Professor Hirut Woldemariam: Fearless Woman Still on The Rise

Hirut Woldemariam (PhD) is the Social Advisor for Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali with a Ministerial rank.  She is a candidate for the position of a Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation of the African Union. 

Hirut was born in Debre Markos, Gojjam, and is the first of four to her mother of Debre Markos and father, a teacher from the South—Kambata community.  When Hirut was about four years old her father got a scholarship to major in History and the family moved to Addis Ababa.  The children attended public school.  Hirut joined Addis Ababa University (AAU) and was assigned a dorm with senior Linguistic students whose heated discussions about language and what it constitutes influenced her to join the field.

After graduation, Hirut joined the Academy of Ethiopian Languages and Culture as a Researcher.  Her role in the organization involved developing a language policy, creating words for new ideas and concepts, and developing acronyms usage guidelines.  She also earned a master’s degree. Later, she joined AAU’s Linguistic and Philology Department as a lecturer.  After serving the university for a year, Hirut was awarded a PhD scholarship for a joint program given by AAU and the University of Cologne.  Her thesis focused on analyzing and identifying the relation of an endangered language of the Gedicho with other Omotic languages.  When she returned, Hirut was appointed Head of the Linguistic Department.  Initially, she was hesitant to accept the offer but then asked herself, “Why not?”  This marked her first leadership position, and she was the only young woman to hold such a position at a university.

Heading the department, Hirut engaged in intensive research projects in collaboration with the Norwegian Development Agency-NORAD.  In the effort to prove herself and fellow young women, she engaged in: organizing international conferences; launching the first PhD program in Ge’ez philology, Arabic, and ancient manuscripts; and starting a bachelor degree program in sign language.  In a couple of years, the President of the university, Professor Andreas Eshete, who witnessed her braveness and hard work, picked her for the position of Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, making her the first woman to hold the position.  She was responsible for staff promotion, curriculum development, and handling student affairs.  Aligning with her belief that “hard work always pays back” and “one opportunity leads to the next,” it was not too long when she was promoted as Vice President for International Affairs.  She was responsible for AAU’s international partnership and strategic planning programs.

The Ministry of Education used to organize an annual conference for all public universities’ presidents and vice presidents.  Professor Hirut found herself to be the only woman in the crowd.  She submitted to the Minister and the rest of the participants that had it been in other parts of the world, any decision made during the conference would have been disqualified as it is being made in the absence of representatives of half of the population.  The move triggered the consciousness of the academic leadership and led to the appointment of women to at least vice presidency positions.

Hirut recalls in several instances she had felt out of place for being the only woman.  When she started being conscious of her situation, she challenged herself to be “deaf” to any negative voice either coming from colleagues, the community, or herself.  She focused on her target and gave no room for fault.  Living in a society that gives women small chances to assume leadership positions and to break the glass ceiling, one must stay focused on goals. “The more you keep on focusing on the bigger picture—through time and experience—you will develop confidence and also be conscious of the fact that pressure makes diamonds,” Hirut said.

Besides her role at the university, Dr. Hirut became part of the Ethiopian Public Diplomacy Delegation.  She participated in missions to Cairo to conduct public diplomacy in relation to the GERD.  She was put in the spotlight for engaging the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in an emotional dialogue on the importance of building the dam to tremendously change the livelihood of the Ethiopian people—especially women.  By the end of the mission President al-Sisi told the Ethiopian Public Diplomacy team that with a new government in the country, “Egypt does not refuse the development of Ethiopia and the GERD.”

During the premiership of Hailemariam Desalegn—a time the government was looking for technocrats for ministerial positions—Hirut was selected among the six runners; she was the only woman.  That was also the time the AAU was considering her for a full professorship position.  She succeeded in attaining the ministerial post preceding the professorship.  Her first ministerial position was Minister of Culture and Tourism.

In 2018, when Abiy Ahmed became the prime minister and reshuffled his cabinet, Hirut became his pick for Minister of Labor and Social Affairs.  Later that year, the prime minister appointed her to lead the newly created Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

More than any other ministerial posts she held, being the head of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education gave Hirut the opportunity to work on quality of education, staff development, curriculum designing, and promoting gender equality.  In addition to building the newly created ministry from scratch, for the two years she led it Hirut succeeded in developing a new curriculum for higher education which includes 13 new courses to be given in freshman year.  New courses are tailored to fit knowledge and skills required in the 21st century particularly in technology, language, and history.

