Bait-and-switch of a Canadian dream

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In the game of settler-nation relay, Canada ranks second in the world for largest per-capita immigration rates, one in five Canadians being foreign-born. We’ve had this immigrant-fuelled-economy thing down pat for many decades now, especially when it comes to ensuring the immigration stream prioritizes highly skilled workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (aka STEM). It should give us a clear advantage in that other race—to become one of the world’s leading knowledge economies.

The implications of Canada assigning them a different socioeconomic status are far-reaching and multi-pronged.

Yet, while Canada has been great at attracting this highly skilled talent pool, we have substantially failed at benefitting from their expertise, especially when it comes to migrant women skilled in STEM. If Canada’s gender diversity in STEM education and labour participation has been steadily discouraging for the last 30 years, it is in large part because we have not focused on addressing the issues around integrating their skills into the specific workforces where they belong.

More recently, the government of Canada has been prioritizing and putting significant resources behind STEM productivity. The top item on the innovation minister’s national agenda is “the need to secure the right people—including women, immigrants, and training for the next generation—who can help us close the gap between the number of jobs posted and the number of workers available to fill them.”

Funding has been allocated to several initiatives, including ones that encourage young girls to consider a career in STEM, which should really pay off for them, and the country, 10+ years down the road. This kind of investment in our kids’ future, and in combatting negative stereotyping of who belongs in STEM careers, is commendable, yet it does little to thwart the shortages we are facing in our labour markets today.

A closer look at Canada’s record

Our natural and applied scientific workforce renewal is considerably dependent on immigrant talent, with the proportion of immigrants among science graduates relatively higher than in other programs. In 2011, more than one-half (51 percent) of all STEM degrees were held by immigrants. The 2011 census showed that:

  • Among university graduates aged 25 to 34, immigrant women were twice as likely to have a STEM degree as Canadian-born women (23 percent versus 13 percent). As a result, among those aged 25 to 34 with a STEM university degree, 38% of women were immigrants….
  • Given the high STEM credentials of immigrant women, what explains the present-day statistics showing lack of diversity in STEM workforces—despite a serious labour shortage in these lucrative priority sectors?
  • In Canada’s Colour Coded Labour Market, published in 2011, researchers Sheila Block and Grace-Edward Galabuzi explain that new immigrants and first and second-generation racialized Canadians, encounter a “persistent colour code” and “continue to face different labour market experiences, which include higher levels of unemployment and lower employment earnings.” These statistics hold up across the board in all skilled labour categories.

What this tells us is that while we are panicking about the so-called skills gap (e.g., a need to fill an estimated 182,000 jobs in information and communications technology alone by 2019), we are squandering a highly trained and ready-to-work labour pool by not focusing on integrating immigrant women equitably in the job markets to which they belong.

While barriers are faced by all immigrants, skilled and university educated migrant women confront a specific set of hurdles that keep them unemployed or underemployed, and underpaid. The following factors are particularly frustrating for highly skilled migrant women, compounding the challenges they face.

1. Lack of child care

In the 2016 CCPA report A Growing Concern, researchers found that in almost all large urban centres outside of Quebec, child care and early education costs for parents are prohibitive, and subsidies vary considerably (and often unfavourably) for low-income families.

For example, according to the report, “a middle-income family in Toronto with an infant and a toddler would pay $36,000 a year for regulated child care—more than the cost of university tuition.” Furthermore, “wait lists are a common feature of centre-based care, with almost all the cities surveyed reporting that at least 70% of centres maintain a wait list and charge a wait list fee.”

Now imagine being a young family that’s new to Canada, with little to no family or personal network to fall back on to care for young children, tasked with navigating complex and often convoluted systems to look for work, all the while relying on your quickly disappearing savings for living expenses.

The absence of a non-subsidy-based, comprehensive national child care and early education program in Canada is a hurdle that is particularly onerous for migrant women. It leaves highly skilled, STEM-experienced talent with no choice but to resort to the culturally “encouraged” role of primary caregiver.

These women lack the time, support, or mental bandwidth to try and find work in their fields of interest and expertise. And the probability that they will return to the workforce after caring for children at home decreases with each passing year they are not able to explain the “gap” between their last job and their current ambitions.

2. Fragmented credential landscape

Skilled immigrants are required to get their education, work experience, and professional credentials assessed if they received them outside of Canada. To get an idea of how many immigrants need to go through the process of accreditation, consider this data from a 2010 article by René Houle and Lahouaria Yssaad:

We cannot afford not to be doing more to integrate our highly talented, highly educated migrant women into STEM sectors.

