Female Doctor? Academia Needs More of Them.

Sunday, 16 July 2017 5-minute read

The BBC announced through a new teaser this afternoon that the next incarnation of The Doctor in Doctor Who will be played by Jodie Whittaker. Setting aside the monumental significance of one of the best-loved and most iconic characters in British pop culture being cast as a woman, I think this will be interesting because it opens up new directions for the character to go. I also think she is a talented actor and will bring a great deal to the character through her performance, even though I personally was not too keen on Broadchurch as a programme. But to return to the obvious, the casting of Whittaker as the Doctor is a great first step for an equal representation of women on television. NHS Million, a non-profit campaign run by NHS staff, tweeted in response to the announcement that 77% of the NHS workforce is female, so they welcome a female Doctor.

In response, I decided to crunch a few numbers myself and find the stats for gender about a different kind of doctor. So, I looked up the figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for staff and students at higher education institutions in 2015/16. Based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations on staffing in higher education, I found that:

45% of academic staff, 62% of non-academic staff1 and 48% of postgraduate research students are women2.

This is complicated by rank:

Only 23% of professors, 35% of non-professorial senior academics and 48% of academic at earlier levels are women3.

And these demographics are based solely on a binary notion of gender. This picture would be vastly more complex if one were to consider a more nuanced field for gender, as well as go through the data and incorporate class, sexuality, domicile, ethnicity, disability or medical conditions. Not to mention, this is just the overall picture, and the internal variations between different fields and disciplines would be especially interesting to consider.

Regardless of the extent to which one can nuance the discussions surrounding diversity and representation by incorporating all these other data points, one thing stands to reason: in order for there to be better gender parity within academia, we need more women pursuing PhDs, more women as lecturers, senior lecturers and research fellows, and a great many more women as professors. So all of higher education points towards the following conclusions: the representation of women as the Doctor is a good thing, that we need more female doctors, and for these reasons we should welcome Whittaker’s casting.

But that casting of a female Doctor is just a first step for Doctor Who: there needs to be more by way of diversity in casting so that the programme’s universe adequately reflects the diversity of society or its audience. The casting of Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, the first openly gay companion, was another good step for the representation of LGBT+ characters on television, but it was somewhat undermined by the way in which her sexuality was frequently reduced to the punchline of a joke about unrequited affections or mistaken sexualities. By the same token, the casting of Whittaker is just a first step, and it’d be severely undermined if the radical step of having a female Doctor is reduced to hackneyed clichés about being female or essentialist stereotypes about womanhood. It’s not enough to just cast a woman protagonist, but the programme must also write her well. The character will require a nuanced understanding of the specific material and social politics of gender within society in order for this to be a truly radical step. And maybe in the future, the casting of the lead characters in Doctor Who and on other popular programmes can reflect a more rounded understanding of other under-represented demographics.

And by the same token, not only do we need more female doctors in academia, but we also need to ensure the conditions of labour and the environment in the sector is equitable, appreciating the labour of women at all levels, and allows both women to reach the highest levels just like men. This is particularly pressing considering certain trends within higher education like the increasing casualisation of work seem to have a disproportionately harsher impact on women, going by the various higher education columns in the Guardian.


1 See table of Staff by academic contract marker, activity standard occupational classification, mode of employment and sex.

2 This includes both PhD and other research degrees such as MPhil, MRes/MScR, et cetera. Figures of enrolments for specific degree programmes by gender were not readily available. See table of Postgraduate students by level of study, mode of study, sex and domicile.

3 See table of Academic staff (excluding atypical) by source of basic salary, academic employment function, salary range, contract level, terms of employment, mode of employment and sex.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Samantha Walton at Bath Spa University for bringing the original tweet by NHS Million to my attention, and for a productive conversation following that.