After 18 years at the Faculty of Education Prof Christa van der Walt retired at the end of 2022. She was the Vice Dean of Research since 2021. She left deep traces in the faculty and shared about her experiences.
How do you see a good female leader and who inspired you?
I think that any person who is ‘different’ from the rest of a leadership corps will be able to play a disruptive (in the good sense of the word) role, simply because they do not know or use the dominant discourse. It is therefore always beneficial for an institution to disrupt the leadership corps because it forces new thinking and new ways of doing things. Because there are many women in education, it is not so strange to see them in leadership roles. I do remember that the one and only female professor from my undergraduate years was an inspiration to me. After matric I was in the Civil Defense College in George and the commander was Colonel Hilda Botha. She was impressive. I think that role models are very important, even if they serve as an example of what you don’t want to be.
Did you ever think at the beginning of your career that you would later fill a leadership role?
I never deliberately pursued leadership roles, but many times I thought I could do something better, or make a real difference within a certain structure. I was more task-oriented than people-oriented, and the task is of course only one part of leadership.
What challenges have you experienced?
Managing people and their expectations was a big challenge, especially if there were stereotypical ideas about the role and nature of women. Since I did not have children, I was able to pay more attention to my work and management obligations. This is not necessarily good. I was rarely able to find that important balance between work and leisure. It is true that women often wait longer than men for promotion in academia. This means that most women will only be eligible for certain leadership positions later in their careers. However, my experience with many women within the university is that few of them see a chance for management roles. Management positions put additional pressure on families and if women are also expected to literally keep the pot boiling, it is no wonder that they do not like to take up leadership positions. However, this is also increasingly the case with men.
A void in the school environment and higher education
What does need attention in the school environment and in higher education is the dominance of women and the lack of male role models. This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why there is a higher drop-out rate among boys compared to girls (see the report of the Zero Dropout Campaign here: https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/news/boys-more-likely-to-drop-out-of-school-according-to-research-3d76369e-78ca-420d-9bd3-d2730251268c). It is therefore not surprising that the number of men studying at higher education institutions is decreasing worldwide. I sometimes wonder if the dominant socialization process of women creates a climate at schools that discriminates against boys. The expectations I see from primary and high school teachers are that classes should not be ‘noisy’, that children should ‘sit still’ and ‘behave’ themselves. It’s not the kind of environment that is necessarily stimulating for investigative learning – it’s bad for both boys and girls, but clearly it affects boys more. Is this perhaps also the kind of environment that leads to many more boys than girls being medicated to regulate their behavior in classrooms? A study in 2007 found that, “teachers consistently rated boys with ADHD as having higher scores on reports of attention problems and aggression than girls with ADHD” (Derks EM, Hudziak JJ, Boomsma DI. Why more boys than girls with ADHD receive treatment: a study of Dutch twins. Twin Res Hum Genet. 2007 Oct;10(5):765-70. doi: 10.1375/twin.10.5.765. PMID: 17903118).