New research published this week has confirmed what many Māori and Pacific academics working in our universities have long known. A key finding of  Glass Ceilings in New Zealand Universities: Inequities in Māori and Pacific earnings and promotions is that Māori and Pacific women academics earn on average 15 percent less and are 65 percent less likely to be promoted than their male Pākeha counterparts.

Here, two emerging academics — Dr Jess Pasisi at Waikato University (Niue, Pālagi, Ngāti Pikiao, Tahiti) and Zoë Henry at Auckland University (Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Kahu, Niue, Pākehā) — describe the challenges inside our universities.


Jess in the office of Tāoga Niue’s director, during research work for her PhD, in 2017. (Photo supplied)

Jess Pasisi

Zoë and I first met last year at a conference hosted at the University of Waikato where I was in the final year of my PhD. Having one Niue person presenting at the conference was cool but having two was next level. And of all the things a Niue student might research, here Zoë was doing medieval studies.

Her presentation was insightful, and included critical perspectives on her experiences in navigating this academic space that’s had so few brown people. What was difficult to stomach was the Pālagi academic, in a tenured position, with all the titles, who looked across at the two young brown students and remarked: “How do we get more people like you?”

As if finding a brown student in the Pacific is some kind of miracle.

I remember walking away from that session feeling a bit . . . yuck. Yuck that young Pacific scholars were put in a position where they’re asked to fix or solve problems endemic to these institutions — by people who benefit from the status quo, who continue to occupy space that would otherwise make way for more Indigenous academics, and who ask these questions from the relative safety of their own permanent positions.

With this paper by Tara McAllister, Jesse Kokaua, Sereana Naepi, Joanna Kidman and Reremoana Theodore, there is the further kicker that, even when brown people beat the odds and make it into these lecturer or professorial positions, they will be paid less for the same work.

Getting a PhD is hard — but after the PhD, there’s no guarantee of smooth sailing. In fact, things seem to get bumpier as you navigate the political spheres.

I was fortunate to get a postdoctoral fellowship straight after I finished my PhD but, if I hadn’t got it, there was no indication that I’d get a job.

I know of many incredible Pacific scholars who have completed, or are completing, PhDs in areas like climate change and education, agricultural chemistry, cyber-security, Pacific identity, Pacific health, and so many other important and practical research areas — and yet they aren’t getting permanent positions.

It’s not a case of “once you’re in, you’re in”. It’s more a case of getting a few toes in the door and then being pushed into additional unpaid cultural labour, like working overtime to try and stop as many brown students falling through the cracks as you can — all the while feeling uncertain about whether your position will still exist from year to year.

Unfortunately, it’s not surprising to me that in 2020 there are academic positions that include the teaching of Pacific papers being given to non-Pacific scholars. There seems to also be a long shelf-life for excuses like “there were no Pacific scholars who applied”, or “we couldn’t find any Pacific scholars for the role”.

While universities may tout commitments and policies that will nurture and grow the number of Pacific people in their institutions, the reality, as the Glass Ceiling in New Zealand Universities article shows, is that these “commitments” have almost no teeth and no clear measurements attached.

So I’m not surprised by the article. Even though I studied at tertiary level for 10 years, I’ve never had a Pacific lecturer, and there were no Pacific academics who could supervise my PhD in my school. (The only potential Pacific supervisor was made redundant.)

And it’s not that Pacific people don’t do business, management, or communication, sustainable practice or strategic innovation, because they definitely do.

Even though I’m gutted that, as a female Pacific academic, I’m going to lose out big time to male Pālagi counterparts, it’s not like I can start working 15 percent less. It takes energy to be mad or upset by the data and facts that are so painstakingly made clear in this article.

And, at the end of the day, I’m in this to serve my family and my community and all the brown and Indigenous faces that are lured by the possibilities that universities promise as places of learning excellence.

Jess with her parents Ben and Michal, celebrating passing her PhD oral exam. (Photo supplied)

I fell in love with learning early. I started at Melville Primary School in Hamilton in 1994 before I was five years old because I was just that eager. I didn’t realise my skin colour affected how people saw me until I got to intermediate.

