The power of the Pasifika lens.

In October we hosted an online panel discussion about the low number of Pasifika engineers and architects, and what can be done to make the professions more encouraging and inclusive for Pasifika people.

The kōrero took place between five experts from within engineering and architecture – Sifa Pole, Honor Eimi Colombus, Lama Tone, Karina Kaufusi and Sina Cotter Tait, who provided insight into their experience as Pasifika within the professions, challenges they’ve faced, the unique Pasifika perspective and what can be done so our professions are more inclusive and encouraging.

Pasifika peoples are a dynamic, integral part of Aotearoa and have a great influence on our culture through many fields. Although Pasifika is made up of an incredibly diverse range of cultures, many of these cultures share common values such as love, family, collectivism, respect, spirituality, and reciprocity – all which help nurture and sustain community wellbeing – values which inarguably every community would benefit from. 

Pasifika people make up the third-largest minority in Aotearoa, accounting for 9% of the population – so why are they vastly underrepresented in our professions? By not encouraging Pasifika into engineering and architecture, we’re missing a huge opportunity. Increasing the Pasifika lens would help improve both wellbeing and prosperity within the professions.

Acknowledging the diverse identities of Pasifika

Our panellists note the importance and power that comes with being visible as a Pasifika person in the workplace – but this hasn’t come without its challenges.  

Karina Kaufusi is a civil structural engineer of Tongan heritage who’s relatively new to the workforce. In her career so far, she’s experienced identity challenges. “I’ve learned to continuously adapt and manage what’s important in a corporate environment, together with being Tongan. And yes, values of being corporately competitive versus being Tongan can sometimes conflict.”

Sifa Pole is a professional engineer who’s currently Southern Network Operations Manager at Watercare. Sifa migrated from Tonga to Aotearoa when he was seven. He described his experience entering the engineering profession and learning to function as a professional. “I had a challenging time coming into the industry and thinking, ‘do I have to pretend to be someone that I’m not?… I had to suppress my Tongan-ness. The way that I am Tongan and Pasifika, I had to suppress some of that. And as you gain a little bit more confidence in your work, then you bring out that person. And I can say I’m in a lot better space where I am proud to be Tongan.”

Honor Eimi Colombus, a structural engineer and infrastructure advisor who is of proud Kiribati and Pākeha heritage, also discussed how its been challenging to hold space in uncomfortable moments where everyone else looks and behaves differently. “I’ll admit I regularly code-switch throughout a working day, but in those moments, when I hold strong, my hope is that people will see it, and that people will learn to change or want to change”.

Honor also highlights another challenge when it comes to Pasifika identity – how Pasifika are often lumped into one group, when in fact the Pacific islands are incredibly diverse. There are three major sub-regions of Oceania – Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Melanesia includes the islands from Papua New Guinea to Fiji, Micronesia includes small islands located north of Melanesia, Polynesia includes island groups from the Hawaiian Islands to the Pitcairn Islands and encompasses Tonga, Samoa, Cook Islands and so on.

“Those three regions, they are home to people with distinct identities, worldviews, cultures, and languages. For example, within the Pacific, there’s about 1,500 distinct languages spoken, and Melanesia is one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world. In Papua New Guinea alone, there’s an estimated 800 distinct languages and over 7,000 distinct cultural groups.”

When questioned why it’s important to acknowledge these diverse identities, Honor answered: “Because if we’re trying to be truly inclusive and equitable, then alongside our dominant identity in the profession, this vast ocean of diverse Pasifika identities should be acknowledged, with each afforded the space to thrive in its own right, without being expected to conform or trying to get those identities to fit within the dominant identity”.

“Because if we’re trying to be truly inclusive and equitable, then alongside our dominant identity in the profession, this vast ocean of diverse Pasifika identities should be acknowledged, with each afforded the space to thrive in its own right, without being expected to conform or trying to get those identities to fit within the dominant identity”.

