By: Andrea Elliot in Toronto
“You don’t have Canadian experience.” This is what a new immigrant from New Delhi with a university degree, an MBA and a wealth of prior business experience was told at a recent job interview. In her 40s, the woman had arrived from India, confident she would have greater career opportunities and a better life for her daughters, but was quickly disheartened to find her impressive resume held little weight within our borders.
This is a story that has become all too common in Canada — especially when you consider that we have the highest foreign-born population (20%) of any G-8 country. While most Canadians take great pride in our nation’s rich history of diversity, the sad truth is our businesses are not always so welcoming to people with different names, customs and attire. A recent Canadian employment study proved as much, revealing that job candidates with Asian names (Chinese, Indian or Pakistani) are less likely to be called for interviews than their counterparts with Anglo-Canadian names, even when they have a higher level of education.
In my role at Dress for Success, it’s heartbreaking to see these stats come to life every day. Over the past five years, the number of new Canadians who have turned to our organization for career help has climbed to a point where immigrants now represent almost half of the women we serve. But, while our charitable organization is best known for providing women in need with professional attire, these new immigrants face challenges that go far beyond finding the right outfit for an interview.
Imagine entering a new country as a refugee. You’re a young parent with kids and no income. English is your second language. You don’t have a computer to work on your resume, or a smartphone to communicate with potential employers. You have to go to the public library to access the internet. You have no social network to rely on, and you’re certainly not on LinkedIn. Sometimes, I have to remind our volunteers and community partners of just how difficult an uphill climb our immigrant population faces to find employment.
Then, there are the hidden obstacles, understanding not just how to dress for an interview, but the social cues that could be holding them back (for instance, it might be inappropriate for a conservative Muslim woman to shake hands with a man during a job interview, but an employer may not be aware of this).
Needless to say, the learning curve for immigrants is steep. Each woman who shows up at Dress for Success has her own personal journey and it is our mission to embrace that journey, so they can gain confidence, find a job and earn financial and economic independence. We start by getting to know them through private, one-on-one conversations that last up to two hours and often become incredibly emotional. These are smart women who are desperate for nothing more than a better way of life, and our volunteers can’t help but become intimately involved.
After chatting about their interests and qualifications, we help these women position their experience and education for a Canadian audience, helping remove any hidden cues that may cause employers to be dismissive of their resume or LinkedIn profile. We also have them create “elevator pitches” on why they should be hired, and stage mock interviews to help them prepare. We even hold networking events where they have the opportunity to introduce themselves to executives and managers, and practice speaking in a corporate setting.
When it comes down to it, our mission is to build these women up every day so they not only gain confidence about what they can do, but feel good about who they are as individuals. There are many ways for people to get involved in our cause, but this is really a rallying cry to corporate Canada — I’m calling on our country’s business leaders to examine their hiring policies from the top down and take a more active role in providing new Canadians with opportunities.
For all the talk of a global marketplace, our businesses still act local. The number of women who continue to tell me they feel they’re being judged by their family name is significant and disheartening. It’s also disappointing when qualified candidates who have held great jobs in their home countries are not considered for similar positions here in Canada.
The sad truth is that while many of today’s corporate leaders are concerned with reaching male-female ratios and gender equality, promoting opportunities for new Canadians is not on their radar, even though it would be in their best interests to do so — in 2015, the Conference Board of Canada estimated that if Canadian employers and professional regulatory bodies did a better job of recognizing immigrants’ skills, they would earn an additional $10 billion annually, at minimum.
There is simply no reason or excuse for a “Canadian experience” job requirement to exist in 2017. And, as we continue to celebrate Canada 150, it’s time for our businesses to realize — as our country did years ago — that opening their doors to new immigrants will only make them stronger.
Andrea Elliott is Chair of the Board of Directors of Dress for Success Toronto, and its fundraising committee, Corporate Giving.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit