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Ruby Dhillon, CEO of non-profit Pink Attitude, in Toronto on April 15.Narisa Ladak/The Globe and Mail

Rushmi Hasham, 51, remembers how frustrating it was to get noticed in a work meeting in the early 1990s. “Clients would address my white male colleagues over me. Every day was a fight to claim my space. I took it as a challenge, but it did get exhausting.”

Five years later, she would start her own reskilling and human resources business. But after running it for 18 years, she decided to go back to working for someone else again. She says that while representation of South Asian women like her has improved in workplaces, many are still fighting to be seen and heard.

A study released in March found that South Asian women are twice as likely to report unfair treatment in the workplace, despite being among the most qualified workers in the country. Thirty-four per cent of South Asian women said they were treated unfairly at work, compared with 17 per cent of all women surveyed. The study, commissioned by Pink Attitude, a non-profit that aims to create a support network for South Asian women in Canada, surveyed more than 2,200 Canadians.

It also found that 57 per cent of South Asian women were planning to leave their jobs for a host of reasons, compared with only 19 per cent of all women surveyed. Forty-seven per cent of South Asian women said they were thinking of leaving the work force altogether because the pandemic had only made inequities in their workplaces worse.

Those latter findings should be concerning, considering that Canada’s labour market saw a record 915,500 vacancies in the fourth quarter of 2021, leaving employers scrambling to fill positions.

The Pink Attitude report makes several recommendations to help employers pull in more diverse talent and retain skilled South Asian women. It suggests having diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives specifically tailored to a South Asian work force. It underscores the importance of targeted mentorship and sponsorship opportunities. It says South Asian women would do better if they had opportunities for professional development, such as continuing education. And it says flexible work arrangements would help women stay in the work force.

One of the report’s key suggestions aims to create a level playing field for newcomers, calling on employers to recognize valuable work experience outside Canada.

Ruby Dhillon, the chief executive officer and founder of Pink Attitude, said the women in the study who identified as South Asian faced barriers not only in job searches but throughout their careers. Women born in Canada or who identified as white did not face the same barriers, she said. South Asian women are “underutilized in the workplace. They’re given empty promises. There’s a concrete wall there.”

John Stevenson, the founding principal of Cultural IQ, the Toronto-based market research agency that carried out the study, said the survey spoke with 700 South Asian women, who were categorized based on the amount of time they had spent in Canada – zero to three years, three to five, five to 10, more than 10, as well as born in Canada. Mr. Stevenson said they started to hit a glass ceiling around the 10-year mark.

“As their careers advanced, they said they were not being taken seriously. That they weren’t being given a chance to participate fully in the organization. Their managers were paying lip service to them,” he said.

Ms. Dhillon added that cultural differences in work culture may be contributing to South Asian women being held back in the workplace. “We are taught not to talk about ourselves and our accomplishments. It’s frowned upon in South Asian families. But in the Western world, you need to do that. You need to talk about what you delivered. If you don’t speak up, you will be seen as someone who can’t hold her own and can’t lead,” she said.

The study also found that South Asian women who had found mentors were more likely to succeed than those who didn’t. But mentorship from other South Asian women wasn’t easy to come by when Palvinder Kaur, 63, began her career as an engineer.

“When I walked into my engineering class in 1972, not only was I the only South Asian woman, I was the only woman of any ethnicity. There was a lot of pressure to not look weird. I never saw any women engineers for years. I worked with men and for men,” she said.

But Ms. Kaur did find support from women in other professions. “I had friends who would look at my résumé and tell me to be bolder. A friend once told me to change ‘led a team’ to ‘successfully led.’ These friendships I forged made all the difference.”

Sweta Regmi, a career consultant who identifies as Nepali-Canadian, said South Asian women often don’t find mentors in their field, and this is particularly true of newcomers.

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Ruby Dhillon said the women in the study who identified as South Asian faced barriers not only in job searches but throughout their careers.Narisa Ladak/The Globe and Mail

“If you want to move up that ladder, you want to have a mentor from the same background and same industry. That’s where people go wrong, because they choose the wrong mentor. One size does not fit all. You need to find someone who is right for you,” Ms. Regmi said.

While South Asian women who were born in Canada or have been here for more than 10 years face hurdles in their career advancement, newcomers face barriers to entry. Canadian employers often prefer candidates with “Canadian experience.”

Rajane Thathari was a licensed physiotherapist in India but had to change professions after moving to Canada. “I applied to hundreds of jobs, but they wouldn’t hire me because I didn’t have Canadian experience. One hospital didn’t even get back to me about my application. They wasted my time.”

Vandana Saini moved to Canada from India in 2019, after having successfully run an event management business. After more than a year of looking for a job in her profession – she was told her accent would be an impediment in the event management space – she switched fields. But she was in a new country, with no connections. “They wanted ‘Canadian experience.’ How could I have had Canadian experience when I was new to the country?”

Ms. Regmi said she has had to advise several clients on how to navigate the demand for Canadian experience. “I would never tell anyone who’s qualified, who’s done amazing work, to start from the bottom,” she said.

Ms. Dhillon said she has received positive feedback from corporate employers, who have been supportive of Pink Attitude’s study. She hopes this will lead to structural changes in hiring policies and work culture.

“The immigrant work force that’s coming into the country is highly educated and qualified. So we need to rethink our ways of hiring, too. And Corporate Canada needs to think deeper about how to accept all the things that come with a new work force. We, as South Asians, deserve to bring our whole selves to work, and we need to be accepted,” she said.

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