New Zealand Law Society - Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i, Chief Philanthropic Officer at the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation

Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i, Chief Philanthropic Officer at the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation

We spoke to Tupe about her return to New Zealand, diversity in the legal profession, and winning the Diversity award at the New Zealand Women of Influence awards in 2020.

Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i has been at the Borrin Foundation for just over a year, following 15 years of working in policy, including ten years representing New Zealand overseas. After studying law at university Tupe was drawn to the world of policy and diplomacy, starting her career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Returning to New Zealand in 2020 she has taken a strong stand in championing and leading conversations about what genuine diversity and inclusion looks like from a Pasifika perspective. In 2020 she won the New Zealand Women of Influence Award for Diversity.

Photo of Tupe Solomon Tanoa'i
Tupe Solomon Tanoa'i

The Borrin Foundation’s mission is to support legal research, education and scholarship to make a difference to the lives of New Zealanders through the law - how does it feel to be back in the legal world? 

I’m really happy to be back. Working at the Borrin Foundation gives me a glimpse of what could have been! I find it very rewarding to be able to come at the law from the perspective of looking at what the problems are in the system and working with people who are coming up with solutions.

I absolutely loved my time at law school – I was quite academically inclined so I loved to study. But when it came to getting a job it wasn’t actually clear to me how I could become a lawyer. I spent some time clerking but ended up moving into policy quite quickly.

At the time I was looking for a career path I found it difficult to know what route to take into the law as I didn’t actually know many lawyers at that stage in my life.

There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity in the legal profession – do you see much change now from when you first came out of law school?

I feel like things have changed in the sense that we now have more Māori and Pasifika people as role models, although there is still so much more to be done to encourage more diversity in the profession, and more diverse appointments to top roles. People in general are speaking up more about their experience of being ‘othered’. I’m finding there are more opportunities to have open and honest conversations about the discrimination and unconscious bias that people face, and the feelings of isolation that come with being a minority. There are also more support programmes such as the Law Society’s mentoring programme and intern programmes like Tupu Toa and Tupu Tai. I feel like we have come some way but we still have a very long way to go.

It is always disappointing to hear Māori and Pasifika lawyers talk about times when fellow lawyers have wrongly assumed they were not lawyers, particularly when appearing in Court. How can all of us work to deal with unconscious bias and to check ourselves before acting on assumptions?

The first thing I would say is that this has been and continues to be a learning journey. In my experience there’s a difference between unconscious bias, and knowingly treating people differently on the basis of their race – the latter is racism, which can be addressed through formal complaints processes.

Unconscious bias on the other hand is more subtle, it is something we all have and is quite often done without any intent to offend, even though the result may be offensive. It is our brain taking a shortcut, it is meant to help us process information quickly, but this can often lead us to making incorrect assumptions about people. Becoming aware that we have these biases and then figuring out why you have them is a good first step.

I have had encounters where people have made incorrect assumptions about me. Throughout my career, I’ve constantly had to prove that I deserve to be where I am. And even when you’ve learnt about the science behind unconscious bias it is still hurtful to be on the receiving end. Those experiences really fuelled me to speak openly to educate people about why we tend to categorise others, and what we can do to train ourselves to think differently.  

One of the best ways to try to shift those biases is to learn more about different people – consume alternative media. Ask yourself why you have made a wrong assumption – what led you to have that view? There are books and courses that will help you to address your bias, but a simple thing you can do right away is to watch Māori and Pasifika media where you’ll get a much broader sense of the rich diversity of stories that Māori and Pasifika have to tell.

What about at a system level – what needs to change?

To create more inclusive environments, it has to be something that is really important to the leadership of an organisation. In this day and age you do have to be considering a diverse range of perspectives in your decision making. Make sure you don’t have blind spots and are making the best decisions for your organisation. Prioritise and set a good example. Check for bias in things like your hiring – are you hiring people who just look like the leadership team?

Make sure you have inclusive practises – one of the things when I clerked was that a lot of the team building activities were held outside of normal working hours which excludes a whole range of people. That’s a simple but effective thing you can do to make people feel included – that you carve out time during the working day for those social interactions.