Honor Eimi Colombus

And going broader than just Pasifika, Honor states how learning about other cultural identities helps us build empathy and self-awareness. “It improves our ability to engage with other ways of knowing and being. If we start to become more aware and understand these differences and diversities and acknowledge them, we improve our ability to do that. That can bring with it innovation, diversity of thought, and equity, and it creates a safe space for people of diverse identities to exist and for us to contribute our whole selves to the engineering and architecture professions.”

Why we need more Pasifika leaders

Pasifika people bring a unique perspective to projects, especially when it comes to a community impact lens. All of our panellists highlighted that Pasifika have a collectivist nature, vs the individualist nature of European culture that New Zealand society largely embodies.

Lama Tone, an architectural designer and director of Samoan heritage, makes this point stating “My previous research looked at how Pacific peoples, and I’ve included Māori, are communal people, they’re community people, whereas the Pākeha, or the European, is more seen as individual. We’ve seen this throughout archetypical models through architecture and their arrangement of spaces. For me, my DNA is in my community, and my community is in my DNA.”

Sifa states the individualistic European nature and collectivist Pasifika nature make for obvious differences in each culture’s leadership styles, both of which have their benefits. “The Pacific leadership style is community-based because we have big communities and we’re very family-oriented and people-oriented… Western leadership is also a reflection of the Western culture, which encourages a lot of independence, a lot of self-promotion, and Western leadership is also very performance-driven… Overall, I think each leadership style serves its purposes”.

The Western individualistic style prioritises creative expression, prizes the individual, and allows for faster progress. The collectivist style cultivates a greater sense of community, reduces selfishness, and is less likely to leave people behind. With both having their benefits, diversity of styles on our boards and leadership teams would benefit our professions and the communities they serve – however, currently, this diversity is greatly lacking and heavily weighted toward the Western individualistic style.

Increasing the number of Pasifika people can bring a unique perspective to projects, whether it’s an engineering lens or whether it’s a community impact lens, a point which Sina Cotter Tait, a professional civil engineer of Samoan heritage highlighted. “I do think we want to increase the number of Pasifika people in leadership because even at a governance level, applying that lens and that different perspective can yield some very interesting lines of inquiry that perhaps wouldn’t have been thought of if that voice wasn’t in the room.”

“I do think we want to increase the number of Pasifika people in leadership because even at a governance level, applying that lens and that different perspective can yield some very interesting lines of inquiry that perhaps wouldn’t have been thought of if that voice wasn’t in the room.”

Sina Cotter Tait

Sina and Sifa both point out the servant-based leadership being a common style of leadership if you’re brought up in a Pasifika tradition. Servant-based leadership is a style which focuses on the needs of others, acknowledges others’ perspectives, provides support to help reach work and personal goals encourage involvement in decision-making processes and build a sense of community.

But as Sina acknowledged, this leadership style isn’t often recognised by performance frameworks. “A lot of people I’ve spoken to who’ve had Pasifika bosses find that really, really good… It’s a challenge for our HR industry to think about how we can design performance and incentive systems to reward that model of leadership, which I think offers a lot of benefits for employees and for organisations as well.”

Sina highlights that in today’s world, young people entering the profession have very different expectations of their employers – they look for things like inclusivity and diversity and those kinds of values. “Again, it’s another reason to have more Pasifika in leadership, and Māori as well. And I also think we are really just beginning to understand the value that indigenous perspectives can bring to engineering and engineering projects, and I think it would be a tremendous lost opportunity not to try and capture more of those voices and more of those perspectives as we move into an infrastructure-led recovery.”

When it comes to the next generation of engineers and architects, we want it to be reflective of Aotearoa, which currently, it’s far from. Pasifika make up 9% of the New Zealand population and Māori make up 16.5%, yet within engineering and architecture, the percentage of Māori and Pasifika combined sits at just 6%.  

Sifa states if we want the next generation of young Pasifika to become engineers and architects, then we need to have Pasifika role models in leadership positions to inspire them. “I think if we have more Pasifika leaders in the industry, then young people and Pasifika engineers in the industry see that, and think “I can aspire to be that. That’s something that I can aim for, I can plan for.”

