How are immigrant women faring in Canada’s workforce?

Edana Robitaille
Published: March 8, 2023

International Women’s Day takes place annually on March 8th as a global recognition of the contributions that women make in the workplace, the work they do in the home as well as their cultural and societal contributions. It also acts as a day to bring awareness to many of the ongoing struggles women face globally.

Canada has a reputation as a progressive country with strong human rights legislation and a commitment to equality for all. Generally, women in Canada have all the same rights and freedoms as men, but there are still some significant gaps in how women, particularly newcomer women, are represented in Canada’s workforce.

Immigrant women working in Canada

Statistics Canada data from 2022 shows there were 4,200,630 immigrant women in the labour market. Of these, 2.9 million were visible minorities while 1.3 million were not. Overall, immigrants are responsible for almost 100% of Canada’s labour force growth and 75% of Canada's population growth.

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According to Statistics Canada, women have an 83% participation rate in the national workforce. This shows an increase of over 30% from 1976 when only half of the women in Canada worked outside the home. The male labour market participation rate is currently 91.5%.

Labour Force Survey data from January to June 2021 shows that there is a notable unemployment gap between recent immigrant women and Canadian-born women (15.2% vs. 8.0%). Further, among employed immigrant women, particularly racialized women, the sectors in which they are employed tend to have comparatively lower rates of pay.

Last year, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) reported that racialized newcomer women are overrepresented in low-wage sectors, such as accommodation and food services or hospitality. These industries were heavily impacted by labour market losses during COVID-19. Many newcomer women start their careers in Canada in these industries and experienced some of the most dramatic wage losses. Between 2019 and 2020, the median entry wage of immigrant women fell by 11.1%, from $26,100 to $23,200.

Further, a recent study about the role of immigrant women in executive positions found that about one in four executives were women, and of these, roughly one in seven were immigrant women. The study also found that among executive immigrant women, it was four times more likely that the woman was born in the United States or the United Kingdom.

Among immigrant and Canadian-born executives, immigrant women earned the lowest median employment income, at $241,900, and encountered the greatest gender pay gap, at 29%.

Majority of immigrant women arrive through family class sponsorship

In 2022, 1,215,200 women immigrants arrived in Canada as secondary applicants in an economic immigration program, meaning they were a spouse, partner or dependent of someone who applied to immigrate to Canada through an economic immigration program. A further 1,194,685 arrived through family class sponsorship.

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Among the total number of economic principal applicants who were admitted to Canada last year, 620,885 were women. Economic immigration programs target candidates with in-demand skills and experience that will allow them to integrate easily and contribute to the economy. In contrast, over 930,000 men gained admittance through one of these programs.

Data shows 66% of immigrant women who are married or in common law relationships (therefore more likely to have immigrated through family class sponsorship programs) are likely to work full-time, compared to 70% of Canadian-born women.

Pay gap for women in Canada

Canadian women have been active in Canada's workforce since the first World War, over 100 years ago, but there is still a gap between their incomes and that of their male colleagues. The Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that, on average, women in Canada make 89 cents for every dollar a man makes. This does not take into account the gap that exists between new and recent immigrants and Canadian-born women.

Statistics Canada data from 2019 reported that new and recent immigrant women made over 20% less in weekly earnings than Canadian-born women. The gap narrowed somewhat to 4.7% less for long-term immigrants.

Census 2021 data shows that once the income bracket gets higher than $60,000 a year, the number of income recipients decreases dramatically among women and increases in men. For example, there are 1,109,610 men and 487,185 women reporting individual incomes of over $100,000 after tax in Canada.

Canada’s effort to close the gap

In August 2021, the federal government implemented the Pay Equity Act to close the wage gap and ensure fair compensation for women. However, this only applies to women who are employed in federally regulated workplaces.

Some provinces have legislation that aims to ensure equal pay for women. For example, pay discrimination on the grounds of gender is prohibited by Human Rights legislation in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan. Additionally, equal pay for the same or similar work is a requirement of employment standards legislation in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Newfoundland, and Northwest Territories.

In response to lower incomes among racialized immigrant women, the government has recently committed nearly $6 million in additional funding for programs under the Racialized Newcomer Women Pilot Program. Participants in the Pilot have access to settlement services that help with developing soft skills to help them find employment, such as creating resumes. However, much of the funding goes toward projects to assist initiatives preventing gender-based violence.

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