Careers: Immigrant Women

What Does It Take To Succeed In Canada?

By Consuelo Solar

Zahra Parvinian’s voice still breaks when she remembers her beginnings in Canada as a refugee, more than 20 years ago. She arrived in 1988 from Iran, determined to take her new life in Toronto as a second chance for pursuing her dream of fighting for social justice. “I paid the price of losing my homeland, so how could I come to Canada and not keep going after what I wanted in life? The passion I had, and whatever I believed in kept me strong; I never looked back, and I didn’t let anything stop me,” she recalls.

A single mother raising two children, Parvinian completed a Social Work degree at York University while working part-time at FoodShare, a nonprofit community organization that strives for long-term solutions for hunger and social inequality. Soon, she was juggling graduate school and a full-time position with the organization, and after demonstrating her leadership skills as program coordinator and team manager, in 2008 she became Director of Social Enterprise. “I had a middle class mentality, and I was aware of the kind of life I wanted to live. I was always sure I was going down the right path that would take me to where I am now, part of a global community and instrumental in changing people’s lives,” she says.

A few years back Parvinian was taken as an example of immigrant women who have successfully contributed to the Toronto economy by becoming leaders in their fields.
Along with eight other women from different professional and cultural backgrounds, she was the focus of the study “Reframing Success: Immigrant Women as Entrepreneurs,” published by the Toronto Training Board.

By exploring these lives, authors Enriketa Dushi and Karen Lior attempted to find the skills that make the female immigrant a successful entrepreneur. According to their research, each of their subjects were able to make strategic choices, had confidence and dedication, and were persistent and creative, but able to adapt and learn at the same time. “They had a vision and knew where they wanted to go, how to get there and what to learn, sometimes by trial and error. They were able to quickly recognize and act on opportunities”, state the authors.

One of the most interesting conclusions they drew was that these women had to overcome a series of obstacles to get to where they are today, and that they used the wisdom and skills gained through that experience to reinvent their lives. In Parvinian’s case, it took her four years to get official political refugee status, and in spite of the fact that she was working and paying taxes, she couldn’t get a loan to go to school to upgrade her credentials. “It only made me want it more, and even though it was hard competing with people much younger than me, with much better English, I had my passion,” Parvinian says.

Some of the heroes (heroines) of this study began their passage in the 70’s, and although ultimately they were able to achieve success, many integration obstacles persist today for recent immigrants. “Some integration policies have changed, but there are still challenges for immigrant women, which differ across ethnic groups, jurisdictions and geographic areas where they settle,” explains Enriketa Dushi, Manager of Research and Finance at Toronto Workforce Innovation Group. She adds, “Most recent immigrant women work in an occupation different from their field prior to immigrating, they make significantly less than men as well as Canadian-born women, and this gap is getting bigger.”

A recent study by Statistics Canada confirms Dushi’s assessment. According to “Women in Canada: A Genderbased Statistical Report”, in 2009 only 49.1 percent of immigrant women who had been in the country 5 years or less were employed, compared with 60.6 percent of women born in Canada. The study also showed that the labour market downturn had a greater impact on unemployment rates for female immigrants than for Canadian-born women and immigrant men, and women who were very recent immigrants posted the highest unemployment rate, 15.9 percent.

These results are no surprise for Maya Roy, Executive Director at Newcomer Women’s Services, who identifies a series of labour market integration barriers for immigrant women that might be different from those faced by Canadian born women or immigrant men. “Among the most common ones are not knowing what services are available or how to access them, lack of local work experience, language barriers, isolation, and not having access to childcare,” she observes, and adds, “but there is also social expectation regarding men taking care of business outside the home, which limits women’s opportunities to practice their language skills and socialize with others. Women become more isolated due to family responsibilities.”

Doctor Tony Fang, Economic and Labour Market Domain Leader at CERIS-Ontario Metropolis Centre, also describes this double challenge: “many women immigrate as spouses or dependents of skilled worker immigrants, and choose to stay at home, while their husbands find paid employment, or get higher education.”

However, Fang emphasizes the differences between very recent immigrants and established immigrants, because many studies show that things get easier after five years of residence, and the labour market gap between native-born and established immigrants – who have been in Canada 10 years or more – is even smaller. “Established immigrants do better, probably because they have mastered both the technical and the soft skills that the labour market demands,” he comments.

Fang is optimistic about immigrant women’s successful integration, but admits that time will continue to be a factor in the knowledge-based economy, where traditional well paid unionized manufacturing jobs are disappearing, and professional jobs that require a higher level of education and training are increasing. “Immigrant women can do well in professional jobs because more of them are getting higher education; just look at university classrooms, where we have more female students than we used to. Some economists argue that higher education could, in time, compensate for the shortage of professional women in the labour market, and reduce the historic employment-income gap between male and female workers,” he says.

So what contribution can immigrant women make to the Canadian economy?

Fang believes that highly educated female immigrants can do well in high-level managerial positions, because many studies show that, in general, women pay more attention to social relations than men do. “Men are more used to giving orders and instructions to their subordinates, while women tend to use the power of persuasion, and all kinds of social and interpersonal skills. It is an emerging trend that more and more women are in leadership roles, in corporate environments and government positions.”

However, there is another trend going on where recent immigrant women who can’t find jobs that match their credentials end up in poorly paid occupations for a considerable period of time. In the opinion of Fang, the government and immigrant services organizations play a key role in helping them integrate and move toward the high paying jobs. “In the long run immigrant women can potentially make a huge contribution to the Canadian economy, but it depends whether our labour market institutions and employers allow them to do so,” he observes.

Zahra Parvinian’s two-decade journey has proven that success is possible for an immigrant woman, and she feels that the only way to show her appreciation for getting a chance to have a better life is to give back to the society that welcomed her. “At first I thought whatever I could accomplish here would be nothing compared to what I had back home, but after living here since '88 I now considerer this my home, and I am so proud to be a Canadian, and proud of my organization. Of course, I always aspire to more in my life, and I would like to do my PhD, and write a book,” she says proudly.


Consuelo Solar

Consuelo is a journalist, screenwriter and story editor. She has worked as field producer for CNN, and reporter for The Miami Herald and other international media outlets. She currently works as a correspondent for Terra Networks and is involved in independent film projects.