Another effective change is just to listen. I’ve heard people say diversity and inclusion is too hard and that you can’t cater to everyone. One of the managers I’ve had was brilliant at just listening. She wasn’t an expert, and didn’t know about Pacific culture but just listened to me about what I could bring to the table and what my strengths could bring to the organisation. Being open and having conversations and listening to people of different ethnicities is  key.

One of the misconceptions of Pacific people, is that when we’re quiet it’s because we are disengaged, or don’t know enough about a topic or don’t care. For me Pacific people are very discerning, and we value relationships so much. In my experience working in the Pacific and in Pasifika communities it’s not what is said in a meeting that will get you over the line, it’s the relationship of trust that is created before that meeting ever takes place. I feel that is a strength for Pacific people because we tend to build relationships for the long-term, not just for a particular deal or transaction.

Having an inclusive culture is finding out the different strengths of your staff and then how to get the best out of them. This model where we all turn up to the meeting and the loudest person gets noticed means we might be missing out on a lot of valuable ideas. Find a way to utilise the strengths of everyone in your team, rather than only valuing one type of contribution.

A final thought is for organisations to set diversity and inclusion goals for themselves and then use data to see what’s happening in things like recruitment, career progression, leadership and salary and measure if you’re achieving those goals.

What advice do you have for students and young lawyers from Māori and Pacific backgrounds?

Even when you enter spaces where there are very few other people who look like you, you absolutely belong and deserve to be there.

The journey that I have been on is that I have had to change myself to fit the mould, but it was only when I embraced the parts of myself that are different that my career took off and I realised that my difference was my advantage.

Because I was suppressing part of who I am I wasn’t operating at my full capacity. I spent so much time focussing on my weaknesses that I wasn’t harnessing the unique leadership characteristics I bring as a Pacific woman. For ages I was one person at work and another person at home and I was never comfortable with that.

Throughout my career I’ve been regarded as a quiet person. I’ve actually had coaching to train me out of this! It took me a while to realise that listening was my strength. Many people dismiss it as a “soft skill”. I now regard it as my super-power. I hope that by sharing my story people get the message you can be quiet and influential!

Last year you were one of the winners in the Women in Influence Awards – what was that like?

It was incredible. Just being in the same room as all of those trailblazing women was recognition enough. When I heard my name announced it felt unreal. I am conscious that any success I have had is not the result of my efforts alone, it’s the result of generations of sacrifice. The sacrifice of my grandparents who left their beloved islands for better opportunities in New Zealand, my parents who emphasised the value of education, and my siblings who went straight to work from school to help pay my school fees. Not to mention my husband who has been a stay-at-home Dad to our daughters for 13 years. It has been a real collective effort, so being able to take my family up on stage to accept the award together meant a lot to me.

For all the women at the Awards, getting that recognition was important because it amplifies our voices and the work we are doing. Since the Awards I’ve made some good connections and it’s given me a bigger platform to talk about these issues. 

What attracted you to working at the Borrin Foundation?

The very nature of the Foundation is inspiring to me – it was established by a very generous gift from the late Judge Ian Borrin and was set up in memory of his parents who moved to New Zealand as immigrants before the Second World War. They became successful business people but were always conscious that living in a free society allowed them to thrive.

I really love my job with the Foundation as I get to go out and talk to different people to see what they’re doing to bring about transformative change in the law. It’s humbling to work alongside people who are doing such great work that will have a practical impact on the lives of New Zealanders.

What have been some of the highlights from your first year with the Foundation?

Every grant we gave last year was a highlight for me!

But since I’ve been given the opportunity to highlight two grants, I’ll mention the work we are supporting that will have an impact on new lawyers coming into the profession.

Last year we funded Phase Two of the Inspiring national Indigenous Legal Education for Aotearoa New Zealand’s LLB degree. This project is being led by Dr Jacinta Ruru and Māori academics from across the six law schools. It is about strengthening the ability for Māori law to become a firm foundational component of legal education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

A project I’m really passionate about is looking at how we can better support Pasifika students in law schools and then into the legal profession. We still have far too few Pasifika lawyers. The project is being led by Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban and seeks to bring together academics, students, graduates, legal practitioners, and policy makers from across the country to take coordinated action to identify the barriers to Pasifika in law schools and recommend interventions for change. Again, this project feels like it’s coming full circle for me – taking me back to my own experiences of studying law. I hope it will support more diversity in law schools and in the legal profession.

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