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Words Matter in The Middle

Girl In Hard Hat

Did you watch ABC’s #TheMiddle this week? It’s my favorite comedy on TV, with smart, poignant writing about family life in Middle America. Season six, episode three aired on prime time Wednesday, October 8, and a minor plot line mentioned engineering. In my role at Techbridge, I’m training Girl Scout volunteers to facilitate hands-on engineering activities in their troops, to spark girls’ interest in science and engineering careers in their futures, so naturally my ears perked up and I paid close attention to the characters’ conversation.

Axl, the oldest of the three Heck children, is starting sophomore year at college, and the deadline to declare his major is fast approaching. His roommate wants to be an engineer, and Axl thinks that sounds like a good idea, too.

Axl tells his parents that he wants to be an engineer because they work on trains, and his dad, Mike, laughs at his son’s limited understanding of who engineers are. Mike says, “Engineers are the guys who build bridges” and right then, I was disappointed with the writers I have so admired.

Why did the writers limit the definition of engineers to guys when the line could just have easily been engineers are people? Why perpetuate the single-gender association with engineering that #TechbridgeGirls and groups like the Society of Women Engineers and Engineers Changing the Conversation work so diligently to expand?

A single word may not seem like a big deal, but The Middle had more than 7 million viewers last week. Whether the national audience was conscious of hearing it or not, the show’s word choice in this dialogue perpetuated the misperception that engineering is no place for girls and women, that it’s just for guys. That’s not smart writing.

Messaging does matter, and the writers of The Middle had a split-second opportunity to describe engineering in a more inclusive and welcoming way to many more listeners than I will ever reach. I urge Hollywood writers to be mindful of their messages, no matter how short, and seek out opportunities to describe engineers in a more representative way. Our girls are listening.

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