Almost nine out of 10 newcomers with credentials above a high school diploma had a university degree at the time of landing in Canada. Among these, 82 percent held degrees in fields of study ranging from engineering to agriculture, biology, physics, mathematics and health sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences. Two-thirds held professional jobs before immigrating to Canada; in management and business administration, natural sciences, health and education.

The process of accreditation is not standardized for most fields, resulting in a frustrating, exhausting, costly, unreliable and counter-productive landscape to manoeuvre for most immigrants, especially those belonging to racialized and visible-minority groups, compared to their non-visible-minority counterparts (42 percent versus 52 percent). Here is Houle and Yssaad again:

New immigrants living in Alberta and British Colombia and the territories had a lower probability (24 percent and 23 percent respectively) of credential recognition than their counterparts in Ontario (32 percent). Newcomers residing in the Atlantic region appear to have had the best odds of credential recognition (59 percent). Although their numbers were small, immigrants living in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2006, for example, were the most likely (60 percent) to be working in occupations that matched their field of study, only three percentage points behind the Canadian-born in the province.

With respect to foreign work experience, newcomers living in Ontario had the highest probability of experience recognition within four years after landing (47 percent), while their counterparts residing in Quebec had the lowest (32 percent).

Migrant women face a specific challenge embedded in this foreboding and fragmented “system,” in that “a smaller proportion of women have their work experience recognized by an employer, a work-related organization or an educational institution (48 percent versus 56 percent for men)” within four years of landing in Canada.

Even successfully wrangling results from this fragmented system of accreditation does little to address the catch-22 that most immigrants face while looking for work in Canada. Employers deny immigrants work because of a lack of Canadian work experience, pushing them into a self-fulfilling vicious cycle that often masks an insidious power dynamic that keeps racialized and visible minorities marginalized, and therefore forced to work in substandard conditions.

3. Pay inequity

The gender pay gap in STEM sectors in 2016 (7.5 percent) was half what it was two decades earlier. But precarious employment in STEM sectors is on the rise.

Immigrants in general, but particularly racialized immigrant women, who are the most vulnerable group when it comes to job discrimination (as confirmed by Galabuzi and Block), often end up settling for “contract, temporary work arrangements with low wages, limited job security, and no benefits.” They are also “disproportionately represented in sectors of the economy where these forms of work are a major feature,” meaning there is clear economic incentive for businesses to keeping them marginalized.

Women’s lower earning power doesn’t just mean there is a reduced incentive for them to stay and contribute to STEM sectors, it also means they are at a high risk of falling into poverty if they have children and then become separated, divorced, or widowed. As documented by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, “They are less able to save for their retirement and more likely to be poor in their senior years; in fact, women 65 or over are more likely than their male counterparts to live on a low income.”

For visible-minority migrant women, the implications of Canada assigning them a different socioeconomic status are far-reaching and multi-pronged.

The mythos of talented, hardworking, and ambitious people from around the world choosing to migrate to Canada to build their version of the Canadian dream, and a better future for themselves and their families, is deeply entrenched and seldom critically examined today. This narrative prevents us from talking about how difficult it can be for newcomers, especially migrant women, when they arrive to find their choice is between being shut out of the STEM labour force or settling for work conditions that create highly unfavourable outcomes compared to their Canadian-born counterparts.

For visible-minority migrant women, the implications of Canada assigning them a different socioeconomic status are far-reaching and multi-pronged. Already vulnerable from the underutilization of their in-demand skills and high levels of pay inequity, they are underserved by a lack of investment in affording child care, housing, additional training and career development resources, among other social safety nets. All of these factors compound into an experience known as the racialization of poverty. They raise questions about the dissonance between the role immigration plays to boost economic growth—by populating Canada with highly skilled individuals—and what we are willing to do to make that a reality.

For a nation trying to steer the national GDP away from its dependence on natural resources and toward the innovations of the future, we cannot afford not to be doing more to integrate our highly talented, highly educated migrant women into STEM sectors, and to keep our word when it comes to who really gets to make their Canadian dream a reality.

This article was originally published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor

Photo via Unsplash


Saadia Muzaffar

Saadia Muzaffar is a Leadership Futurist, tech entrepreneur, and founder of TechGirls Canada, the hub for Canadian women in science, technology, engineering, and math. Her work explores big ideas and impactful strategies that address growing challenges for business leaders in today's connected & vigilant markets. She is an author, speaker, and international media advocate on modern leadership and has been featured in CNNMoney, Fortune Magazine, Globe & Mail, VICE, CBC, TVO, and Chatelaine. Recently Saadia and her team released Change Together: A Diversity Guidebook for Startups and Scaleups

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