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.”