With the expansion of public universities, all universities had been comprehensive institutions with no specific area of specializations and providing PhD programs without having the capacity, staff, and laboratory.  Taking a comparative advantage of the location of every university, Professor Hirut managed to differentiate higher education institutions as comprehensive, research and applied institutions.  Those universities around industry corridors are categorized as applied science (polytechnic universities), eight universities became research universities with one area of specialization, and the rest comprehensive.  An exit strategy is developed for each institution to transit from where it is now to what it shall be.

Professor Hirut worked on the revision of academic leadership recruitment directive to require the appointment of at least two women in senior academic leadership positions.  This resulted in more women in academic leadership positions.  After she left her vice presidency at AAU, a woman hadn’t assumed a higher leadership position for five years.  With the change in the directive, currently the university has two women vice presidents.  Hirut remembers one instance where an institution submitted an all-men leadership team to be approved by the Ministry; she declined on the basis that the legal requirement to have at least two women was not met.

Hirut also established a network for women in academia to lift and motivate each other, and to build capacity.  With the support of the prime minster she succeeded to facilitate a training program abroad for 26 women in academia.  In addition, with the support of President Shalework Zewde, Hirut launched a tutorial program for female students.

While Ethiopia is home to the African Union (AU) and the seat for the AU Commission since its establishment, the country neither runs for nor assumed Commissioner posts—but not anymore.  Dr. Hirut Woldemariam is running as Ethiopia’s candidate for a Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation at the AU.  The rigorous application process was the main reason the government shifted Professor Hirut from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education to Social Advisor to the prime minister—her fourth ministerial position.

Professor Hirut identifies herself as a linguist by profession, a language scientist and an educator.  She considers herself a self-made leader who adheres to the principles of collective and participatory leadership and leading by example.  Reflecting on achievements in every leadership position she assumed, Hirut defines herself as a change-maker and a reformist.  She defines leadership to be the art and act of mobilizing people to attain a shared vision.  It is the highest expression of self to serve society.  A leader must be capable to convince and communicate her vision and be committed to it.

Hirut’s life philosophy is, “We are the products of our actions.”  She believes she is the designer of the life she wants, hence, she exerts all effort to get what she wants in all walks of life.  Hirut is proud of all the accomplishments she achieved in her profession, career, academics, family and social life.  With confidence, she speaks of time management.  In partnership and motherhood, she built a loving family.  The professor is most proud of the foundation she laid for the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.  She is proud for being the only woman professor in the field of Social Science and Humanities.  She says there is nothing in life she wanted and has not achieved.

Hirut values hard work, teamwork, compassion, serving the society and giving.  She mirrors hard work and interest in the academia from her father, and spirituality from her mother.  She believes what we respect in life will respect us back, and whatever we do in life with passion and commitment gets noticed.  She is grateful for all the opportunities she was given in life and particularly to Professor Andreas Eshete who trusted her with her first leadership position.

Speaking of the necessity of a work-life balance—especially for women who wear different hats—Hirut said managing her time helps spare time to spend time with family, mentor, guide, and take care of herself.  The support from her husband and their extended family relieve her from carrying all the burdens of life; she is grateful for her husband and their three children.  She acknowledges challenging and difficult times in life as giving her endurance, strength, confidence and self-actualization.

To the younger generation, Professor Hirut assures there is nothing in life that cannot be attained.  One must set clear goals and detailed strategies to reach them.  It is important to know that the journey will not be easy and there is a price to pay, she says, but challenges should not be reasons to recede; rather, they are signposts to change strategies.  From experience, she said it is best not to turn down opportunities; give at least a try.  To make strides on our journeys, she emphasizes the value of silencing negative internal and external voices and capitalizing on self-awareness.  After all, she says, “The sky is the limit unless we limit ourselves.”

“Have excellence as a brand in whatever you do.”

Professor Hirut thinks of AWiB as the first of its kind in Ethiopia and a great venue for professional women in the business and government sector to come together, support, encourage, and motivate each other. Her concern in relation to the sustainability of such initiatives is what will happen to the initiatives when the founders move to the next path in life? She believes that AWiB shall work on the comparative advantage of the fact that Addis is the seat of the AU, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and other regional and international organizations.  This, she says, can be done by arranging associate membership for foreigners, inviting them to share their experiences as guest speakers, establishing partnership with similar entities around the globe, and in setting global agenda.

AWiB is thankful to Professor Hirut for her time.

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