Meet the women behind the Southern Africa – Towards Inclusive Economic Development programme

Globally, women are under-represented in the field of economics. Only a third of all academic research staff in the field of economics in Europe are women. In the US the share is even lower. And this share becomes smaller the higher one climbs in the hierarchy. Only 24% of professors in European institutions, and less than 15% in the US, are women.

The Southern Africa – Towards Inclusive Economic Development (SA-TIED) programme is far exceeding these numbers: 58% of the research published under the SA-TIED programme include a woman co-author; 53% of participants in capacity-building activities are women; and, 57% of attendees at programme events are women.

Who are the women behind these numbers?

Faaiqa Hartley

Faaiqa’ s love of economics started in high school — her favourite teacher was passionate about the subject and it rubbed off on her. From there Faaiqa decided to pursue a business degree at the University of Cape Town, and later a master’s in econometrics at the University of Pretoria.

Today Faaiqa is a researcher at the University of Cape Town. She is part of an impressive multi-disciplinary research group that specialises in energy systems and climate mitigation analysis. Faaiqa is also a member of the climate team at the International Food Policy Research Institute — a key partner in the SA-TIED programme.

Faaiqa’s work focuses on the impacts of renewable energy and climate change on South Africa’s economy. Using a quantitative methodologies approach, she works with other economists, social scientists, engineers, and policy makers to identify ways in which the Southern African region can cope with the potential shocks of climate change and the ever-evolving energy sector.

‘SA-TIED provides this much needed space, and does so in a collaborative way, linking local and international experts, policy makers, and communities. This allows for a dynamic environment in which different perspectives and experiences are included,’ says Faaiqa.

One such collaboration under the SA-TIED programme is the South African linked energy-economic model, or SATIMGE. Developed by UNU-WIDER, the National Treasury of South Africa, and a team at the University of Cape Town, the linked model allows researchers to consider the technical aspects of national energy planning and understand how they effect economic behaviour. This model provides a much more robust analytical tool than has ever been available to energy and climate mitigation policy in the country before.

It’s not always easy being a woman in the field of economics. Faaiqa often finds herself in situations where she is the only woman in a room full of male economists. This environment can be intimidating, she says, and it can be difficult to get your opinion heard, which is why having a workplace with women in senior leadership and fair-minded male leadership is essential for women to grow professionally. According to Faaiqa, having supportive female colleagues makes a world of difference.

Despite these challenges, Faaiqa thinks it's important to have a woman’s perspective in economics. Women bring different points of view to debates and often broaden the area of research.

‘Including women in the SA-TIED programme not only empowers them but also provides a platform that shows other women that a career in economics can be interesting, exciting, and fulfilling,’ she says.

Carol Newman

'I think the field of development economics attracts researchers that have a desire to push the academic frontier, but also care deeply about their research and using this research to change the world for the better,’ says Carol.

Carol has dedicated her career to improving people’s lives around the world. She feels, in asking questions that are relevant for policy, economists can make recommendations about what can be done to improve welfare.

In her position as a Professor in Economics, and Head of the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy, at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, Carol has been fortunate to work with passionate, dedicated, and like-minded people.

Within the SA-TIED programme, she leads the work stream on Enterprise development for job creation and growth. Carol and her colleagues try to understand the opportunities and constraints to private sector development and productivity growth with the aim of guiding policy on job creation and economic growth.

‘Economists need to be able to identify and pinpoint at a more microeconomic level what the constraints to development are and what policy makers can do to alleviate those constraints,’ she says.

Looking at the big global challenges facing the world today requires economists to also think big —this is particularly true for anyone wanting to start their career in economics, argues Carol. She encourages young researchers to be bold, to ask the interesting and important questions, and to stick with it.

‘It is true that there is a real dearth of women in economics, particularly in senior positions. The reality is that in economics we lose women at every step. We may start out with a somewhat equal gender balance at the undergraduate level, but women tend to drop off in the move from bachelor’s to master’s degrees and then from master’s to PhD, and then from PhD to academic positions and beyond.’

One positive change we can make is to promote female role models — the most impactful experiences are often personal. For Carol the person who had the biggest influence on her decision to pursue a PhD in economics, and a career in academia, was her older sister who passed away at a young age at the start of her academic career.

If more women are represented, especially in more senior positions, and have a voice that is heard, Carol says, then we set the right example for younger economists.

Amina Ebrahim 

Amina is a UNU-WIDER research associate working in the South African National Treasury. As the SA-TIED programme’s tax data wizard, she leads the management of the administrative tax databases available for use in the Secure Data Facility at the National Treasury. She is the bridge between the senior academic work stream leads in the SA-TIED programme, its partners, the researchers and policy makers that use the data on the ground.

Amina uses her knowledge of mathematics and statistics to make a difference in South Africa — being an economist allows her to research issues like poverty and inequality and put forward solutions.

‘Research contributes to shifting our understanding of the challenges we face in South Africa. With this understanding we can put forward suggestions to address these challenges directly. The process is iterative, we conduct research, put forward suggestions, learn from the implementation of policy, then do further research to see where we can optimize policy for maximum effect,’ she says.

During her career, Amina has learned that evidence-based policy-making is a slow process — it takes time to produce quality research, and even more time for policy makers to digest the research. Regular interactions, workshops, and seminars provide a platform for policy makers to ask researchers for concrete policy input and advice.

Amina’s advice for women and girls thinking about a career in economics is to find women role models and mentors. Since the path to senior positions in the field requires more flexibility from women, it’s easy to get discouraged.

According to Amina, one way to increase the number of women in economics is to ensure gender parity on job interview panels, conference panels, and in collaborative work — something the SA-TIED programme works very hard to achieve.

Mamiky Leolo

As a senior official at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), Mamiky’s responsibilities include managing economic and revenue analysis, revenue forecasting, the publication of various tax statistics bulletins, and interacting with local, regional, and international institutions.

She is also one of the leaders of the work stream on Public revenue mobilization for inclusive development within the SA-TIED programme.

Mamiky’s work stream is dedicated to making individual- and firm-level taxpayer data at SARS available to researchers, and to the publication of that research.

‘My colleagues and I strongly believe that the availability of tax administrative data to researchers and analysts is prompting meaningful empirical research that will lead to more optimal fiscal and tax policy decisions,’ she says.

Not only is the access to tax administrative data contributing to the pool of knowledge for policy, academic, and empirical research, says Mamiky, but it also enables students to do their thesis research work.

Since its launch in November 2017, SA-TIED has given public officials, practitioners, researchers, and academics an opportunity to examine policy challenges backed up by empirical evidence, and a platform to propose solutions ready for implementation by the South African government.

For those who are interested in a career in economics, Mamiky’s first recommendation would be to join the SA-TIED programme — as young scholars need to make use of the opportunities available to them, be willing to learn, and contribute.

‘As much as one’s personal endeavour to make a difference is important, this needs to be nurtured with opportunities and support for all who want to participate. Therefore, setting up research teams across government institutions, research institutions, and universities provides the necessary platform to grow a pipeline with new talent,’ argues Mamiky.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.