonates with her future viewing public, Zlotoff is enlisting the public in the creative process. The MacGyver Foundation, his STEM-focused nonprofit group, recently launched The Next MacGyver initiative, an international crowdsourcing competition for ideas that depict a woman character who can “out-MacGyver MacGyver.” Other backers include the National Academy of Engineering, the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, and a cadre of Hollywood insiders tapped for creative guidance.

Zlotoff has said he “literally cannot count” the number of times he has been approached by fans who credit MacGyver for their decision to go into science or engineering. Now, it’s time for “a female hero that embodies the kind of engineering skill sets that MacGyver had to inspire young people, particularly young women, to go into engineering and the sciences.” Five would-be screenwriters will win cash awards and a chance to work with Hollywood insiders to develop their script ideas. He said the winning format can be comedy, drama, or action, and will not necessarily bear any resemblance to the original show.

If and when the Next MacGyver hits the airwaves, she will have her work cut out for her. Men still dramatically outnumber women in the engineering workforce – by nearly 6 to 1, based on recent data from the National Science Foundation. The gender gap will not be closing any time soon, either, since only 20% of today’s engineering bachelor’s degrees go to women. But experts believe the media can help change the conversation.

Art Imitating Life

Alice L. Pawley, a professor in Purdue’s School of Engineering Education. Image: Purdue University.

MacGyver’s impact on the engineering workforce pipeline has been exceptional but not unprecedented. Engineering has been a popular occupation for leading characters since the dawn of the TV age. And during the 1950s-60s peak of network broadcasting’s prime time reign, when most of today’s veteran engineers came of age, screens were saturated with images of engineering wizardry both real and imagined. At the height of the cold war and the race to the moon, technical professionals held prominent fictional roles in sit-coms, sci-fi shows, and spy-thrillers – not to mention real-life historic feats of engineering like the televised NASA launches and recoveries. At that critical point of public focus on science and engineering, women were left behind on the cutting room floor. Has art imitated life in TV’s portrayal of the engineering workforce, or has Hollywood helped write reality’s script?

Engineering educators like Alice L. Pawley study this question of media influence from many angles. A professor in Purdue’s School of Engineering Education, Pawley said the media’s portrayal of engineering as a no-woman’s land predates television by many decades. She and her colleagues pored over the Society of Women Engineers’ archive of engineering-related articles from newspapers and magazines to establish a sustained pattern of resoundingly negative references to women in science and engineering from 1930 to 1970. “We failed to find a time or source that identified women with an imagery wherein being women seemed consistent with being engineers,” she says. By consistently placing women in professional situations where their sex appeal was more relevant than their competence, the media of the era continually produced and reinforced the myth that women do not fit in engineering.

As Seen on TV

By the mid-1950s, the Big Three national broadcast networks were in place and producing widely viewed, long-running programs that would define the Golden Age of TV. Few TV engineers led lives as complex and glamorous as MacGyver, but in their way they embodied the rock-solid family-first values that a newly prosperous middle-class America embraced following World War II. Giving a character an engineering job was a scriptwriter’s shortcut to establish his income level, educational background, and practical problem-solving skills – all the things a 1950s TV dad was called upon to provide for his family. The Professor on Gilligan’s Island is a classic example of a male STEM professional portrayed as a level-headed problem solver producing order from the chaos created by his less-competent fellow castaways. The same dynamic was in play in the Cleaver household of Leave it to Beaver fame. Former Navy Seabee Ward Cleaver kept his two adventurous sons in ship shape with a firm by fair leadership style.

My Three Sons and Family Affair shared the premise of a successful male engineer who unexpectedly becomes sole guardian of three children. Viewers get only few glimpses of these engineers at work, but we see enough to draw a line from their strong leadership qualities at home to the qualities we attribute to the engineering profession. And because young girls have rarely if ever seen women portrayed in the same manner on TV, researchers like Pawley have little doubt that it impacts their perception of engineering as a man’s game.

“One of the tricky things about issues of gender representation in engineering is that it is a story of multiple logics,” Pawley says. For example, issues of race and class as well as gender come into play when women are portrayed as either prototypically feminine or “deviant” in behavior or appearance. “I think the only situation can that can break out of these problematic logics will be when we have an ecosystem of women portraying engineers in a variety of gendered, raced, and classed ways," she says. "Couldn’t that be a TV show?”

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

It’s time for a female hero that embodies the kind of engineering skill sets that MacGyver had to inspire young people, particularly young women, to go into engineering and the sciences.

Lee Zlotoff, creator of MacGyver


August 2015

by Michael MacRae,