Leadership at the Pacific’s largest development organization – Karen Mapusua IWD2021


The integration of women in historically male-dominated fields in the Pacific in this new decade is being realized at all job levels, including senior management. For International Women’s Day this year, The Pacific Community’s (SPC) Land Resources Division (LRD) is celebrating its first woman Director, Karen Mapusua.

Karen assumed the Director’s role during a challenging time soon after the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in the region in 2020. Her extensive and varied career helped prepare her for taking the reins of one of SPC’s largest divisions during an unprecedented disruption in its work programming and implementation. Karen previously served as Operations Manager for the Division. She began her career as a high school history and social studies teacher in Tonga and Australia and has focused on her passion – organic farming and food – during her more than 20 years of working in rural development in the Pacific Region. She co-founded the Pacific Organic & Ethical Trade Community (POETCom), serving as coordinator for five years.

Karen additionally serves as Vice President of the IFOAM Organics International World Board and has served on the Board of Directors of Fairtrade Australia New Zealand.  She has BA in Arts (History/Politics & Education), with a Diploma of Education (Librarianship & History) from Macquarie University, Australia and a Graduate Diploma in Not for Profit Management from UNITEC in New Zealand.   


Why do you think it's important to have women holding leadership roles within the agriculture sector in the Pacific? 

So many reasons, but I think it can be summed up in representation matters, examples matter, role models matter! I was blown away by the response of young women in the agriculture field when I was appointed as Director of the Land Resources Division. Just simply by being appointed it opened up space for aspirations and ambition to grow for so many other women. I am very proud of the fact that for the first time in LRD’s history, women have equal representation in senior management roles. That said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that leadership isn’t all about the job title – there have been women leading in agriculture in the Pacific in their families and communities, starting small enterprises and so on for many years and their contribution is just as important and needs more recognition.


Do you feel as though you bring different perspectives to the table? If so, what are those perspectives?

Yes definitely! I view things, including work, holistically, as a component of life. I think many women are the same. I approach work and management in a self-reflective way and value factors such as meaning, purpose, connection with colleagues and work-life integration as equally as important as “hard” technical competencies.

I’ve also been told numerous times over the years that I shouldn't expose my feelings at work, because this represents weakness, especially coming from a woman. But I see emotion, passion and compassion as valuable assets, not things to be ignored or hidden. I also have had to step out of my comfort zone so often during my work life that I now encourage people to be bold, to try new things and not be scared of failure. This is a major contrast to the often very risk averse environment of the workplace. 


You've worked to champion the involvement of women in different spaces - the organics movement, farmer organisations, regional decision making. How important is it to you that the voices of grassroots women and communities are heard within the regional and international decision making processes? 

The call “nothing about us without us” rings true here for rural and grassroots women!  Women play a prominent role in agricultural production throughout the Pacific: in subsistence farming to feed their immediate families and in growing cash crops for income, also in running agricultural businesses. Women are an indispensable part of food production and consumption practices in the region.

Yet there have been very few women in leadership roles in the sector nationally or regionally – with some notable exceptions in the private sector and even fewer in the public sector. This means, for example, that agricultural policy is being set, training is being delivered, workplaces are being designed, predominantly by men. Women’s perspectives, needs and priorities will not necessarily be reflected and the status quo will remain. Until women are heard at all levels, we are only hearing half the story.  Pacific women also have a unique voice in the international realm. We have solutions and responses and knowledge that the world can benefit from, and as part of the global community we must contribute.


As a woman, what are some of the challenges you have faced in your own career?

I always feel a bit uncomfortable when asked about my ‘career’…. it makes it sound like I might have actually planed something! But in reality, I have simply followed my heart and trusted that when a door opened and it felt right that I should go through it. I’ve also only done work that fulfills me and allows me to serve.  That means I’ve often been a little out of my depth, had to learn very fast and have been kept humble through making mistakes. I’ve worked in everything from education, to theatre to peacekeeping before landing in organic agriculture and apart from having to get my head around vastly different technical areas, I think the biggest challenge has been to stay true to myself and my own work and management style in different situations when others’ expectations are quite different. Working in peacekeeping, for example, I had military personnel reporting to me….and giving orders was not something I was used to, but my team expected it.  I needed to learn how to do that my way, in line with my values and operating style.

To be honest, as a woman coming into leadership, another challenge is that we come under much more scrutiny and criticism than a man would and much of it very personal – comments on marital status, dress, tone of voice, questions about how we might have gotten our role – it all wears you down. I guess over time I’ve developed a thick skin – but I shouldn’t have too. Women should not be held to a different set of standards.  I’ve actually been asked in a phone interview if I was dressed decently! No one would ask a man that.


What advice do you have for women wanting to follow in your footsteps?

My friends are always a bit worried about me giving advice to their young people because I’m not likely to say all the expected things such as “stay in school”, etc. I’m much more likely to say just be true to yourself – look for work that you love and do it your way, not someone else’s. Forge your own path! It will look different than mine, but it will be amazing.

Also, know that the work you love might change over the years and that is just fine. Find mentors and build a small community of people who will support you – and who will give you a bit of a nudge if required! Always take time to reflect on yourself, your values, priorities and needs and make sure your life is aligning and remember that what you do is not who you are. Lastly – don’t wait to be ready for the next step - be fearless.  A quote I love from Rebecca Ray sums it up “She was never quite ready. But she was brave. And the universe listens to brave”.

I’ll testify to that!


Human Rights and Social Development
Land Resources