She’s trilingual, has a PhD and loads of work experience. So why was getting a job in Canada an ordeal?

Ongoing barriers of note:

With a PhD and eight years of project management experience, Hala El Ouarrak didn’t expect finding a job would be that hard in Canada.

Before the Moroccan woman arrived in Toronto in 2019, she took part in all the pre-arrival settlement services and employment counselling that were available to soon-to-be newcomers. She was assured her skills and experience were sought after in the Canadian job market.

“I did everything to the letter to make sure that I’m not missing anything when I get here. The feedback was I wouldn’t have any problem finding a job, and all I would need would be a Canadian phone number for employers to reach me,” said El Ouarrak, whose doctoral degree is in applied math and automatic control engineering.

Instead, the 31-year-old worked as a sales account manager at a shoe store and teaching statistics on a side as a private tutor, while “upgrading” her CV by acquiring four additional Canadian project-management credentials. (Some of El Ouarrak’s struggle came during the pandemic’s disruptions, but she says the number of job postings wasn’t affected.)

“It actually took me two years to get back to my field,” said El Ouarrak, now an IT consultant and part-time lecturer in project management and data analysis at Northeastern University’s Toronto campus.

A new study suggests this sort of problem has been an issue for years — that many highly skilled and educated female immigrants in Canada are facing immense disparities in employment outcomes due to employer biases, gender-based barriers and other factors.

“Immigrant women face distinct challenges in entering and advancing in the Canadian labour market. They encounter downward career mobility and underemployment relative to their education and professional backgrounds,” says the study by Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC).

“Data also shows that the earnings of immigrant women, especially those who are racialized, lag behind those of immigrant men and Canadian-born women, and their unemployment rate is higher.”

Based on an online survey of 365 immigrant women in Greater Toronto — two-thirds with at least a master’s degree — and subsequent interviews, researchers found that 83.8 per cent of respondents had taken at least one of the following measures to “fit” the culture or expectations of Canadian employers:

  • 57.5 per cent had downgraded their stated educational achievements and/or experience to not appear overqualified for a position;
  • 43 per cent had accepted unpaid work or internships in a role related to their field of expertise to gain “Canadian experience”;
  • 21.9 per cent said they had changed or shortened their name to sound “more Canadian”;
  • 15.3 per cent sought training to help change their accents;
  • 13.7 per cent of respondents changed their appearances to make their looks more acceptable to “Canadian culture.”

“The compromises some immigrant women have to make to start their careers in Canada is in contrast to the high value Canada’s points-based immigration system places on their skills,” said report author Sugi Vasavithasan, TRIEC’s research and evaluation manager.

“Having to downplay their qualifications or change aspects of themselves to enter the Canadian labour market can be demoralizing for immigrant women. It hurts their dignity and self-esteem.”

Immigrant women’s jobless rate, at 12.2 per cent, is much higher than their Canadian-born peers (4.9 per cent) and immigrant men (6.4 per cent), said the report. Among principal applicants admitted in 2009 under various skilled immigration programs, women made $17,400 less than their male counterparts after 10 years.

Maysam Fadel settled in Toronto in 2019 after working for the United Nations Refugee Agency as a community service co-ordinator and for UNICEF as emergency officer in Syria for a decade.

The 36-year-old applied to more than 500 jobs posted in the not-for-profit sector but didn’t receive one single reply. She finally found a survival job working as a sales associate in retail while volunteering at different organizations, including the Canadian Red Cross.

“Employers all ask for Canadian experience and don’t consider any of the experience you had back home,” said Fadel, who has an undergraduate degree in English literature from Damascus University.

“I was very depressed and I lost my hope of ever finding an appropriate job in alignment with my experience.”

The husband of a friend’s friend helped her polish her resumé and she dropped her last name, Allah, on her CV, to avoid any potential biases she might face from prospective employers. Then response started trickling in and she finally was hired as a volunteer co-ordinator at a community service agency.

While she needed to learn about the operations and work culture at the organization, she said she’s simply applying the same skills she acquired from back home to her new job in Canada. 

“I didn’t get a new skill I didn’t have before. It’s just transferring my skills from one context to another. You need to learn and adapt whenever you change jobs even in Canada. That’s normal,” said Fadel, who last year got a promotion to be a manager at the same agency. 

El Ouarrak, who speaks fluent Arabic, English and French, said immigrant women shouldn’t have to downplay their credentials just to get their foot into the door.

Rather, she said, Canadian employers should adopt blind hiring practices to focus on seeking out candidates with the right skills and block out personal information that could bias a hiring decision. 

“Hiring managers are looking for unique profiles of candidates who qualify but to get to the hiring managers, you have to go through recruiters, the gatekeepers who are checking the boxes. If you don’t check 80 per cent of the boxes, they don’t even look at your profile,” said El Ouarrak. “I think that’s where the disconnect is.”

The study calls for improvement to generic employment support programs to reflect the unique needs of highly skilled immigrant women, as well as further education of hiring managers and recruiters in looking past stereotypes and recognizing the value of foreign credentials brought by female immigrants.

Source: She’s trilingual, has a PhD and loads of work experience. So why was getting a job in Canada an ordeal?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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