IWS Survey Report

Last Year, IWS  carried out a survey to draw a clearer picture of the challenges and barriers that immigrant and international women in STEM settled in Canada face daily. The survey was designed to collect not only demographic data but also information on education level and employability or employment status along with the main obstacles or cultural differences women in STEM  have experienced, focusing on the challenges faced during these unprecedented times of COVID-19. Download a copy or read the full report below.

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Navigating careers in Canada as an immigrant woman in STEM


Canada is considered a safe haven for immigrants, and currently has one of the highest annual per-capita immigration rates in the world.[1] Canada’s immigration model has been followed by many countries due to its unique approach in implementing several important policies. In 1971, the Canadian Multiculturalism Policy articulated government support for cultural diversity and preserved the cultural freedom of all individuals.[2] Later, the Immigration Act of 1976 included Canada’s commitment to refugees and required that the government work with provinces to use immigration as a vital tool to meet economic objectives.[3] Based on this unique approach, the main vision for immigration in Canada is to build a stronger nation that is economically, socially, and culturally prosperous for all.[4]

Immigrants comprise a large proportion of the skilled labour force in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), which are highly associated with innovation and economic growth. Despite this, over half of the immigrants with STEM degrees have non-STEM jobs.[3] While a similar proportion applies to their Canadian born counterparts, the utilization rate for immigrants is lower based on the time window of arrival, level of education and STEM field[5]. In 2020, the unemployment rate of immigrants landed in Canada between 0-10 years was 11.9%, a higher rate in contrast to the general population (9.5%)[6]. In addition, studies performed in Canada demonstrate that men are more likely than women to be hired in a STEM occupation.[7] This represents a devastating waste of highly qualified personnel available and prepared to help build a stronger Canada.

One of the primary expected outcomes of immigration is economic growth, and integration of new immigrants into the labour force is an important factor in prosperity and financial stability.[8] However, STEM-educated immigrants working in related STEM jobs in Canada earn an average of 13.8% less than their Canadian-born colleagues.[9] Disproportionate outcomes by gender on skilled-labour migration add a layer of complexity. The 2011 census data on university graduates aged 25 to 34 showed that immigrant women were almost two times more likely to have a STEM degree than Canadian-born women (23% versus 13%).[10] Despite this, immigrant women in general face lower employment rates and lower retention in their professional fields post-migration.[11]

In 2020, immigrant women represented about half of the large and diverse group of immigrants who arrived in Canada. Demographics also show that 78% of newcomers who arrived between 2006 and 2011 identified as visible minorities.[12][13] This, together with the concept of gender and diverse immigration factors (nationality, religion, culture), highlights the importance of intersectionality in understanding existing barriers for this specific sub-population of immigrant and international women in STEM (IWS).

The principle of intersectionality underlines the amplified systematic disadvantages incurred as a result of oppression, biases and barriers along intersecting dimensions. These include race, ethnicity, class, religion, nationality, disability, and socioeconomic class,[14] which are protected under the Canadian anti-discrimination law.[15]

Although language barriers warrant further consideration in the intersectionality concept,[16] and could represent a disadvantage for immigrant women, language is not included as a prohibited ground of discrimination in Canada.[17] Thus, it is important to understand the impact of intersectionality uniquely felt by IWS in the Canadian setting. Taken together, these factors may contribute to inequities in science ecosystems, leaving many immigrant women unemployed, underemployed, or underpaid, thereby limiting their opportunities to contribute to Canada’s progress.

The Government of Canada recognizes that there are groups facing systemic racism and discrimination, and is developing an anti-racism strategy that invests $45 million to combat racism and discrimination.[18] According to the strategy, “The Government of Canada is committed to building a foundation for change by removing barriers and promoting a country where every person is able to fully participate and have an equal opportunity to succeed. Achieving this vision is not just a way to build a better country, it also addresses the human cost of racism and discrimination. Building a society that is free of racism requires ongoing commitment.” [18]

The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought unprecedented and unexpected challenges to all Canadians.[19] Given the observed inequities for immigrants and women, IWS are likely to have experienced exponentially negative consequences. From worrying about family abroad, to impacts on employment productivity and caregiving responsibilities, existing barriers likely contributed to further disadvantages. Understanding these barriers and the impacts felt by immigrant women in STEM throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is critical to provide equal opportunities for all. This will potentially lead to the development of better strategies and policies to overcome such barriers, which may be expanded more broadly for gender, race, and nationality-based disparities in Canada. This will in turn support a highly qualified and skilled labour group, contribute to Canada’s economy and advance the fields of science, technology, and innovation.

Main Objective

The Immigrant and International Women in Science Network (IWS Network) was created in 2018 to build a collaborative network that supports and promotes equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) of IWS in Canada. Persistent systemic barriers faced by IWS are consistently highlighted in the network’s programs and initiatives. As such, it was imperative for the IWS network to conduct a survey that could provide a better understanding of these experiences through qualitative and quantitative data analysis.

While several public reports have focused on the status of women in science or the status of immigrants, the intersectional impact of the three (gender, profession and immigration status) has not been explored in detail. In addition, there are no previous reports covering concepts of intersectionality as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this specific population.

This survey aims to better understand the ramifications of this intersectionality, and gather insights on the challenges faced by IWS in different science ecosystems and throughout the unprecedented pandemic situation. It is important to note that while Canada defines an immigrant as a person who is, or who has ever been, granted the right to live in Canada permanently by immigration authorities,[20] the current survey also extends to the temporary Canadian residents with study and work permits. This was done to include the unique population of international students who may not have been represented in many studies. It should be further noted that science ecosystems in the context of this report encompass all training and job environments in different sectors. These include academia, industry, government, and the non-profit sector, where science may include a research lab in academia, industry or science policy, or science regulatory affairs in government or non-profit organizations.

