Immigrant women are falling behind during the COVID-19 pandemic

Amrita Hari, Associate Professor of Women's and Gender Studies, Carleton University and Luciara Nardon, Associate professor, international business, Carleton University
·5 min read
<span class="caption">Dollarama worker Ze Carole Benedict, originally from Cameroon, addresses a demonstration in Montréal in August 2020 to join in calls for higher pay and better working conditions amid COVID-19.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson</span></span>
Dollarama worker Ze Carole Benedict, originally from Cameroon, addresses a demonstration in Montréal in August 2020 to join in calls for higher pay and better working conditions amid COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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 socio-economic effects on women engaged in both paid and unpaid work. There have been some specific conversations about health-care workers and academic professionals.

Read more: How women in academia are feeling the brunt of COVID-19

Generally, women experience greater work inequality, including high unemployment as well as increased child care and eldercare burdens.

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.

A health-care worker swabs a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic.
A health-care worker swabs a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montréal in May 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

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.

A woman in a pink head scarf looks at her phone with her laptop in front of her.
Many immigrant women have seen their career trajectories halted or reversed during COVID-19. (Artem Podrez/Pexels)

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:

A graph shows desired career trajectory versus pandemic career trajectory.
Desired career trajectory versus pandemic career trajectory. (Authors), Author provided

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.

Long-term consequences

We predict that these ongoing socio-economic challenges and post-pandemic recovery may have long-term consequences for immigrant women.

Read more: Inquiry into coronavirus nursing home deaths needs to include discussion of workers and race

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.

A man walking his dog.
A man walks his dog past a mural that pays tribute to health-care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto in July 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Amrita Hari, Carleton University and Luciara Nardon, Carleton University.

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Amrita Hari receives funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Engage Grant (892-2019-0024).

Luciara Nardon receives funding from This study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Engage Grant (892-2019-0024)