September 20, 2019

Will a Woman Be the Next MacGyver?

There have been many attempts over the years to address the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers: through college financial aid, internships specifically targeting women and networking communities. But one veteran television producer has another idea: Create a female engineering TV star.

“There are not a lot of models out there that inspire women to think, ‘I can go into the sciences, or I can go into engineering.’ We tend to consider those, stereotypically at least, as male professions,” said Lee Zlotoff, the creator of “MacGyver,” the hit TV show that ran from 1985 to 1992.

For those who don’t remember, the show follows secret agent Angus MacGyver, played by Richard Dean Anderson, who works as an agent for a fictional U.S. government agency. Trained as a scientist, MacGyver solves complex problems with everyday materials he finds at hand, including duct tape and a Swiss Army knife. He prefers using his wits rather than a gun to get out of life-threatening situations.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering have teamed with Zlotoff’s MacGyver Foundation to launch a competition for TV scripts based on a female lead character who uses her engineering skills to solve problems. Participants have until May 1 to enter their ideas, and then three separate panels of judges — including engineers, Hollywood executives and film academics — will vote to choose the best ones.

The top dozen submissions will get help writing a treatment, while animation students from the USC School of Cinematic Arts will help create artwork for each idea. From those dozen pitches, judges will pick five finalists. Those winners will each be given $5,000 and be paired with a Hollywood producer, who will help develop the treatment into a pilot script and then try to generate enough interest with networks to get the show picked up.

“The way in which ‘MacGyver’ inspired a lot of people to go into engineering and the sciences and, for instance, ‘CSI’ encouraged a lot of people to go into forensic sciences, we thought this would probably be a good thing to remind, if not encourage, young women that there are a lot of fields that are available to them,” Zlotoff said.

Of USC Viterbi’s entering freshmen, 37 percent are women, roughly double the national average of female engineering students. About 28 percent of USC undergraduates majoring in computer science are women, compared to 20 percent nationally.

“Engineering is about solving big important problems, like access to clean water, securing cyberspace, reverse-engineering the brain, seeing if we can solve the energy problem through nuclear fusion, for example. These are the important messages we want to send. If we can have a woman engineer actually articulate them in the form of a narrative, of a story, that’s even better,” said Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“We need more of our brightest people going into engineering, and popular culture can play a big role in that,” said Randy Atkins, communications director at the National Academy of Engineering.

“A lot of the challenge for getting anyone in any specific field is seeing role models and people they can imagine themselves being like,” said Limor Fried, an American electrical engineer and owner of the electronics hobbyist company Adafruit Industries. In 2011, she became the first female engineer featured on the cover of Wired magazine.

“One of my favorite emails was from a parent who watches my weekly live show, ‘Ask an Engineer.’ I often have other female engineers on my show, and the parent’s daughter asked, ‘Are there any boy engineers?’ The more we celebrate and spotlight the progress we want to see, the more people we’ll see jumping into STEM careers,” Fried said.

Even if none of the competition winners end up getting their pilots picked up as a series, Zlotoff said the project will have been a success, as it will have increased awareness of the need for women to become engineers.

“We’re going to face a lot of challenges in the coming generations, and we shouldn’t be excluding half the world’s population from helping us to solve those problems,” Zlotoff said.

Zlotoff was born in Brooklyn and lived in Los Angeles for much of his life. He attended Jewish summer camps and was vice president of North American Federation of Temple Youth. He volunteered as an usher at his synagogue during the High Holy Days and observed Shabbat with his children. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and considers himself “culturally Jewish.”

“There’s this great saying, ‘If you don’t feel like a good Jew, act like a good Jew, and sooner or later you’ll be that person.’ I think that ethical exposure has really had an impact on me,” Zlotoff said.

Just convincing young women to study engineering is one solution, but another challenge will be making the work environment more welcoming to female engineers. Close to 40 percent of women with engineering degrees either leave the profession or never enter the field, according to Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She surveyed 5,300 women with engineering degrees and found that many viewed the engineering workplace as a male-dominated culture that was unfriendly and even hostile to women.

“We are what we celebrate,” Fried said. “If we only have reality TV shows that showcase people behaving badly, that’s all we’ll get. A TV show that celebrates smarts, engineering and a female role model for science is just one of many pieces to the puzzle.”

To learn more about “The Next MacGyver” competition, visit