The Hidden Labour Potential of Immigrant Women: Practical Steps to Engage Them Better

There is an increasing shortage of digital and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills across the Canadian labour market. Statistics Canada reported that job vacancies in the fields of computer and information systems grew by 77% from 2020 to 2021. Employers predict that it is going to be especially challenging to fill vacancies in areas such as cognitive computing, cybersecurity, general IT, and computer science. So, how can Canada tackle this growing problem? Targeted immigration programs that select highly qualified candidates in specific occupational categories, such as STEM fields, have been identified as potential temporary solutions, and hence, they have been in effect since 2023. While the results of these particular programs will unfold over the next few years and decades, data shows us that we have so far not been making the best use of the STEM talent that we currently have in the country.  

Even though immigrant women make up less than one-third of women in Canada, they represent more than half of women in Canada with STEM degrees. Thus, immigrant women are more likely to have these in-demand skills. Yet we see that they are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid compared to both Canadian-born women and immigrant men. While differences in education, experience, and official language skills explain some of the gaps, we are not able to fully account for them, suggesting that cultural factors and systemic discrimination are also responsible. For example, migrant women are more likely to be university-educated thanks to the shift in immigration policies, which assigns more points to highly skilled newcomers, yet female immigrants with a bachelor's degree or higher were significantly less likely to work full-time than Canadian-born women. While 80% of Canadian-born women with a bachelor's degree or higher were employed full-time, only 62% of recent immigrants and 73% of long-term immigrants were employed full-time in 2021, and this gap has not narrowed since 2007. Female immigrants with university degrees earn, on average, half the amount of their Canadian-born counterparts in the Greater Toronto Area, a gap that has not decreased in 15 years. Furthermore, even fluent speakers of French and/or English report discrimination over accents in their search for work. 

These statistics indicate that immigrant women are being impacted by the intersection of their gender identity and their immigration status. Neither gender nor immigration status alone can explain these differential outcomes. If we go one step further and consider one’s perceived race as well, we find that racialized immigrant women have worse employment outcomes than non-racialized immigrant women. Thus, if we want to make sure that we are benefiting from the available workforce in Canada, we need to talk about intersectionality.  

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to “describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap” to create unique experiences and effects. The point of intersectionality is not to have groups compete against one another to see who is most disadvantaged or to create a hierarchy of inequality, but it is about making sure that we understand the distinct challenges that diverse groups face and that no one is forgotten or left behind. If you wish to learn more about intersectionality and how it can impact the experiences of employees or candidates at your organization, consider attending an instructor-led training session on this topic. As an employer, here are some steps you can take to fill job vacancies and make sure that you are accessing top talent, irrespective of whichever group they belong to:  

  1. Advertise with immigrant-serving organizations and networks: Since newcomers are essentially starting from scratch in Canada, they might not have professional networks that other groups have. Thus, it is imperative that employers reach out to immigrant networks in their location to tap into the hidden labour force.  
  2. Challenge your assumptions about candidates’ language skills: Resist making assumptions about someone’s language abilities based on their name, place of education, or even accent. An employee can be perfectly fluent and functional in their role with an accent. 
  3. Complement interviews with skill assessment: Interviews are not highly effective at identifying who will be successful in a role. So, experts suggest that, wherever possible, candidates should be given a test that simulates everyday work as closely as possible. This is one of the best indicators of future work performance.  
  4. Focus on culture add over culture fit: When we are overly focused on finding someone to fit into our culture, we may be biased against differences. Immigrants bring in novel perspectives and thus can help add to the existing culture, which can lead to greater innovation and productivity.  


This article was featured in our April 2024 newsletter. For more engaging content and updates, check out the full newsletter.

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