Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i (Photo: Fata Tuiali’i Photography)

I grew up in South Auckland, in Māngere Bridge.

My father, Arthur Solomon, was born and raised in Suva, Fiji. As a child, he missed an entire year of primary school because my grandparents couldn’t afford the fees. My mother, Maretta (nee Vaotu’ua), was born in Savai’i, Sāmoa, and moved to New Zealand as a child. By the age of 14, she was working full-time as a cleaner to help support her family.

Although both of my parents experienced adversity early in life, in New Zealand they gained their qualifications, became business owners, and started a Private Training Establishment, based in Māngere and Onehunga. Over the course of 25 years, their school gave thousands of Māori and Pacific youth in Auckland a second chance at education — a service for which they were both awarded an ONZM.

My parents placed a high value on education, pulling out all the stops to make sure my four siblings and I had the opportunities they never had. They made many sacrifices so I could go to Baradene College, a prestigious Catholic girls’ school in Remuera. Compared to the obstacles my trailblazing parents and grandparents overcame, academic achievement wasn’t difficult for me. I didn’t see it as a challenge — it was the least I could do.

In 2006, I graduated from the University of Auckland with a BA/LLB (Hons). After doing an internship at a top tier law firm, where I discovered that commercial law was definitely not my thing, my first job out of uni was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I was part of a small group recruited from hundreds of hopeful applicants — the only Pacific person in my cohort.

Having a career that allowed me to live and work abroad was the ultimate dream. And, while I worked hard towards that goal, I’m the first to admit I’ve had a privileged upbringing. Not because my parents were rich, but because they gave what little they had to me. Any “success” I enjoy is the result of generations of sacrifice, not just my efforts alone.

Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i, Esera Tanoa’i, and Tupe’s mum and dad, Arthur and Maretta Solomon.

However, while my parents worked hard to ensure I wouldn’t have to fight the battles they fought as new immigrants, I soon encountered my own set of challenges while I was trying to straddle two worlds in the workforce.

In Wellington, I started a career in the public service. My husband, Esera Tanoa’i, has been fully supportive. For more than a decade, he’s been a full-time dad to our daughters Telesia and Tuasivi. As a family, we’ve had the incredible opportunity to represent New Zealand overseas twice, both times in Taipei, Taiwan, where I was an advocate for New Zealand’s economic and cultural interests.

While there, we also met many of Aotearoa’s finest musicians, artists and filmmakers. Rubbing shoulders with them inspired me to tell my truth. Last year, Esera and I started our own production company, Poporazzi Productions, and Misadventures of a Pacific Professional was born.

The six-part web series, which was brought to life by a wonderful cast and crew (including Reina Va’ai as director and Abe Mora as director of photography), centres on Alofa Williams (played by rising star Lagi Farani), a young Pasifika woman climbing the corporate ladder. Alofa constantly bumps up against unconscious bias in the workplace. She faces a triple whammy because of her age, ethnicity and gender — she doesn’t quite fit the mould of what people expect a young Pacific woman to be.

Lagi Farani, as Alofa, in Misadventures of a Pacific Professional. (Photo by Abe Mora)

Misadventures is loosely based on the experiences I’ve had in my career. As a first time writer and producer, this was a scary move (fear of rejection is real!). But I felt emboldened by the belief that this was a story that needed to be told. Much like Alofa, I’ve constantly had to prove that I deserve to be where I am.

Throughout my career, I’ve held a number of senior roles in various organisations — such as Head of the Economic Section, Deputy Director, and Senior Ministerial Adviser. During that time, I’ve been mistaken for my boss’s housekeeper, my boss’s daughter, and on several occasions, people assumed I was working for a Pākehā male colleague, when, in fact, I was in charge.

More often than not, these awkward situations would end in laughter — somehow I always felt it was my responsibility to put other people at ease. Like my character Alofa, I was never fazed by these interactions, and part of me enjoyed challenging perceptions of where a young Pacific woman is supposed to be in this day and age.

When I was in the thick of these experiences which emphasised my “otherness”, I often felt isolated. But conversations with my friends confirmed that I was not alone.

Since we’ve released the series, many people have contacted me to say the message resonates, and it has encouraged them to share their own story. To me, that connection, and that space for conversation, has been the most rewarding part of speaking up and speaking out.

