Being the first: lessons from women leaders

How can Pacific women overcome barriers and achieve high political office? ‘Being the First’ profiles three women in the Pacific who have achieved this goal.

The study explores the experiences of President Hilda Heine from the Marshall Islands; the Honorable Fiame Naomi Mata’afa from Samoa; and Dame Carol Kidu from Papua New Guinea. These leaders identify seven ‘rules of thumb’ as being important to their political success:

  • use your family resources wisely;
  • invest in education – it bestows both skills and profile;
  • keep your community close;
  • develop a reputation as an expert in a substantive policy area;
  • develop strategies for working in a male-dominated environment;
  • know how and when to take a stand; and
  • build strategic networks with the international community.

The reflections of these leaders can help understand how best to support women who are interested in formal political leadership in the Pacific.

Being the First is part of a series of studies on ‘Gender and Politics in Practice’ (GAPP) that was launched at the 2018 Australasian Aid Conference. GAPP research explores how to tackle development challenges more effectively by bringing together politically informed and gender aware ways of working.

Development challenges are complex because they involve power relations and politics, which shape the possibilities for, and pathways to, change. In all contexts and at all levels, these power relationships are gendered – they affect women and men differently, and often unequally.

Making headway on complex development challenges therefore requires work that engages with power and politics and gender issues. But much analysis and action for change tends to look at these issues separately.

The GAPP research draws on a literature review and 17 case studies from diverse sectors and contexts to highlight practical insights on integrating politically informed and gender aware ways of working for change.

“There is a great deal to be gained from these two approaches coming together—mutual learning, better and deeper analysis, strengthened practice and improved results.”

A GAPP briefing note and lessons paper unpack five key insights that emerge from the research:

  • Support inclusive local leadership…

… to bring political and gender analysis together – and use it

… to drive politically informed, gender aware action for change

… to plan for uncertainty and learn through adaptation

  • Shape management systems to support these ways of working.

“Working on gender equality is both an end in itself and a strategic politically informed route to addressing other issues” (CARE Australia: Tackling Poverty and Inequality; GAPP Case Study 1)

Explore the full suite of ‘Gender and Politics in Practice’ findings and resources at

GAPP is led by the Developmental Leadership Program, which involves the University of Birmingham and La Trobe University, in collaboration with the Australian Government. Partner organisations include The Asia Foundation, Palladium, RMIT, Kings College London, UCL and the University of Southampton.

GAPP is funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Gender Equality Fund and DFAT’s partnership with The Asia Foundation.