My family had recently moved to my grandma’s house so my mum could look after her while she battled cancer. The move meant that I’d have to go to a new school. One night, Mum took me along to an information evening about the “differentiated learning unit” (DLU, or “brainy kids class”), and within five minutes a Pālagi lady there looked down at me and then told my mum: “Well, she won’t get into the DLU this year.”

Unfortunately, after entrance testing, I was put into the DLU — unfortunate because the Pālagi lady from that night was the teacher of my new class. It was a turning point where I increasingly felt like I was expected to be stupid and that teachers wouldn’t like it if I was smart.

It was lucky that primary school gave me good learning experiences which buoyed me through intermediate, high school, and even my undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

My PhD was the first time that my study brought me closer to my family and community. I’d done volunteer work throughout tertiary study, but most of the time I was doing environmental projects or work that wasn’t with brown people.

As I got deeper into my PhD, I leaned more and more on my family, had more conversations with my dad, and realised that, nearly every time he talked with me, he’d say he didn’t know much, or he didn’t know if it was right or not.

And in my 25 years of experience in the New Zealand education system and in New Zealand society, I’ve found that brown people like my dad are made to feel that their knowledge and their experience isn’t highly valued. If it’s valued at all.

And I hate it. It crushes me that people like Dad have broken themselves working factory jobs in companies where CEOs and executives earn millions, and people can still look down on you, dismiss your knowledge, your culture, your experience.

So, I stay in academia and I continue to push to stay in these spaces because there’s so much that I can see that a university wouldn’t be able to see without people like me.

Because being a Niue woman in a university, researching with and for Niue communities, is my way of telling my dad that his knowledge and culture is valued, important, necessary. That it makes a difference and makes things better for people and planets, and maybe even whole universes.

I accept my bias and I’m willing to say on the record that this universe is better off for having Niue people in it. (You’re welcome.)

The Glass Ceilings in New Zealand Universities article shows how crappy most New Zealand universities are for Māori and Pacific academics. But I’m optimistic that the actions needed to make things right and better can come about quickly. Even the fact that this article has been written and published is something to be optimistic about.

There are some super clear things that universities can do right now. Being anti-racist isn’t that complex or difficult. It’s not complicated either to make sure that people are paid what they deserve.

Zoë and I could write tomes full of the racist experiences we’ve had and yet we’re only at the start of our academic careers. But it would be a waste of our time.

Our research pushes universities to be the best they can be — places of diverse research and teaching excellence.

As I walk across the graduation stage next week, I’ll be the first in my family to get a PhD, but I know that it will all mean nothing if there aren’t more people like me crossing that stage and walking into permanent positions at these institutions which should reflect the society that they serve.


Zoë with her grandfather, Fred Henry, the morning she graduated with her master’s in 2018.

Zoë Henry

When I told my family I was going back to study to start a PhD, their first response was: “Why?”

Slightly disheartened, I explained that it was an opportunity to learn about my Pacific heritage, to move away from medieval studies and try something different. And while I presented my defence, I knew why they were asking “why”.

Throughout my studies, my family had watched and listened to the stories of being one of a few brown faces in my classes to eventually being the only brown face.

I’d listened to my peers and my tuākana talk about their experiences of racism, and then watched them put this aside to mentor us. They helped us navigate the academy with all its ups and downs, to work smarter and to talk louder, but not forget whose shoulders we were standing on.

And while we stood on those shoulders, they reminded us to keep looking forward to our futures, to look back at our ancestral paths and to look around to make sure we were all, every one of us, moving forward and together.

I’d started with my arts degree with a double major in history and psychology and then thought I’d give law a go. But to get Studylink, I needed another paper and saw that classics had some spots left. Why not, I thought. I’d done a year of classics in year 13 and came first in my class. So I enrolled.

But, like most of my peers, I found that nothing in high school had prepared us for the cultural shock of university. Sure, they’d prepared us academically for the level of study and assignments. But nobody sat us down and told us the reality of being in a space where Māori and Pacific students would be a minority, or that we’d be treated like a surprise.