For a long time, I wasn’t sure I could or should call this behaviour out. After all, none of the offending parties ever meant to be offensive. As you’ll see in the series, the antagonist of Misadventures, John From Accounting (played by established actor Gerald Urquhart) is not a bad guy. He’s just unaware. But, as the series progresses, he starts to become more aware of his words and actions.

It’s been important to me that this process doesn’t become a finger-pointing exercise. Unconscious bias isn’t limited to any particular ethnicity, gender, or age group. It’s something we all have, and we all have the potential to do it to each other. It’s how our brains are wired. But once we become aware, it’s our responsibility to retrain our brains to think in a different way.

Some people describe the series as a comedy, but I didn’t deliberately set out to be funny. For me, and many others, this is just real life. But there comes a point where assumptions, like those depicted in the series, go beyond a joke. That’s where cultural misunderstandings lead to incorrect assumptions that have a real impact on career progression and earning power.

An example of an incorrect assumption that Pacific people often encounter is that we are quiet — and this is often wrongly interpreted as disengagement or disinterest. In my view, Pacific people are not quiet, and we are not disengaged. We are discerning. If a Pacific person keeps quiet in a meeting, it could be that they’re waiting for the appropriate moment to raise an issue. It could be for another reason. But the best way to find out is to ask.

At the start of my career, I had a great manager who pulled me aside after a meeting to ask why I hadn’t said anything. He wanted to make sure I didn’t feel intimidated. I didn’t. I had wanted to present a contrary view but I’d held my tongue out of respect.

With that misconception cleared up, my manager was quick to reassure me that robust debate was in the interests of the organisation. We wouldn’t have had this conversation if he simply assumed I was a “quiet Pacific Islander”.

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have been managed by a diverse range of inspiring leaders — women and men, Māori, Pacific, and Pākehā — who have supported me to take up development opportunities and helped me to grow professionally. Research shows that this kind of leadership is a vital component in dealing with gender and ethnic disparity in the workplace.

Unfortunately, there are still too few Māori and Pacific leaders in the New Zealand workforce. According to the Pasifika Public Sector Internship Programme, Tupu Tai, only 17 percent of New Zealand’s top 60 firms have an executive who identifies as other than European or Pākehā. And no NZX listed company has a Māori or Pasifika CEO. In the public sector, it’s well documented that Pacific women are the lowest paid group, followed by Pacific men.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about why capable Māori and Pacific people are missing out on leadership opportunities. It’s not that we’re unqualified, uninterested, or unavailable. What I put it down to is that effective leadership looks different to different people. Traits like humility and service are not typically associated with leadership in New Zealand workplaces, yet in the Pacific context they are among the most valued characteristics a leader can possess.

I’ve been knocked back from a few leadership opportunities in my time, and the feedback I’ve received has invariably been some form of “you’re not ready.” Interestingly, in almost every case, the successful candidate didn’t have the experience I was told I lacked. In other words, we both lacked the experience required, but only one of us was given a chance.

It’s possible that the successful candidates were able to explain their skills and experiences in a way that demonstrated their readiness better than I could. That’s certainly what I’ve been told. But it’s also possible that the successful candidates were able to explain themselves to a panel who reflected their ethnic background and could therefore relate to their experiences and recognise their skills.

It didn’t escape my attention that, of the panels that declined to appoint me, none included a Māori or Pacific person. While I never felt that I had been discriminated against, I did feel that the attributes that made me an effective leader weren’t recognised by the hiring panels, even though my skills were admired by the people I dealt with and the colleagues I’d been leading. Essentially, I didn’t fit the mould of what the panels expected a leader to be.

New Zealand is a bicultural society which many cultures call home. My hope is that more workplaces will reflect this rich cultural heritage, and harness the diversity it brings. In any organisation, different skills and leadership styles are needed, and different ways of operating should not only be recognised, but rewarded. More inclusive work environments lead to more productive workforces, stronger organisations, and better outcomes.

I spent years trying to change myself to fit the mould. That was before I realised the power in breaking it.

 

Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i is an international civil servant and former diplomat. She is the writer and creator of an independent web series called Misadventures of a Pacific Professional, a labour of love which she produced with her husband Esera Tanoa’i. Tupe and Esera currently live in Suva, Fiji, with their daughters Telesia and Tuasivi.

© E-Tangata, 2019

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