Fostering the next generation of Pasifika engineers and architects

As our panellists discuss, to make engineering and architecture more appealing to the younger generation, there’s still a massive underlying problem, preventing people from entering the professions that still hasn’t been eradicated – racism.

As Sifa explains, “In today’s world, racism is a serious topic and one that does definitely need to be discussed. I think racism in any part of the world does prevent progression of any group of people. And particularly in our profession, it can discourage young engineers from joining the profession, and also engineers who are in the industry from progressing in their careers.”

Lama also discusses his experience with racism and the hindering effect it has on diversity. “As someone who’s been exposed to racism in the architecture profession, both directly and indirectly, in this industry, and believe me, it’s not a nice feeling… it rears its ugly head from time to time, and I believe it’s a huge contributing factor to preventing Pacific peoples from progressing into higher-tier jobs and leadership roles.”

As a young engineer, Karina agrees we still have a long way to go, but acknowledges society has come a long way. “Well, from the days where engineering students at Auckland Uni used to mock the haka as graduation lark. People have paved the way for people like me to have, I feel, a safer and a more inclusive space to work in, so I’m very grateful for that.”

Our panellists note the big challenge is around the pipeline. As Karina points out, the key to building this pipeline is sparking the interest of young Pasifika at a young age. “We need to be getting our Pasifika youth excited about STEM subjects a lot earlier than Year 11, Year 12, Year 13… My dad teaches at a decile one school in South Auckland, and with the majority being Māori and Pasifika students. This year, there are only two students doing Year 13 Calculus and about six students doing Year 13 Physics at his school, and both are prerequisites for entering engineering school.”

When questioned about the pipeline issue, Sina also acknowledged our education system is failing young Pasifika people who are getting filtered out before they even get to engineering school. She states there are issues around under-expectation, and across schools, there are consistency issues – both in regards to what’s being offered and achievement standards.

“I think one of the things that we could do, our institutes could use their considerable influence to press for change in our education system, particularly at primary and secondary level. I would love to see pressure applied to our education system to ensure equitable science and numeracy education for all students. That’s one challenge.”

Initiatives are trying to fix the pipeline issue, and all our panellists contribute towards making this change and inspiring the younger generation. Karina, Sifa, Honor and Sina are all involved with South Pacific Professional Engineering Excellence (SPPEEX).

Karina describes the group’s mission as being “to grow a community of Māori and Pasifika engineers to promote the engineering profession in our communities to support our ongoing career success and to increase diversity in engineering.”

SPPEEX raise awareness and educate Māori and Pasifika youth of the opportunities available in engineering. They connect with them so they can see there are Māori and Pasifika professionals within these spaces, exposing them to opportunities available in engineering.

“It’s our job to communicate that there is an exciting career path in engineering, and that they can be the future influences in our industry, the future manager, general manager, or chief executive, or ministry of building and construction” Karina Kaufusi.

Lama himself is a role model to Pasifika youth, helping to foster the next generation of Māori and Pasifika architects through his work at the University of Auckland where he teaches design and guest lectures part-time at the School of Architecture.

Lama noted the need for more Pacific academics and professionals practising architecture that can promote architecture as a career choice. “It should be promoted quite heavily towards secondary schools throughout New Zealand, especially those in South Auckland, or areas that are concentrated with Pacific Island and Māori.”

“It should be promoted quite heavily towards secondary schools throughout New Zealand, especially those in South Auckland, or areas that are concentrated with Pacific Island and Māori.”

Lama Tone

Engineering and architecture are about people

Engineering and architecture are all about the built environment and the spaces we live in. Designing structures, building bridges and everything done under the engineering and architecture umbrella are done to make the lives of people in communities easier, safer, healthier, and better.

As Sina perfectly put it “Not just what we do, but the way that we do it impacts people as well, and so we need to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and who’s impacted by it. And we will do that better if we’ve got people from a diverse range of backgrounds involved.”

Pasifika brings unique strengths and perspectives that when incorporated into projects, the larger community can benefit from, helping to make our professions better, stronger, healthier, and happier. And that sounds like the kind of lens that can only improve engineering and architecture.


Watch the full recording of Pasifika in construction – a panel discussion

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