February 15, 2017

Super Diverse Women Q&A: Barbara Ala’alatoa

Published in the NZ Herald

The Herald this week marks the launch of Super Diverse Women — a new organisation dedicated to championing the rights and achievements of women from indigenous and migrant backgrounds. Today, we talk to Barbara Ala’alatoa, principal of Sylvia Park School.

Describe your ethnic or cultural background and how this has shaped the way you view yourself and the world.

I was born in New Zealand to a Samoan father and a Pakeha mother. I grew up in Otara and later Mangere where I still live today. I would describe myself as a New Zealand Samoan which always seems incredibly arbitrary to me given the complexity of what any part of that means. If I have learned anything about the labels or descriptions of how people identify themselves it is to make no assumptions about what it means.

What benefits does society garner from more gender and ethnic diversity?

There are so many obvious things to draw on like (dare I say it!) food, dress, practices and a raft of other things.

However, difference is far too easy to spot. I think the thing that we sometimes miss is the fact that the differences within a ‘group’ of people are as vast as those across groups of people. We’d learn a lot by not making assumptions about people based on what they are and instead learn about the perspectives and talents they have.

Many New Zealanders like to think they are part of an increasingly tolerant society. Is this fact or fiction?

At different levels of society New Zealanders are incredibly tolerant. However, far too often diversity of the community is not mirrored in influential positions across workplaces and professions in the country. We have a lot of work to do to start making changes in the spaces that create influence.

Have you faced discrimination, as a woman and/or as a member of a migrant community or ethnic minority? Where did this take place and how did or does it affect you?

When I was appointed as principal of the school I am currently at, a local leader of an organisation announced to a gathering of parents that the school “was really going to go downhill because an Islander had been appointed”. Mostly things like this make me feel powerful more than anything because I know that they just don’t get it and then I look forward to a “watch this space” time.

What advice do you have for others who face it?

Add it to your tool kit if you can – know how much more you know and let it make you feel powerful.

Debates around creating more equal workplaces have been dominated by the gender pay gap and gender diversity on boards or in executive teams. In your experience do members of migrant communities or ethnic minorities also face discrimination in the workplace?

The fact that there is a lack of diversity on boards and executive teams tell us that there are at the very least discriminatory processes. We know this because we know that ethnic minorities generally don’t lack for brains or talent.

What strategies do you think could be effective in creating more diverse workplaces or social institutions?

We have to be deliberate in our strategies to recruit and retain diverse staff. We need visibility of those diverse people in key roles so that our people, our children see this as normal and not special.

How can the media do a better job of reflecting New Zealand’s growing diversity?

Be deliberate about creating a visibility of people in roles that might be seen as non-traditional. Seeing is truly believing. Also, stop using “South Auckland” when reporting crimes and bad news stories. What is that!

Click here to watch Barbara Ala’alatoa’s interview