Main Findings

Main findings of the survey

Impact Value

The Government of Canada has been prioritizing improvements in diversity and inclusion across all sectors. In the latest mandate letters, cabinet ministers are expected “to include and collaborate with various communities, and actively seek out and incorporate in their work, the diverse views of Canadians. This includes women, Indigenous Peoples, Black and racialized Canadians, newcomers, faith-based communities, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQ2 Canadians.[21]

In addition, one of the main priorities of the mandate for Canada’s Minister of Women, Gender Equality and Youth includes continuing “to support ministers working to advance gender equality, notably as it relates to economic participation and prosperity.[22] Likewise, the mandate for Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry includes adding “1000 Canada Research Chairs to help attract and retain top talent at Canadian universities and support graduate research, with a focus on improving gender and racial equity among faculty, promoting interdisciplinary research and reinforcing Canada’s world-leading capabilities in life sciences and bio-medical research“.[23] Finally, the mandate for Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship includes continuing “to bring newcomers to Canada to drive economic growth and recovery, as set out in the 2021-2023 Immigration Levels Plan.[24]

The IWS Network and the women it represents bring tremendous value in helping to advance these priorities. Canada welcomes scientifically qualified individuals because of their education credentials and experience, and trains ambitious and capable women in higher degrees in its institutions, with an aim of advancing science and innovation. Supporting this extremely qualified pool of candidates to contribute their knowledge and expertise will benefit all Canadians. Moreover, as a racially and culturally diverse group, IWS can enrich the equity and diversity components needed in all science ecosystems, including academia, industry, government, and non-profit sectors. Finally, despite being significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, IWS are resilient[25] and well-prepared[26] to contribute to Canada’s post-pandemic recovery and build a better future together.

These mandates highlight the need to better understand the challenges faced by IWS. This report aims to address this gap and provide impact value to advance Canada’s equity, diversity and inclusion priorities.

Survey Findings

A total of 273 participants responded to the survey between September 2020 and February 2021. Out of these, 12 responses were omitted from the analysis during the data cleaning process, as explained in the methodology (Appendix A). Thus, a total of 261 recorded responses were analyzed, and the findings are presented here.

1. Demographics

1.1 Age

Immigrants, especially those arriving in their early career stage, are an integral part of the Canadian workforce. This is especially true given Canada’s aging population. Thus, understanding the age demographics of IWS is critical to assess their impact on the Canadian economy. In this survey, the age span of respondents (20-60 years) aligns with Canada’s working age population.[27] The age group with the highest number of respondents (39%) was 30-35 years. This was followed by 35-40 years (22%) and 25-30 years (18%). Other population groups (20-25 years and over 40 years) represented 21% (combined) of the respondents (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Age range
Figure 1. Respondent distribution by age

1.2 Country of origin

Canada is a destination of choice for many immigrants, where over 200,000 immigrants are welcomed each year.[28] A diverse representation of IWS was observed with respondents from 63 countries in total. The most common was India (29%), followed by Brazil (15%), then by Iran, Pakistan, France, Mexico and Italy (between 3 and 5% each) (Figure 2). In the case of India, the numbers observed are representative of high immigration levels generally from India to Canada, which accounted for 25% of immigrants to Canada in 2019.[29] The number of Indian immigrants has been rising, with a record intake of Indian students moving to Canada for their studies in 2021.[30] Canada is also known to be a popular destination for Brazilian students. The variety of Canada-Brazil science cooperation and partnership programs may contribute to the high number of respondents from Brazil.[31] Overall, these results indicate the geographical diversity of Canadian immigrants in STEM, which spans the globe.

Figure 2. Nationality
Figure 2. Map representing IWS nationalities

1.3 Languages

A closer look at the fluent languages of survey respondents indicated that over one quarter were fluent in both Canadian official languages. In addition to English or French, 92% of respondents were fluent in at least one other language (Figure 3), and close to 70% responded that they are able to speak three to six languages total. While Hindi, Portuguese, Spanish, Punjabi, and Arabic were the top five most common languages, the data indicated a total of 59 unique languages represented (Figure 4). These findings highlight the significant language skills that immigrants bring to Canada, including mastering Canada’s official languages. These skills may be particularly relevant to Canada’s role in science diplomacy and other international cooperation pursuits.​​​​

Figure 3. Spoken languages
Figure 3. Language skills
Figure 4. Word cloud of spoken languages
Figure 4. Language diversity

1.4 Immigration status

The cohort of survey respondents represented women in various stages of immigration. About 50% of respondents had permanent residence, followed by work permits (21%), Canadian citizenship (19%) and student permits (10%) (Figure 5). Among respondents who identified as temporary residents with either a work or study permit, only 29% were considering applying for permanent residency. Among those with permanent residence, 49% were considering applying for Canadian Citizenship (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Immigration status
Figure 5. Distribution by immigration status
Figure 6. Future immigration status
Figure 6. Perspectives on future immigration status

1.5 Canadian province of residence

Nearly half of respondents resided in the province of Ontario (46%). This was followed by Quebec (20%), British Columbia (19%), Alberta (10%), the Atlantic Provinces, including Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador (3%, combined), Manitoba (1%), Saskatchewan (1%), and Yukon (< 1% each) (Figure 7). This is consistent with the per-capita population of immigrants in each province, where Ontario welcomes the most immigrants to Canada annually.[32]

1.6 Years spent in Canada

Most survey respondents have been living in Canada between 1-4 years (38%) followed by 4-8 years (25%), over 8 years (21%), and less than 1 year (15%). Thus, survey respondents included a diverse population comprised of newcomers (5 years or less), recent immigrants (5 to 10 years) and established immigrants (over 10 years)[33](Figure 8). This diverse demographic allowed us to better understand the status of immigrant women in Canada across all age groups, with varied nationality backgrounds, as well as educational and immigrant status.

