On July 15, British actress Jodie Whittaker was just another face in the crowded U.K. film and television industry, a skilled but not widely known performer whose greatest degree of public recognition probably came from her very first film role, as a housekeeper and aspiring model opposite cinematic legend Peter O'Toole in the 2008 film Venus. On July 16, Whittaker became a topic of global conversation overnight after being announced as the successor to Peter Capaldi in the titular role of the illustrious BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who.
The announcement was derided and decried among a notably vociferous segment of the pop culture commentariat, weighing in largely via Twitter, on account of a fairly innocuous-seeming detail: Whittaker is a woman. (Alert readers may have gleaned this explosive tidbit from the preceding paragraph.) If you can't recite all 12 of her predecessors in order, or even just blurt the names of the four or five guys to most recently play the part, then your reaction to this news is probably along the lines of a shrugged "So what?"
Hissingly irate naysayers, on the other hand, took the BBC's big reveal — which probably ought to be seen as a modest victory for inclusionist sensibilities — as an open invitation to spew rancor and bile for several hours in defense of their hero's (perceived) essential maleness. (Twitter: Degrading our faith in humanity since 2006.) In big picture terms, of course, the Who-vian kerfuffle is probably less of a blow to the advancement of women in society and more of a dismayingly shrill and embarrassing sideshow.
It's also a sobering reminder that however far we may think the world has come in terms of providing equal opportunities to women, and supporting women's access to rights and status hitherto largely reserved for men, there is still a great deal of work to be done. This is particularly relevant to the information technology (IT) realm, where men frequently outnumber women by as much as eight or nine to one, and where sexist attitudes are often cited as a roadblock to women's more widespread professional involvement
Tech corporations and organizations have, in recent years, taken a number of steps toward creating an environment more welcoming to women. There are a lot of good ideas and honorable intentions floating around out there. It's at the individual level, however, where retrograde thinking and boorish behavior most needs to be rooted out. Not even a Time Lord with a magic screwdriver can change that. Will we all join together to create a culture that's safe and productive for everyone? If you work in IT, then change depends on you.