By Amrita Hari, associate professor of women's and gender studies at Carleton University, and Luciara Nardon, associate professor of international business at Carleton University
Immigrant women are feeling the brunt of the negative economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — and it may not get better.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reignited public debate on the adverse socioeconomic effects on women engaged in both paid and unpaid work. There have been some specific conversations about health care workers and academic professionals.
Despite Canada’s dependence on immigration to curb the impacts of an aging population and sustain high levels of economic growth, skilled foreign professionals often encounter deskilling, downward career mobility, underemployment, unemployment, and talent waste, and find themselves in occupations that are not commensurate to their education and experience.
Immigrant women also encounter particular vulnerabilities due to their gender responsibilities, which influence their employment experiences.
What is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on immigrant women’s employment? Our interdisciplinary research team at Carleton University conducted an in-depth survey of 50 high-skilled immigrant women in July and August of 2020 asking about their employment experiences during the pandemic to understand the gendered effects of the pandemic on deepening social and especially gender-based inequalities.
These women had post-secondary education and work experience in a variety of professional fields. The survey contained factual and reflective open-ended questions, allowing respondents to write as much as they desired.
Significant, widespread negative impact
Forty-one out of 50 respondents were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some recently arrived immigrants had their career start delayed.
Some experienced a reversed career trajectory due to layoffs or decreased availability of short-term opportunities.
Others had their career trajectory interrupted, as they faced pressures to navigate increased family demands, reduced opportunities to perform and advance in a work-from-home environment, and limited social support.
COVID-19 measures, in particular, along with the drastic shift to online environments (job applications, closures and remote provision of social supports, and virtual networking) increased delays in career starts for recently arrived immigrant women. Some women who found work in February had job offers revoked, were laid off, and faced limited work opportunities at the onset of drastic lockdown measures recommended by public health officials in March.
Those who retained their jobs during the pandemic struggled with balancing work and family responsibilities. As well, their aspirations to move up the organizational ladder and secure better positions were interrupted by the onset and continuation of the pandemic.
These delays, reversals, and interruptions also made many of them ineligible for emergency government support.
The graph below displays the expected career trajectory of immigrant women in the pre-pandemic environment (solid line) versus immigrant women’s actual career trajectory (dotted line) during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Typically, in studies of employment support, entry-level jobs are viewed as a temporary concession and a stepping stone towards commensurate employment.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, created conditions of decreased job stability (the vertical axis) and a move towards lower-skilled jobs (horizontal axis), in effect reversing expected career trajectories.
Overall, the opposing nature of the two trajectories depicts downward career mobility and talent waste of immigrant women compounded by challenging virtual work environments and a rise in family responsibilities.
We predict that these ongoing socioeconomic challenges and post-pandemic recovery may have long-term consequences for immigrant women.
Immigrant women’s delayed, interrupted and reversed career trajectories can prevent them from acquiring the necessary work experience in their fields to advance their careers and find job satisfaction.
They may continue to have their skills and experiences further devalued, and their confidence and psycho-social adjustment to Canada eroded.
Finally, the pandemic has led to increased demand for front-line workers engaging in health care, essential sales, production and food processing positions traditionally filled by disadvantaged groups. Immigrant women might remain stuck in low-level occupations.
Urgent measures are therefore necessary from various levels of government to develop support programs providing financial and other emergency support regardless of immigration status. That includes reliable child care, career coaching and mentoring, and mental-health support to minimize the long-term negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for immigrant women.
It’s not enough to think about the current circumstances and immediate consequences of the pandemic. It is vital that any dialogue include a plan for a post-pandemic future for Canadian immigration policies and immigrants themselves who want to make Canada their home.