Figure 7. Province of residence
Figure 7. Distribution by province of residence
Figure 8. Number of years spent in Canada
Figure 8. Years spent in Canada

2. Education and employement status and satisfaction

2.1 Level of education

The survey respondents were qualified with degrees in STEM fields (Figure 9). More than half of the respondents had a PhD degree (54%) as the highest level of education. Many others had a Master of Science degree (29%), a medical degree (3%) or a Master of Business Administration (2%). Finally, a combined 12% of respondents reported their highest level of education as either a Bachelor of Science or other related qualification. 

Figure 9. Education
Figure 9. Education level
Figure 10. Education in Canada
Figure 10. Education obtained in Canada

Close to half of the respondents (47%) stated they had obtained, or were in the process of obtaining, their degrees in Canada (Figure 10). The survey results provide evidence that the point system created with Canadian Immigration policies developed in 1967 and further refined in 1978 and 2002,[34] have been successful in attracting and accepting internationally educated and highly qualified talent to Canada.

2.2 Science ecosystem distribution

Most of the survey respondents (54%) belonged to the academic sector, either through their studies or employment. This may reflect the nature and route usually chosen by immigrants with science backgrounds to enter Canada. Participation of immigrant women in other science ecosystems declined rapidly with only 25% employed by the industry sector, 10% by the non-profit sector, and only 6% for government and 5% for entrepreneurial positions (Figure 11).  This trend demonstrates extremely low participation in the public sector and innovation hubs and may indicate a potential lack of appreciation of international talent in these sectors.

Figure 11. Sector and field of expertise
Figure 11. Science ecosystem distribution

2.3 Employment satisfaction

Job satisfaction has been linked with different parameters, including job performance and life satisfaction.[35] Working in one’s field of expertise may also contribute to overall job satisfaction. It should be noted that being employed does not equate to being employed in one’s field of expertise. At the time of the survey, and among those able to obtain a professional (non-student) role, only 42% stated they were working in their field of expertise, while the remaining respondents expressed to be somewhat (19%) or not at all (39%) working in their field of expertise (Figure 12). Well over half (58%) of all respondents were dissatisfied with their current positions, and primarily stated underemployment by role or salary as the most important reason. This was followed by a strong desire to work in their field of expertise. Lack of stability, limited growth opportunities, barriers to job market access, and a toxic work culture were among the other reasons for dissatisfaction (Figure 13). Several respondents also indicated their desire to move to a different sector, which is likely attributed to similar reasons of dissatisfaction.

Figure 12. Employment in field of expertise
Figure 12. Employment in field of expertise
Figure 13. Job satisfaction
Figure 13. Job satisfaction

For those who stated to be working in their field of expertise (135 respondents), the time to obtain such positions ranged from less than 3 months to more than 5 years. At least 42% of respondents required 3 to 12 months to find a position related to their expertise. 37% required less than 3 months and 21% stated a wait period of 1 year to >5 years to obtain such a position (Figure 14). Half of the women associated with the academic sector were dissatisfied with their current positions and nearly one-third expressed dissatisfaction with the current job opportunities available to them (Table 1 and 2). Additionally, respondents in the entrepreneurial and non-profit sector were 2-4 times more likely to be dissatisfied than satisfied with their current positions, as well as available job opportunities (Table 1 and 2).

Figure 14. Length to find employment in field of expertise
Figure 14. Employment in field of expertise
Table 1.
Q: Are you satisfied with your current position?AcademiaEntrepeneurPublicIndustryNon-profitGrand Total
Table 2.
Q: Are you satisfied with the current job opportunities in Canada?AcademiaEntrepreneurPublicIndustryNon-profitGrand total
Total responses14112156627261

The data suggest that IWS may be taking on menial roles outside their expertise to support themselves and/or their families, which results in underemployment and dissatisfaction (Figure 13). This is also corroborated in the qualitative responses where some IWS reported being employed in entry-level jobs to support their households, or in jobs not requiring any higher education (qualitative data not shown to protect privacy).

2.4 Employability: perceived influences, challenges and biases

As previously discussed, 53% of respondents obtained their degrees outside of Canada. Within this group, more than half (56%) perceive their non-Canadian degree to have hindered their job opportunities. Among the main reasons provided were a perceived preference from employers for Canadian degrees and experience, a lack of trust or familiarity in foreign credentials and potential obstacles to building a network. Although some hiring systems assess degree equivalency,[36] there are still barriers in the process. There is often no official recognition for experience and other skill sets, leaving them susceptible to subjective interpretations and threats of implicit bias (Figure 15).

Figure 15. Impacts of education abroad
Figure 15. Perceptions on the impact of having a non-Canadian degree

The survey revealed that 44% of respondents have obtained, or were considering obtaining, additional training in Canada to increase their chances of employability and overcome the challenges of not having a Canadian degree (Figure 16). These included certifications, diplomas, a second undergraduate degree, master’s degrees in science and/or business administration, as well as PhDs (Figure 17).

