I’M old enough to remember Doctor Who as a crusty old gentleman in a frock coat. The details are quite hazy; it could have been Patrick Troughton or Jon Pertwee. It certainly wasn’t a woman of intermediate age with a Yorkshire accent and a surprised expression on her face.
The arrival of Skelmanthorpe-born Jodie Whittaker (pictured) as the first female Doctor has set the world on fire. Literally. At more than eight million viewers and counting, figures for BBC1’s opener are breaking records. Even the Hollywood Reporter heralds the new Doctor as a success.
It doesn’t take the forensic skills of a Time Lord to work out that a female Doctor Who is a big deal. And not just for the legions of Whovian (that is a word, by the way) acolytes who know everything about the Doctor Who universe.
Casting Whittaker is one small step for an actress best known until now for her performance in the TV crime drama Broadchurch, but a huge leap forward for womankind.
Could this be the start of a new era? If a woman can successfully inhabit one of the most iconic roles in pop culture, anything is possible. Fashion a sonic screwdriver from a few bits of scrap metal? No problem. Look a huge clunking alien robot in the eye without fear? Of course. Pilot a Tardis to infinity and beyond? Well, you didn’t expect the whole thing to be set in South Yorkshire did you?
What I hope, personally, is that this new Doctor will smash a few boundaries. For years now, campaigners, industry and academics have joined forces to persuade more women to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) professions and associated trades. There are positive developments to celebrate. More women now work in core STEM occupations than ever before. We’ve made particular strides in engineering; there are nearly 12,000 more women professional engineers than in 2016, but the number of women working in ICT, and as chemists, biochemists, biologists, physicists, geologists and meteorologists, has dropped. There are many reasons for this, not least the false perception that girls who like science are weird. My own daughter, Lizzie, ventured to the after-school science club, but fled because every other member of the group was a boy.
Teachers and parents have to get over their prejudices too. I spoke to a teenage girl the other week who wants to study earth sciences at university with the hope of pursuing a career in marine exploration. Her mother, a director in public services, has advised her to opt for a ‘safe’ business degree instead.
However, one of the major stumbling blocks is the serious lack of role models. Actually, that’s not true. There are plenty of excellent women leading research teams and pioneering vital developments. It’s just that your average schoolgirl doesn’t ever get to hear of them because science and engineering is still a closed shop for many people.
Unless you have family members already in these professions, they can seem as mysterious, remote and inaccessible as a far-off galaxy. It would be facile to argue that simply casting a woman in a leading role in a popular TV programme could wave a magic wand and inspire legions of young women to sign up for STEM subjects. However, I’d like to think that it will, at least, begin to change the perceptions of what science actually is and how it can be used in practical terms. We need the media and popular culture to promote this as much as possible.
It’s a delicate operation to pull off – I’ve never been a supporter of tokenism, and I’m not going to start now just because Doctor Who happens to have regenerated as a slightly scatty Yorkshirewoman.
I’d like to imagine a future where women were celebrated for their achievements regardless of gender, but we have a way to go. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that in the same week we met the first female Doctor, we also marked Ada Lovelace Day. This international event is named after the world’s first computer programmer, who wrote the first algorithm for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. You might not have heard of Ada Lovelace, but unless you’ve actually been living on another planet for the last few days, you’ve surely heard of Doctor Who.
Let’s wish her luck for her mission; she may have crashed through the roof of a Hope Valley train, but the first female Doctor still has a way to go to smash a few glass ceilings.