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  • Writer's pictureSteven Tobin

What is behind the comparably low employment rate among immigrant women?

Another often-cited approach to addressing labour and skill shortages is to improve the labour market integration of immigrants. When Statistics Canada added immigrant status to their Labour Force Survey in 2006, the gap in employment rates was above 6 percentage points between Canadian-born individuals and landed immigrants (and particularly pronounced among women).

Gaps in employment have narrowed, with the exception of women aged 25-54

The latest figures from February show that – with the exception of youth – the employment rate among male-landed immigrants is now higher than their Canadian-born counterparts (which has been more or less the case since late 2018).

However, the picture is a little different for female-landed immigrants.

Here too while there has been considerable reductions overall, the gap for women aged 25 to 54 – at over 8 percentage points – is all but unchanged since 2006 (and remains elevated among young women). To be sure, all women in this age bracket have experienced strong gains but female-landed immigrants have been unable to make any progress in closing the gap with their Canadian-born counterparts. This difference is substantial: closing it would represent close to 200,000 additional women in employment.

What is behind this? One hypothesis points to the lack of affordable childcare. While important progress is being made, affordability is particularly relevant for newly-landed prime-age immigrant women who earn about 23% less than their Canadian-born female counterparts (see a recent study by Feng Hou and colleagues at Statistics Canada). This makes staying and/or re-entering the labour market following childbirth relatively expensive. Part of the challenge here is that immigrant women all too often are under-employed, stuck in lower-paying part-time employment (see Ana Ferrer's piece in the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP)’s Policy Options a few years ago). Many of these low-paying jobs are unlikely to provide for a sufficient number of hours to even secure EI maternity leave, let alone other workplace protections and benefits.

Policy and research considerations

Of the many things we can do, here are 3 suggestions:

1. Prioritize quality employment outcomes. Narrowly focusing on getting immigrants (or anyone for that matter) into a job quickly may yield superficial short-term gains at the expense of longer-term benefits. How can we do this? Start by recognizing the existing skill sets, knowledge and qualifications of immigrants, then focus on retraining and upskilling as needed.

2. Make childcare affordable. Improving job quality will help but it will take time and while necessary, it will be insufficient to fully adequately address affordability.

3. Tackle systemic bias in the workplace, from recruitment to training access and promotion opportunities.

Thanks to Behnoush Amery and Bolanle Alake-Apata for their invaluable insights.

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