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Tolu Adeyemi, photographed in her Calgary home, hopes to practice law once she is accredited to do so in Canada.Leah Hennel

Tolu Adeyemi had been working as a corporate and commercial lawyer in her hometown of Lagos, Nigeria for four years when she immigrated to Calgary in late 2019.

Her sister and brother already lived in Canada and she knew there would be a transition period to get her law qualifications recognized in Alberta. While waiting for her transcript to be sent from Nigeria and for the National Committee on Accreditation (NCA) to evaluate her qualifications, Ms. Adeyemi found work in sales at a beauty supply store to tide her over. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She was laid off in June 2020 and picked up work as a delivery driver with Amazon and SkipTheDishes.

At the beginning of 2021, Ms. Adeyemi caught COVID-19 and reached a low point.

“It sort of made me reevaluate,” she says. “My father was like, ‘This is not what you came to Canada to do, to work different survival jobs.’”

By this point, the NCA determined that Ms. Adeyemi would need to complete five examinations and a year of articling to qualify to become a lawyer in Alberta. She has written three of the five exams and plans to finish the last two by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, she has been applying to legal assistant jobs, over a hundred by her estimate, to no avail.

“People usually say it’s because I don’t have Canadian experience, or they would say something about [not] being the right fit,” Ms. Adeyemi says.

She also participated in a three-month career services program for foreign-trained professionals at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA) to learn digital skills, cross-cultural communication and career counselling, followed by a three-month practicum at an employment and business law firm in Calgary.

“We had IT professionals, HR professionals, accountants from different countries,” says Ms. Adeyemi of her fellow program participants. “Even if they had 10 years of experience, they had serious trouble breaking into the job market.”

‘Gendered effect’ of the pandemic

Despite halting immigration last year due to COVID-19, the Liberal government is on track to meet its goal of bringing in 401,000 new permanent residents in 2021. But skilled immigrant women continue to face increased barriers in finding employment, and the pandemic has only made it more difficult.

Luciara Nardon, a professor of international business at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa, published a paper in June 2021 showing how skilled immigrant women had their career trajectories delayed, interrupted or reversed during the pandemic. These roadblocks were due to layoffs, fewer job opportunities and increased domestic burden during lockdowns.

“The pandemic was particularly difficult for women in general because kids [were] at home,” Dr. Nardon says. “It’s a very gendered effect that way.”

Jenny Krabbe, manager of the employment services department at CIWA, has seen married immigrant women having to set aside their own goals to prioritize their spouse’s career, even prior to the pandemic.

“In many cases, the male [in the relationship] has the better education in the country they came from and the reason they could get into Canada under our point system was that he qualified,” Ms. Krabbe says. “She may be a professional in her own right, but now she has to figure out her way forward.”

Confidence is another factor that Ms. Krabbe says hinders skilled immigrant women in their career progression in Canada. Training in career services programs, like the one that Ms. Adeyemi participated in at CIWA, can help build that confidence, she says.

Networking helps build confidence too, and is what leads most skilled immigrant women to find meaningful work in their fields, notes Dr. Nardon. But the pandemic has limited these opportunities.

“If you already know somebody, you can meet on Zoom instead of meeting in person,” she says. “But if you don’t know them, that becomes very difficult.”

A necessary culture change

Support programs like those at CIWA provide a great opportunity for immigrant women to network, says Dr. Nardon, but she hopes to see more government initiatives to support the employment journeys of skilled immigrant women. In particular, she highlights the need for programs with longer, more flexible eligibility terms.

“Sometimes women take a longer time to integrate because the men’s career will have priority and the women stay home taking care of the kids,” she says. “By the time the woman is ready to enter the workforce, then services are no longer available because they lost eligibility.” Childcare support can also help relieve some of the domestic burdens that immigrant women face, allowing them to spend more time building their careers.

But the onus isn’t solely on the government. Dr. Nardon also calls for a “culture change” in societal attitudes towards immigrant women, especially from employers and hiring managers.

“There may be assumptions that [immigrant women] didn’t get the right experience or the right training, so they are not as capable as somebody else,” she says. As employers head into the “great resignation,” (Statistics Canada reported 731,900 job vacancies in the second quarter of 2021, which is nearly 26 per cent more vacancies than in the same quarter two years earlier), Dr. Nardon encourages companies to consider how skilled immigrant women can benefit their businesses, as opposed to searching for candidates to fulfil a particular set of needs.

“Look at the talent that immigrants bring and have a more open mind instead of trying to fit them into boxes,” she says. “Some employers are thinking of different ways of recruiting. They’re not picking specific characteristics, but instead they’re saying, ‘We need talent.’ They’re creating jobs around the talent that is available.”

Dr. Nardon adds that all Canadians can play a part by making connections among skilled immigrants in their communities or industries.

“Professionals can give time for mentoring, for sharing knowledge and sharing networks,” Ms. Nardon explains. “This is not one person’s job. The whole society has to work together.”

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