Ngaire Woods Profile
Ngaire Woods (New Zealand & Balliol 1987) is the Founding Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government and Professor of Global Economic Governance at the University of Oxford. She founded and is the Director of the Global Economic Governance Programme, and she co-founded the Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellowship programme. Ngaire has served as an advisor to the IMF Board, the UNDP’s Human Development Report, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government. She has also been a member of the IMF European Regional Advisory Group and the Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council. She holds a DPhil and MPhil in International Relations from Oxford, and a BA in economics and LLB in law from the University of Auckland.
Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student? What experiences were significant for you?
Ngaire Woods: Coming to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship was an almost inconceivable luxury for me. I worked my way through undergraduate degrees so I was used to the idea that if I was going to study, I had to pay for it. So, in a very basic sense, this was an opportunity to be a pure intellectual and I absolutely loved it for that.
It was also a different experience for me because I decided when I arrived in Oxford to take the back seat. I think I first became Class Captain when I was five or six years old and from that time on I had always been the ‘leader of my pack’ so to speak—the captain of my hockey team or the president of my student body. So, I decided that I just wanted to use my time at Oxford to step back, to be a reflective person, to read incredibly widely, to think, to engage, and to not lead. That was really interesting.
What I loved most about Oxford is that it is a sort of ideology-free zone. You’re expected to take one position one day and the other position the next. That is very different from most countries and most universities where you’re put in a box quite quickly—you’re either right wing or you’re left wing or you’re a feminist or you’re not a feminist, and then everything you think must conform to one kind of identity. Oxford is a place where what matters is purely the logic and quality of the argument—and if you’re going to argue Marx one day, then you must argue Hayek the next. That is oxygenating for anyone with a mind they want to use.
Rhodes Project: How did you become interested in international relations, global economic governance, and public policy?
Ngaire Woods: From as far back as I can remember, my passion has always been government and public policy. I have a pretty deep sense of justice and injustice that drives me and government struck me from quite a young age as the way do things on a larger scale to advance social justice.
International relations was a complete accident. Previously, I had studied economics and law, and wanted to continue both because they struck me as highly relevant to government and public policy, but Oxford did not permit that at the time. So I literally fell into international relations because it was the only degree which on paper permitted you to do some international law and some international economics.
Rhodes Project: How were you thinking about your professional and personal life as a graduate student? In what ways has the actual trajectory matched or veered from these earlier plans?
Ngaire Woods: I intended to come to Oxford to do my Masters and then go back to New Zealand to engage in government directly. I did not intend to stay in Oxford and I certainly did not intend to be an academic. For my personal life, I also felt quite strongly that marriage would be a bad idea—that marriage would put me in a box, make me smaller than I am, and that therefore this would be a bad deal. In my early 20s, I would have said, “Of course I would never get married. Why would I put myself in a box when I’m free as a bird to be everything I want to be?”
So, I did not intend to be an academic and I was pretty opposed to marriage, and now I’m an academic and I’m very happily married. But I’m an academic that has pursued a slightly unusual academic path because I love building things, and I’m in a marriage that doesn’t make me smaller than I am.
Rhodes Project: Reflecting back on your experiences, what advice would you give to women who are in the early stages of their careers?
Ngaire Woods: Be bold. It’s super simple advice. Be aware that women—as a generalization—usually stop and ask, am I really qualified enough to do that? Isn’t there somebody better? Am I ready for that? There is a whole series of questions that on average women ask that on average men don’t. My absolute advice is to be bold. If it’s in your sights, go for it.
I’m really lucky to have had on occasion people—actually, often men—who have said to me, be bold and go for it. For the very first book I published, I thought, well, I’ve only been an academic for a year and I’ve got this great idea for this book but I’d better do it with somebody who’s very senior and well established. When I talked to the editor at the Oxford University Press, he said, “You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve got a very clear idea. It’s a totally great one. Why would you bring someone else on?”
So be bold. And encourage your friends to be bold.
Rhodes Project: What have been some of the most personally significant projects you have worked on in your career?
Ngaire Woods: I would go back to a slightly crazy year of my life. I was teaching at Oxford, but I had also been presenting radio documentaries for the BBC for four years as a part time project. And then the BBC invited me to do my own television series on public policy. In that same time period, I did some work as advisor to the developing countries in the IMF.
Doing the two things at the same time was a very interesting contrast. One was very public—having a TV series on BBC at prime time and receiving a ton of feedback from the world—and the other was quiet advisory work, all behind the scenes, but very strategic and impactful.