More than half of respondents (63%) expressed not being satisfied with current job opportunities in Canada. Among the main reasons for this dissatisfaction were structural problems in the job market, size, field, and certifications required for immigrants. Constraints on the job market, regardless of immigrant status, and a lack of job opportunities especially in academia (Figure 18) were also identified as issues. Finally, the majority of respondents (74%) believe that age may influence their employability (Figure 19).

Figure 16. Additional training
Figure 16. Considerations on additional training
Figure 17. Additional training obtained in Canada
Figure 17. Additional training obtained in Canada
Figure 18. Satisfaction with job opportunities in Canada
Figure 18. Satisfaction with current opportunities in Canada and perception of potential reasons
Figure 19. Age and employability
Figure 19. Perception about age influencing job opportunities

2.5 Discrimination

Immigrant women often fall at the intersection of various equity deserving groups, making them vulnerable to disadvantages arising from biases and discrimination. When participants were asked if they faced discrimination in Canada, more than a third felt or perceived gender-based discrimination (41%) (Figure 20), while close to half (47%) felt or perceived cultural/racial identity-based discrimination (Figure 21).

Figure 20. Gender-based discrimination
Figure 20. Gender-based discrimination
Figure 21. Discrimination based on cultural background
Figure 21. Discrimination based on cultural background

2.6 Brain gain vs brain drain: considerations on returning to country of origin

It is evident that Canada has been able to attract skilled workers on an impressive scale. However, there is an imminent need to translate immigration into retention. In our survey, the hesitation among the temporary residents to make Canada their permanent home was surprising, considering the variety of attractive social and educational support programs offered in Canada. 

Figure 22. Consideration on returning to home country
Figure 22. Consideration on returning to country of origin

Among those with temporary study or work permits, only one third showed interest in becoming permanent residents of Canada. At the same time, only half of the permanent residents in the survey aimed to cement their status as Canadian citizens (Figure 6). A striking 44% of respondents with permanent residence or citizenship status, and 49%, regardless of immigration status, expressed considerations of returning to their country of origin (Figure 22). 

All who responded yes or maybe to this option stated that a lack of job opportunities (54%), followed by the absence of a family or friend support system (36%), as well as discrimination (10%) as the main reasons to consider returning to their country of origin. A similar trend was observed for those with a permanent immigration status.

3. Pandemic impact: survival at the intersection of disadvantages

3.1 Employment and professional impact

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted socioeconomic inequities, so the survey also aimed to explore pandemic-related issues for immigrant women. The data showed amplified disadvantages, with 12.3% of survey respondents reporting that they lost their employment before or during the survey period (September 2020-February 2021). This is higher than the average unemployment rate for the general population (8.8%)[38] as well as women (8.7%)[39] in the Canadian labour force. ​​It is important to highlight that impacts to job stability are of particular concern for temporary residents in Canada, whose immigration status is dependent on employment. Moreover, out of those who are still employed, more than half were worried about job productivity. Among those who are students, nearly two-thirds (65%) reported a negative impact on their studies (Figure 23).

Figure 23. Pandemic impact on job and studies
Figure 23. Pandemic impact on job and studies

At least 164 (63%) of survey respondents stated that the pandemic had an overall negative impact on job searching and employability. The main reasons for this negative perception included decreased opportunities in the labour market, increased competition, and decreased networking opportunities (Figure 24). It is also noteworthy that 45% of respondents identified as primary caregivers, providing additional barriers and making unemployment a particularly worrisome threat (Figure 25).

Figure 24. Pandemic impact on employment
Figure 24. Pandemic impact on employability
Figure 25. Primary caregivers
Figure 25. Percentage of primary caregivers

Only 68 respondents (26%) received any kind of temporary benefit offered by the Canadian government. Of those who received benefits, the majority received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) (46%), followed by Employment Insurance (18%) and child benefits (13%), among others (Figure 26). When asked about specific professional challenges throughout the pandemic, respondents predominantly reported productivity, job opportunities and networking, as well as detrimental impacts on physical/mental health, reductions in income, higher workloads, and increased caregiver duties to be some of the main challenges (Figure 27).

Figure 26. Received benefits from the government
Figure 26. Benefits received from the government
Figure 27. Professional impacts of the pandemic
Figure 27. Impact of the pandemic at the professional level

3.2 Personal impact

In terms of personal impacts from the pandemic, 69% expressed feelings of loneliness, while 91% worried about family abroad (Figure 28). For single women, 72% identified a variety of issues affecting their mental health. This included the absence or loss of social networks, leading to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and lack of a local support system (Figure 29). 

Figure 28. Impact of the pandemic on mental health

It is important to note that 15% of respondents expressed either no impact or a positive impact of the pandemic on their personal lives. For women with families, and for primary caregivers, 55% identified additional challenges in terms of extended workload, odd hours of childcare and anxiety related to both work and home (Figure 29). Three respondents reported positively on the support received from their families during the pandemic.

As immigrants, IWS experienced added struggles throughout the pandemic. 28% of respondents expressed fear for the health and wellbeing of their family locally and abroad (Figure 30). Other identified challenges included impacts on mental health, weakened social connections, uncertainty of reuniting with family members, financial concerns, and employment uncertainties.

Figure 29. Mental health impacts for single women vs. those with families
Figure 29. Impact of the pandemic on mental health - single women vs. those with families
Figure 30. Personal level impacts of the pandemic
Figure 30. Impact of the pandemic at a personal level


Having identified barriers to the integration of highly educated and skilled women in STEM in the Canadian labor market, we sought out their opinions on the support required from the government (Table 3). It was evident that the focus should be on building bridges between IWS and decision-makers. In addition, respondents were surveyed to gain insights on the possible programs that grassroots and not-for-profit organizations like the IWS Network can develop and support (Table 4). Thus, the following recommendations were developed based on the IWS perspectives (Table 3 and 4), survey findings (Table 5), and dialogues established with experts from different science ecosystems.

