Pacific women are active and vital contributors to the development of their communities. While it can be difficult for Pacific women to assume leadership positions in politics and to some extent the private sector, they often play important leadership roles in community-based organisations, churches and social movements. It is therefore important to better understanding how Pacific women perceive and exercise leadership in these contexts and how their lived experience can inform policy and practice.
Australia Awards Women’s Leading and Influencing (WLI) (formerly the Women’s Leadership Initiative) is an Australian Government program developing the skills, confidence and connections of leaders to drive positive change in the Pacific through delivery of a range of developmental leadership offerings. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program launched a small grant program to support Pacific women participants and alumni in their exercise of leadership during COVID-19 in their respective countries.
This paper explores the experiences of emerging Pacific women leaders who received these grants, and the projects they worked together to design and deliver. It looks at the women’s understanding of leadership, how the fund provided a platform to put their leadership skills and tools into practice, and lessons learned from supporting women’s developmental leadership.
The participating women framed their understanding of leadership and ways of working in distinctly Pacific ways. In particular, the idea of service to the community as a Pacific concept is important to how women see their roles and contribution as leaders.
The women made use of a range of strategies to navigate the space available for them to lead and to challenge gender norms in their communities. Factors such as their age, their family status and the area in which they had grown up could also create contextual opportunities and challenges.
Based on these findings, the paper highlights several implications for those supporting women’s leadership, including: the benefit of integrating non-Western understandings of leadership into program design, and creating a larger role for peer mentoring between WLI participants and experienced women leaders to share knowledge of how best to apply leadership strategies and navigate their cultural contexts.