At the end of that period, I deliberately took myself away from the noise of people’s praises. I sat down and asked myself what I found genuinely and deeply rewarding, and it was absolutely not the television series. That was a really important moment because it made me redirect my priorities and resources into what was more rewarding to me. So, my advice is to not live all the time in public noise, public acclaim, parental approval or whatever external factors pull you. The applause of everybody around you is not a good indicator of how satisfying something is for you.
Rhodes Project: What prompted you to establish the Blavatnik School of Government?
Ngaire Woods: The Blavatnik School of Government is the part of Oxford that I would have loved when I was a Rhodes Scholar from New Zealand, passionate about public policy and government. Before founding the school, I had also been developing the Global Economic Governance Programme and working with governments to get their economic policies, development policies and approach to international institutions right. This gave me a real sense of where academic research can actually help governments and have an impact. As academics, we are often the only ones coming to the table without stakes or the need for funding—we can serve as an independent source of information, evidence and advice.
Oxford seemed to be a university that could make an even bigger contribution to governments if we could build a school of government. I was also looking around the world at Master of Public Policy programs and saying, “Couldn’t we all try to do a bit better? Couldn’t we all try to approach students differently, build a different kind of curriculum and try to keep improving it?” Those are the sorts of things that drove me to create Blavatnik. And just the annoyance that growing up in New Zealand, a colony of Britain, and studying international relations, I was constantly being told that when it comes to policy, you are too small to be significant. You should get in line behind a large power. Just do it the American way or the British way. That is just galling because so many other places are getting policy right in different ways.
Rhodes Project: Who have been your mentors or role models, professionally and personally? How have they shaped your thinking?
Ngaire Woods: I’ve had many role models but there were a few female professors in my law school in New Zealand who I think were important not just because they were fine thinkers and fine policy makers, but because there is something very important about being a female student and seeing female professors ahead of you. One was Nadja Tollemache who became an Ombudsman in New Zealand—she set exhilaratingly exacting expectations of us. Others included Margaret Wilson who became Attorney General, Jane Kelsey who was a fearless radical, and Julie Maxton, now Executive-Director of the Royal Society. Having female role models raises your sights in a completely subconscious way. If there had been absolutely no female professors in my law school, it would have slightly dampened my ambition.
Rhodes Project: What books have been transformative for you?
Ngaire Woods: Books have definitely transformed me. When you are sitting on a farm in the south island of New Zealand, the books you read transport you to other places, to other times, to extraordinarily rich societies—they take you through time and space and culture. And I think fiction is so important because it reminds us of empathy and humanity. Whether it is Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, or the great Russians from Sholokhov through to Tolstoy, great fiction keeps opening your eyes to new things.
Then of course there are all the non-fiction books by great thinkers which are quite obvious for anyone who is in the world of thinkers. At Oxford, I just sat down and read the canons of political theory and political philosophy—this helped me join up what I had already read in New Zealand while studying law and economics and thinking about politics.
Rhodes Project: What motivates you and inspires you at this point in your career?
Ngaire Woods: What inspires me is seeing governments doing better. Government is very difficult to get right. I mean, if it were not difficult for governments to do their work, we would not need government—we could just have firms and communities self-governing themselves. It is precisely because things break down, because there is conflict in society and because people have different needs and interests that clash, that we need government. It is necessarily difficult.
Given that, what inspires me are examples and evidence that there are ways to do better. Because the impact of government doing something a bit better is huge—it is bigger than the impact of anyone else doing something a bit better. Likewise, the negative impact if governments get it wrong is substantial. If we take it piece by piece, we can improve government, and in doing so, we can improve human wellbeing.
Rhodes Project: What steps can we take to address the gender achievement gap?
Ngaire Woods: My very obvious advice to female Rhodes Scholars is that you’re going to be asked more and more in your life to suggest people for opportunities. Just be aware that almost every name that other people suggest is going to be male. I’m a ferocious egalitarian who would prefer to act in a gender-blind way. But I sit on loads of boards and quite recently, when we were asked to propose names, the names every other board member proposed were all male and I was the only one proposing female names.
So I have my own little golden rule: if I’m asked for six names, the first three I write down are going to be women. My conviction is that there are just as many talented, brilliant women of judgment out there as there are men, but they do not spring to mind as quickly—there are a lot of biases we are working against that place men in a favorable light. Evidence even shows that in a meeting, people will generally attribute ideas that have been put forward to the men in the room, even if they have been clearly presented by a woman.
And it’s not about simply doing a favor to other women. It’s about doing the right thing as a professional. The evidence that you need diversity to do well is absolutely clear. So, if you come up with names of women and no one else does you’re actually doing your professional duty better than somebody else. Now, I actually think you should always help other women as well. Do both.
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