Recommendation 1: Establish bridging programs in fields of expertise to support immigrants upon arrival

Given the survey results indicating that more than 80% of respondents possessed graduate degrees (PhD, MSc, or other), it is evident that IWS arriving in Canada bring with them a significant amount of knowledge and skills in their field of expertise. However, only 42% of respondents reported working in their field of expertise.  Leveraging this potential to galvanize Canadian science, innovation and the economy would be mutually beneficial to the country and to immigrants. Currently, a variety of immigrant integration programs exist.[40] These bridging programs are considered an excellent path for eligible newcomers to gain valuable temporary work experience and training opportunities. However, while some federal and provincial bridging programs exist,[41],[42],[43] options are limited and are rarely focused on STEM or mostly directed at university students or at re-training newcomers, thereby dismissing incoming internationally-educated professionals and their existing knowledge and skills that are of value to the Canadian economy. These programs are also not well-promoted, making it difficult to reach target populations and potential employers.[44]

1.1 Recommendation to the Government of Canada and provincial/territorial governments:

Establish, strengthen and promote existing bridging programs for newcomers to focus on STEM areas, where they can provide and implement their knowledge and skills, while gaining valuable experience.

1.2 Recommendation to newcomer and immigrant support organizations:

Develop sector-specific toolkits that can be provided to new immigrants upon arrival, which would aid in familiarising them with existing bridging government programs, STEM resources and career opportunities in Canada. Likewise, leverage the existing pool of IWS in Canada to provide mentorship and sponsorship programs in welcoming packages for newcomers.

1.3 Recommendation to women and STEM network organizations:

Collaborate with immigrant support organizations to establish new bridging programs and promote information sharing of existing ones. Connect newcomers in areas of STEM with potential field-specific job opportunities and networking.

Recommendation 2: Facilitate recognition of foreign credentials processes and incorporate certification of work experience

The survey results indicate that the majority of IWS respondents are permanent residents and are between 30 and 40 years of age. This aligns with existing skill-entry programs attracting immigrants with highly specialized education and work experience. Once in Canada, immigrants are required to validate their education in order to obtain a job in their field of expertise. Many IWS arrive in Canada with high levels of education (e.g., MSc and PhD), and often with several years of work experience obtained abroad. Official certification of foreign education credentials exists, which are issued by official assessment providers.[45] However, many still face barriers with the certification process as expressed by respondents of this survey, including more than half (56%), who perceive their non-Canadian degree to have hindered their job opportunities. A perceived preference from employers for those with Canadian degrees or a lack of trust/familiarity in foreign credentials was associated with this barrier. Similar reasons have been stated in other studies of internationally trained individuals, where acceptance of foreign qualifications and experience is not common among employers.[46]  

Currently, there is no official certification for equivalent work experience outside Canada in the fields of expertise associated with these education credentials, and other reports have shown that employment rates declined as years of international work experience increased.[47] While individuals can present their professional experience information in their resume or curriculum vitae, employers are usually not familiar with the organization or institution where this experience was obtained, and thus a lack of trust and unconscious bias may arise.  Despite a significant number of years of field-specific experience, this challenge often leads to underemployment, where IWS are only able to achieve entry-level positions or have to find alternative career options unrelated to their expertise. Whereas re-training programs are often offered as an alternative to support immigrants and provide additional opportunities, these programs can cause immense disparities. Participants often have to start from an entry-level, losing many years of relevant training and experience that could be immediately utilized to support the Canadian workforce and economy. Strengthening the recognition of foreign credentials can be achieved by easing and expediting foreign credential processes and officially acknowledging the number of years of work experience obtained abroad, allowing IWS to secure employment that is appropriate both for their level of education and level of experience.

2.1 Recommendation for foreign credential assessment providers:

Establish tools to assess work experience obtained abroad in the fields of expertise associated with an individual’s education.

2.2 Recommendation for the Government of Canada and provincial/territorial governments:

Lead and support foreign credentials assessment providers in facilitating and expediting the validation and recognition of degrees obtained outside of Canada. This will stimulate and promote the integration of newcomers and immigrants in STEM fields into the Canadian workforce. Moreover, require employers to recognize official assessments of foreign credentials and work experience obtained abroad, and promote the implementation of EDI training by hiring organizations to avoid unconscious bias through hiring processes.

2.3 Recommendation for professional organizations and institutions:

Recognize officially assessed foreign credentials and work experience and incorporate them in the hiring process, providing potential applicants with fair evaluations and correct assessment of roles and salaries equivalent to their level of education and experience. Likewise, incorporate review and assessment of internationally educated and trained professionals within EDI frameworks and training, to ensure fairness and avoid unconscious bias in hiring processes.

Recommendation 3: Promote professional opportunities in Canada's various sectors of the science ecosystem

IWS, whether educated abroad or in Canada, provide a valuable source of knowledge and skills to different sectors of the science ecosystem. However, a large number of respondents (63%) highlighted not being satisfied with the Canadian job market, where lack of opportunities or a professional network caused dissatisfaction. Moreover, at least 42% of respondents required 3 to 12 months to find a position related to their expertise. PhD graduates often face obstacles when transitioning to careers outside of academia. While Canadian universities have been implementing a wide range of professional skills training initiatives to fill this gap, this change is moving at a very slow pace.[48],[49] It is important to highlight that IWS may benefit from training at Canadian universities, however, they may take longer to recognize the value of opportunities outside academia due to their preconceptions of the academic sector in their home countries. Internationally-trained IWS may also experience a disproportionate disadvantage if they have not had such training opportunities or if there are particular knowledge gaps from their international education. A variety of barriers persist for those pursuing a non-academic profession, which is even more pronounced for those with foreign credentials. Thus, promoting awareness of professional development opportunities for different science ecosystems is critical for IWS to overcome these barriers.

