Economics faculty greets first female dean

Professor, wife, mother and now, dean. The hardworking professor Ingrid Woolard, formerly from the University of Cape Town, was recently appointed as the first ever female dean at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of economic and management sciences.

She spoke with Arleen Stone about her achievements, hopes for South African universities and about being a woman in a maledominated field. Sindiso Dube took photos.

“I think I can hold my own! I have always worked in male-dominated departments. I was the second female academic staff member ever to have been appointed in the economics department at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the first to take maternity leave.”

Not only can the highly educated Woolard proudly state that she was appointed as lecturer and the first female to fill the seat of dean of economic and management sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU), but all the while she remains a wife and mother of two.

Her love for economics, finance, research and statistics takes her back to her grandfather and uncle, who both achieved PhD’s in economics, and her inspiring academic father.

“My career choices weren’t terribly original!” she laughs.

Although she says she mostly works and has little time in the way of hobbies, she does, like the majority of Stellenbosch inhabitants, love food and wine.

“Luckily my husband, Chris, is an amazing cook so I am very spoilt.”

Her husband also shares her academic lifestyle as a chemist who lectures materials engineering at UCT. This is also where they met, and they have been together ever since 1992.

A life changing opportunity knocked on her door in 1994 when she received the opportunity to work at UCT’s Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) to help produce South Africa’s very first national household survey.

“The ANC government-in-waiting had recognised the need to establish a baseline picture of living standards in South Africa at the time of the transition.”

It was here that she discovered the “profound value” of micro data analysis to answer research questions for policy-making. From here she never looked back.

“I love working at the intersection of rigorous statistical analysis and social science that makes a difference,” she explains.

For her, research is a critical part of raising the international and national profile of a university, while also having a positive effect on the quality of teaching, as researchers who strive to “work at the cutting edge of their disciplines are able to bring that into the lecture hall.”

Her journey in economics and statistics started with a BSc in Mathematical statistics and economics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, an Honours in Economics at UNISA, all while working for the National Treasury in Pretoria, and a Masters and a PhD at UCT.

Woolard previously worked at UCT for almost 13 years, in which time she served as the dean of the faculty of commerce and professor of economics. She succeeded professor Stan du Plessis, who became the chief operating officer of SU last year.

One constant in her work and her future at SU, she explains, is her future-orientated focus with emphasis on transformation, equality and research.

“I’m excited to be able to bring the experience and learning from one institution into another – I think there is a lot to be gained from fresh thinking. I am also keen to foster greater collaboration between all the Western Cape universities.”

Although she does not feel that there are any “old-fashioned notions about the roles of men versus women” at SU, she remains adamant about transformation, among both staff and students.

“That is not to say that we don’t need to ramp up our efforts to transform, in terms of race as well as gender – at all levels within the university sector. We need aggressive recruitment and retention strategies to promote staff  diversity,” explains Woolard.

“We need to recruit the brightest and the best talent to come and work here and that will only happen if the institutional culture is vibrant, welcoming and inclusive.”

She also says the increase in women in economics and hard sciences is essential in creating a welcoming atmosphere for female students. To motivate them and to demonstrate that women can belong in these fields.

According to Woolard, SU has very strong research capacity in the areas in which she works and therefore she aims to create strong research collaborations, especially with younger researchers that can “do the heavy lifting on the new
techniques” while she helps to shape their research direction.

In a university statement SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor, professor Wim de Villiers, expressed his delight at Woolard’s appointment at the university’s largest faculty.

“She is an internationally recognised and respected academic and will bring further management experience to the university. She will add significantly to our future focus as we embark on our second century as a leading public university in South Africa”.

In the same statement, Woolard expanded on what she believes are the core elements of a successful faculty: “We need to push harder on improving access and the provision of enhanced financial and learning support for students from poor and marginalised communities. And once a student is admitted, we have a responsibility to provide an enabling environment for student success. The university cannot be a revolving door. We need to make this faculty at SU a first-choice institution for school-leavers from all language and social backgrounds.”

While continuing her work at SU, Woolard leaves few time to rest. She will continue to collaborate with researchers at UCT and elsewhere in South Africa, as well as across the world. She will also be co-supervising several PhD students at UCT.

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