A “surprise” that showed up to class. A “surprise” that had completed the readings. And my personal favourite: “Oh wow, I’m surprised you’re still here!”

My tuākana mentor, Dr Marcia Leenen-Young, helped me navigate these passive-aggressive annoying conversations. She has continued to mentor me from my first year in undergraduate to my first year of my PhD. With her guidance, I’ve published chapters, presented at conferences, and come to understand what it takes to be a Pacific scholar in these institutions.

Zoë (centre) with her tuākana Sereana Patterson (now Naepi) and Marcia Leenen-Young, at her 21st in 2014.

Throughout my academic career, I had many more tuākana like Marcia who showed me it was possible to do better, without leaving my identity at the door — and to all of them, I’ll be forever grateful.

What isn’t measured by our universities is the multiple conversations we have with them around “impostor syndrome”, balancing family obligations with academic expectations, how to do the postgrad things like writing a dissertation and designing a research framework, and how not to punch that one guy in my class who talked about Mowrees as being extinct (Um, hello, I’m right here!).

This was the extra work that I watched our Māori and Pacific tuākana invest in us, the next generation of Indigenous scholars. And while I knew the majority of this was voluntary, I didn’t know just how much universities were taking advantage of our natural ability to manaaki and to build whanaungatanga.

Now, as a result of Glass Ceilings in New Zealand Universities: Inequities in Māori and Pacific promotions and earnings, there are numbers to the stories.

It’s hard to read this paper and not feel utterly hopeless. When you start a PhD programme, you’re given the standard speech about the shortage of jobs in the tertiary sector and to be prepared to leave academia.

Once you’ve completed the PhD, that’s the easy part done. The next part, though, is hard. It’s securing a postdoctoral scholarship/fellowship/thing. But that’s not at all secure. You hear the horror stories of stacking casual contracts, applying for multiple grants, negotiating workspaces. And a work-life balance? Mate, you’re dreaming.

So, what’s the point then?

It’s the end of 2020 and universities still don’t value or even see the level of work that our Māori and Pacific communities contribute to in ensuring that brown excellence is amplified and kept safe. It’s not enough for us to turn up and do our “9 to 5”. That “9 to 5” doesn’t exist for us.

Our work wakes up with us in our homes and in our communities. It travels with us to our offices and our teaching spaces. It follows us around to every meeting that we turn up to as the “brown representative”. And then, when it’s time to go home, it’s the tension in our eyebrows and our shoulders which we try to shrug off before we hug our families and our children.

This “work” is not recognised. There’s the teaching and researching, but there’s also the mentoring and speaking for our communities.

And this is what we see as students. We see our tuākana providing a service by constantly showing up for us, running themselves into the ground, building us into a community. And holding us so that we feel safe and know that we’re not alone.

My family still asks why I’ve gone back and why I’m keeping on with the PhD even though the odds are stacked against me. They know, and I know, that the job prospects are low, and that the racist experiences will continue. And now we all know all the ways in which my work will not be valued by the university.

But we also know that we don’t work for our own independent greatness. So when they ask “why”, it’s because my tuākana fought for us to be here, they showed us how to show up — and, more importantly, they gave us our space here.

Why wouldn’t we be here?


Zoë Henry is of Māori (Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Kahu), Niue (Makefu), and European descent. She is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate in Pacific Studies, Te Wānanga o Waipapa. She is currently researching how punishment has been transformed by contact in the Pacific, with a particular focus on Niue. Zoë’s earlier research focused on punishment in early medieval Christianity and how mātauranga Māori could help re-think these processes.

Jess Pasisi is of Niue (Mutalau), Pālagi, Ngāti Pikiao, and Tahitian descent. She’s a postdoctoral research fellow in Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao, Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato. Her research field of expertise includes Niue studies, climate change, and Pacific and Indigenous studies. Jess recently completed her doctoral thesis looking at Niue women’s perspectives and experiences of climate change. She’s a current recipient of a Health Research Council of New Zealand postdoctoral scholarship that focuses on Niue happiness and wellbeing.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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