3.1 Recommendation for academic institutions:

Develop awareness campaigns and provide coaching support to international students, including IWS, to discover and engage with different science ecosystems.

3.2 Recommendation for immigrant support organizations:

Develop and promote programs to expand skills for careers in non-academic settings (e.g., industry, government, etc.) and liaise with academic institutions to provide professional training opportunities for IWS who are internationally trained.

3.3 Recommendation for science organizations in non-academic sectors (e.g., industry, government):

Liaise with academic institutions and immigrant organizations to co-create programs that increase awareness of potential professional opportunities for IWS.

Recommendation 4: Support Canadian science and innovation hubs in hiring skilled immigrants

The current survey demonstrated that among those respondents able to obtain a professional (non-student) role, close to 40% stated not to be working in their field of expertise. In contrast, the time range to obtain a job in the field of expertise was reported to be less than 3 months to more than 5 years. These events have been further exacerbated by the pandemic where 63% of survey respondents reported an overall negative impact on job searching and employability as a result of the pandemic. Unemployment or underemployment for IWS for a long period of time can lead to major disparities from an early stage. Thus, in addition to government programs that help new immigrants settle in Canada,[50] strong partnerships are needed between the government and non-governmental sectors to integrate qualified IWS in the academic, public, for-profit, and not-for-profit sectors. Creating programs to encourage Canadian start-ups and organizations to hire immigrants can help these skilled workers contribute to the Canadian economy.

4.1 Recommendation for the Government of Canada and provincial/territorial governments:

Ease restrictions on specific conditions related to temporary work[51] for immigrants with Canadian or international work experience.

4.2 Recommendation for the Government of Canada and provincial/territorial governments:

Create and reinforce existing programs to hire immigrant talent in partnership with other sectors.

4.3 Recommendation for academic institutes:

Expand and strengthen fellowships and pathways to attract, integrate and retain immigrant talent.

Recommendation 5: To develop entrepeneurial programs specifically focused on immigrant professionals

Entrepreneurship is one sector of the science ecosystem where IWS were highly under-represented in the survey (5%). Those in this sector were dissatisfied with their current role (75%) and current job opportunities (92%). Providing entrepreneurial training is a relatively new approach in universities, both in Canada and in other high-income countries. In contrast, this practice is almost non-existent in many universities in low- and middle-income countries, where the majority of the IWS populations surveyed in this report originate from. Even for those educated in Canada, taking an entrepreneurial path requires a high level of support, a strong network and financial backing, which is often challenging or impossible for immigrants. While science entrepreneurship is a growing ecosystem in countries like the United States, science start-ups in Canada typically require major investment and regulatory knowledge.[52] Current programs providing this information and training are primarily based at or associated with Canadian universities, and newcomers who are not designated as students are unable to access these services. Finally, it is important to highlight that the Canadian STEM sectors often lack diversity, with women and visible minorities rarely represented at the C-level and on boards.[53] Developing entrepreneurial programs specifically focused on female immigrant professionals could help to bridge these gaps.

5.1 Recommendation for the Government of Canada and provincial/territorial governments:

Implement funding to support entrepreneurship programs for newcomers with STEM backgrounds, with a targeted focus on science and technology incubators and accelerators.

5.2 Recommendation for Canadian universities:

Include and promote the participation of IWS alumni in science entrepreneurship programs, and liaise with immigrant organizations to provide entrepreneurial training for newcomers with STEM backgrounds.

5.3 Recommendation for financial institutions:

Implement financial programs for science entrepreneurship aimed at newcomers (without age gaps) to apply for credit support for their science businesses.

Recommendation 6: To promote and strengthen professional networks

The art of developing and strengthening professional networks is critical for success. Professional networks provide the opportunity to meet other professionals in a similar career path, and help individuals benefit from the wisdom, guidance and mentorship from their peers. This in turn leads to better access to career resources in a formal and informal manner, increasing potential job opportunities. In addition, establishing new relationships is in accordance with the main drivers of a positive immigrant integration experience, solidifying the decision to move to another country.[54] This is highly beneficial for both the host country gaining highly qualified personnel on a permanent basis, and for the immigrant setting permanent roots in a new country. However, survey respondents perceived that earning their education abroad limited the possibility of building or being part of a professional network. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic may have aggravated this by reducing networking opportunities and amplifying feelings of loneliness. Promoting and strengthening professional networks like the IWS Network was consistently highlighted by survey respondents. Providing information on such networks at the moment of arrival would be the first step to achieving this goal.

6.1 Recommendation to the Government of Canada, provincial/territorial governments, universities and newcomer support organizations:

Highlight networks of women in science or STEM as well as professional immigrant networks, such as the IWS Network, to IWS who have recently arrived in the country, or who are looking to expand their professional networks.

6.2 Recommendation to Canadian universities:

Develop and promote networking events in collaboration with external professional networks, e.g., the IWS Network and other women in science and STEM organizations, as well as field-specific professional networks. This can help expose IWS who are students and trainees to these resources and to connect them to non-academic settings (e.g., industry, government, etc.) to expand current job opportunities.

