There was much celebration when Professor Elsabe Schoeman became the first female dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria (UP) in November 2019. But Prof Schoeman herself was at first not thrilled about the title of “first female dean”.
“In 2019 when the deanship came up within the Faculty, it was not in my career trajectory,” she explains. “But I realised that women need to take on these challenges and opportunities. If I did not throw my hat in the ring at that stage, when would a woman be able to do so? Initially, I was not happy when people called me the ‘first female dean’, but subsequently I realised that women like me have a huge responsibility to empower other women. It's not necessary for women to reinvent the wheel, but they should capitalise on the gains made and take their rightful place in society.”
Prof Schoeman was born in Khowa (formerly Elliot), a small village in the Eastern Cape. After completing her secondary education at a boarding school in Bloemfontein she enrolled at UP to pursue her undergraduate degree.
“From the age of six, I was already a boarder, as our farm was too far from town. I think that taught me a lot of independence. My mother said when I was growing up that the one thing she could remember is that I always said I would do things for myself. I am fiercely independent.”
After completing her law degree at UP she could not continue studying full-time and joined the University of South Africa (Unisa) as a research assistant. Subsequently she was able to study for free and completed her LLB and doctoral degrees – while also parenting two children born 14 months apart. “Unisa was an environment where there was a lot of flexibility for female academics. It wasn't easy with two small kids, but I managed to do it. I must add that I had a very supportive husband.”
After 14 years at Unisa, Prof Schoeman and her family relocated to New Zealand, where she joined the University of Auckland as a senior lecturer, and later became the deputy dean of the law school and deputy director of the cross-faculty Europe Institute. She is also an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Germany. “I spent lots of time in Germany researching. My family and I also lived in Germany for a while. I've found Germany to be very accommodating and inviting for academics. I returned to South Africa in 2016 to take a position at the UP Faculty of Law.”
Prof Schoeman says her colleagues in the Faculty of Law have helped her grow in her role as dean. “I derive a lot of support from them. I am also interested in the dynamics of intergenerationality. I have older people in the Faculty that are more seasoned academics, but I have also appointed several young academics in senior positions. I'm quite confident that the dynamics of cross-generational age groups will work out in the interests of the Faculty.”
She says change is still needed in helping women achieve their full potential. “Society is still set up in structures that are male-dominated, and women are still the main carers. During lockdown the research outputs of female academics went down, and that to me is a big source of concern. Space should be created to accommodate these circles of life. Men can also be feminists. They have an important role to play, but the voices of women must be heard.”