6.3 Recommendation to the Government of Canada, and provincial/territorial governments:

Sustain and expand funding initiatives to diversify the support provided to professional network organizations. This will strengthen program development aimed to support IWS in their professional path upon arrival and through their initial career development in Canada.

Recommendation 7: To reinforce EDI frameworks and sustain efforts across all science ecosystems in Canada

Canada is well known globally for its commitment to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).[55] “The government will support and encourage the various cultures and ethnic groups that give structure and vitality to our society. They will be encouraged to share their cultural expression and values with other Canadians and so contribute to a richer life for us all”[56] were the words of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1971, when announcing the Multiculturalism Act.

Canada was the first country in the world to establish an official policy on multiculturalism, although this was created mainly as a response to recommendations on bilingualism and biculturalism provided by the Royal Commission.[57] Today, the Multiculturalism Act has been mirrored in Canadian immigration policies, supporting the concepts of diversity and inclusion as core values of Canadian identity. In recent years, increasing efforts have been made to develop EDI frameworks and implement a GBA+ analysis to all government policies developed to assess and address systemic inequalities. In the science ecosystem, the advancements of these efforts have been moving forward, but at a rather slow pace. In academia, for example, the federal research granting Tri-Agency[58] has implemented programs like the Dimensions Program to increase EDI and help drive deeper cultural change within the research ecosystem in post-secondary institutions.[59]  In addition, 77% of universities reference EDI in their institution’s strategic plan, and 70% either already have or are in the process of developing a strategic action plan for EDI.[60] Despite these efforts, a diversity gap in leadership, including in professorial and research positions in Canadian higher education, is still strongly evident. This is especially true for racialized women, who also often volunteer or are asked to volunteer in EDI committees. In industry, the picture is concerning, where only 4.8% of Chief Executive Officers are women. For board members of Canadian public companies, only 23.4% are women and 6.8% are visible minorities.[53] In 2020, the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development launched the 50/30 challenge in an effort to increase the representation of women and/or non-binary people by 50%, and equity deserving groups by 30% on board and senior management in organizations not-for-profits and other institutions.[62]

Gender and cultural-based discrimination were reported by survey respondents. Many felt undervalued and rejected due to linguistic racism and xenophobia, among several other reasons that have directly or indirectly affected career development and progression. In addition, 45% of respondents identified themselves as the primary caregivers of their families and reported being heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic due to increased caregiving and home responsibilities. For the 49% considering a return to their home country, 63.5% stated this was due to the combination of lack of job opportunities and perceived discrimination. Finally, respondents highlighted the urgent need to increase EDI training for employers and hiring managers. This data highlights the need to reinforce EDI Frameworks and sustain efforts across all science ecosystems in Canada.

7.1 Recommendations to organizations and institutions in all science ecosystems:

To value the linguistic diversity that IWS bring to Canada, include self-identification of multi-linguistic profiles, in addition to Canadian Official Languages, in EDI frameworks. This will also benefit the government, organizations and institutions by utilizing these important skills in matters of science diplomacy, and other international cooperation efforts.

7.2 Recommendations to organizations and institutions in all science ecosystems:

Recognize and incentivize participation in EDI committees, as well as other kinds of volunteer and community work in employee assessment and career progression reviews.

7.3 Recommendations to organizations and institutions in all science ecosystems:

Reinforce EDI frameworks by including the requirement of EDI and cultural understanding training to tackle unconscious bias for those reviewing and making decisions in hiring and promotion.

7.4 Recommendations to Government of Canada, and provincial/territorial governments:

Sustain, strengthen and amplify EDI efforts within government departments and externally across all organizations receiving federal and provincial funding. Include all EDI groups in consultations for improvement, and consider recognizing these efforts.

Table 3.
Expectations of IWS on Government ResponseRecommended actions
Developing bridging programs (8%); Improving access to education and training (6%)1. To establish bridging programs in fields of expertise upon arrival
Promoting better assessment of foreign credentials/acceptance of foreign credentials by employers (9%)2. To strengthen recognition of foreign credentials by certifying work experience
Partnering between science ecosystems & government to improve job opportunities for IWS (10%)3. To promote professional opportunities in Canada’s various sectors of the science ecosystem
Promoting and enhancing opportunities in STEM for newcomers (5%)4. To support Canadian science and innovation hubs in hiring skilled immigrants
Promoting and enhancing opportunities in STEM for newcomers (5%)5. To develop entrepreneurial programs specifically focused on immigrant professionals
Developing mentoring and networking programs (16%)6. To strengthen and promote professional networks
Improving EDI policy (23%); Implementing inclusive hiring programs (12%); Developing EDI Training for employers (5%)7. To strengthen EDI frameworks
Table 4.
Expectations of IWS from grassroot organizationsRecommended actions
Training and Networking in the field of expertise (36%)1. To establish bridging programs in fields of expertise upon arrival
Advocacy for better/accurate assessment of foreign education credentials and professional experience (15%)2. To strengthen recognition of foreign credentials by certifying work experience
Advocacy for promotion/expansion of job opportunities of immigrants in STEM (11%)3. To promote professional opportunities in Canada’s various sectors of the science ecosystem
Advocacy for promotion/expansion of job opportunities of immigrants in STEM (11%)4. To support Canadian science and innovation hubs in hiring skilled immigrants
Advocacy for promotion/expansion of job opportunities of immigrants in STEM (11%)5. To develop entrepreneurial programs specifically focused on immigrant professionals
Improving mentoring and networking opportunities (6%)6. To strengthen and promote professional networks
Implementing inclusive hiring programs (8%); EDI Training for employers (6%)7. To strengthen EDI frameworks
Table 5.
Survey resultsRecommended actions
2.1 Level of education; 2.3 Employment satisfaction1. To establish bridging programs in fields of expertise upon arrival
2.4 Employability: Perceived influences, challenges and biases2. To strengthen recognition of foreign credentials by certifying work experience
2.3 Employment satisfaction; 2.4 Employability: Perceived influences, challenges and biases; 3.1 Pandemic impact: Employment and professional impact3. To promote professional opportunities in Canada’s various sectors of the science ecosystem
2.4 Employability: Perceived influences, challenges and biases; 3.1 Pandemic impact: Employment and professional impact4. To support Canadian science and innovation hubs in hiring skilled immigrants
2.2 Science ecosystem distribution; 2.3 Employment satisfaction5. To develop entrepreneurial programs specifically focused on immigrant professionals
2.4 Employability: Perceived influences, challenges and biases; 3.2 Pandemic impact: Personal impact6. To strengthen and promote professional networks
2.5 Discrimination; 2.6 Brain gain vs. brain drain; 3.2 Pandemic impact: Personal impact7. To strengthen EDI frameworks

Closing remarks

Immigrants migrate to Canada with hopes of a better future. However, the present survey results reflect a somewhat concerning trend. Many highly qualified immigrant women struggle with higher unemployment rates compared to Canadians, underemployment, or dissatisfaction in their professional pursuits. Additionally, discrimination, alienation, lack of inclusion, and anxiety related to families abroad add further challenges in assimilating to a new culture. This leads to many women considering returning to their countries of origin. Although several governments and non-government-based organizations have recognized these challenges and delivered or created programs to help immigrants, it is evident from the present study that more efforts are needed. This can help to create an equitable space to retain these new settlers in Canada who are struggling at the intersection of racial, cultural, professional and gender-based challenges. Moreover, there is a lack of data when it comes to identifying challenges specific to immigrant women in STEM. While the present survey reflects a random sample of this unique population, it is an initial study with some limitations in representing the entire population in question (Appendix B). In the future, there is a need to conduct a larger and more comprehensive survey or government census to enhance our understanding of the status of this population.

Canada has successfully attracted international talent through efficient immigration programs and policies. It is now equally imperative to implement effective programs and policies for talent retention. This can help to bolster the Canadian science and innovation economy while upholding Canadian values of equity, diversity and inclusion.


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For this survey, we reached out to immigrant and international women in STEM fields. An anonymous survey was launched on September 28, 2020, and was closed on February 17, 2021. The survey was disseminated through social media channels (Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) as well as through emails. For the survey we considered naturalized citizens, permanent residents, and study as well as work permit holders as immigrants. The survey was anonymous and completely voluntary. All answers and data are only presented in an aggregated manner.

The survey was divided into three main sections for a total of 45 questions. The questions were either multiple choice or open-ended. The three sections were:

  1. Demographics
  2. The Canadian job market
  3. Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

A total of 273 answers were received and following revisions, 12 respondents were excluded due to duplicate responses or impossibility to determine whether the respondent was an immigrant. Thus, 261 unique responses were recorded, analyzed, and reported here. Multiple choice questions were analyzed in a quantitative manner, while open-ended questions were coded and categorized. Some open-end answers were assigned more than one code to account for their complexity. Two independent reviewers assessed the open-end responses to eliminate risk of bias and the codes were then consolidated to be presented in graphs. The data was extrapolated and analyzed using Excel, and graphs were prepared using Canva software.

Although the survey was conducted with caution and prudence, this survey should not be considered reflective of the exact current status of all IWS in Canada. Here we highlight some of the gaps that may require further consideration:

  • Survey sample size and population: Although care was taken to randomize the survey distribution, the survey outreach was conducted through social media handles of members and allies of the IWS organization. Hence, the sample number and population may contain unconscious networking bias and may not be entirely reflective of the actual demographics of Canadian IWS. Nonetheless, the survey should be considered reflective of the opinions and challenges of a significant subset of IWS.
  • Lack of wider geographical distribution (Northern provinces and territories): For the reasons mentioned above regarding the survey outreach, the survey responses may not be reflective of the Canadian IWS diaspora geographically, in particular the Northern provinces and territories. Although, as previously mentioned, the responses may be reflective of the per capita distribution of the immigrant diaspora.  
  • Timeliness and temporary flux in the data due to the pandemic: The survey was conducted between the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021. It is possible that by the time of publishing this report, the employment status of the respondents may have changed. The length of the survey and number of open questions may have influenced the time delays in reaching our target population. Moreover, since data was collected during the unprecedented period of a global pandemic, the overall well-being and opinions of the respondents regarding their status in Canada might have been influenced by the uncertainty surrounding the crisis in general. The anonymity of the survey did not allow for follow up interviews to explore the experiences and the flux in responses in general.  Moreover, the pandemic might have caused urgent shifts in the government response, priorities and policies, directly or indirectly affecting Immigrants. 
  • Language: The present survey was only conducted in English. Our target population was STEM-qualified women generally well-versed in English to facilitate STEM related communication globally. Despite this, there is a probability of exclusion of potential respondents from filling the survey due to the language barrier.  In future, a large-scale survey offered in French and other international languages could be considered to ensure proper representation.
  • Gender specificity: The present survey was intended for a niche subpopulation of immigrants, i.e., women from STEM fields. However, the survey did not require respondents to specify their gender. Hence the survey may not be reflective of the status of other genders in the population. Although this survey was specifically designed for subpopulation of immigrants who identified as women, consideration should also be given to the challenges faced by other, highly skilled immigrants to Canada.