Sylvia Fuller and Joann MacKinlay tell a sad story. Women and minorities often struggle in Canadian workplaces, sidelined by a lack of support. But there’s hope. Programs like the YWCA’s Pathways to Leadership for Immigrants and Refugee Single Mothers, help disadvantaged groups get the resources they need to succeed.
“When you have a workplace that [is] dominated by a particular group, people come to normalize the relationship between that group and the characteristics needed to succeed in the job,” says Fuller, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who looks at labour markets. “Their successes are more likely to be noticed; their failures are written off. The converse happens for groups that are seen as not fitting or different.”
The YWCA’s Pathways program aims to overcome barriers like the one that Fuller describes, says MacKinlay, an employee in YWCA’s Single Mothers Support Services who manages and facilitates the program. Pathways consists of 17-weekly classroom sessions and optional one-to-one mentor support. The program is free, but registration is required.
A tunnel vision
“Single mothers are the poorest family group in BC,” says MacKinlay. “There’s already barriers for immigrants. But if you’re a single mom and there’s already a gap in your employment history because you’ve been raising children, how do you find yourself a way out of that situation?”
“Barriers for these women are real,” Fuller notes. “Poor English skills and little to no Canadian experience can significantly hamper both job searching and the ability to succeed within a job,” she says.
“Employers have historically been uncertain about experience in other countries, particularly the global south,” explains Fuller. “They’re less likely to worry about someone coming from the United States or Australia. But when it comes to the Philippines or India, there [is] hesitation.”
Childcare is another problem.
“[The women] may not have [the] extensive family support they [were] relying on [in] their country of origin. [Outside] childcare is expensive, and it can be difficult to come by, especially if you are working long hours which leadership positions often require,” she adds.
These difficulties can result in lowered expectations for women like those in the Pathways program, Fuller and MacKinlay say. Instead of looking for employment that fits their personalities, background and training, women in these situations are, in MacKinlay’s words “tunnel-visioned” into a certain type of occupation.
“[Usually] being a cleaner. Some of these women are highly trained in their country. But the displacement causes them to say ‘Hey, my education and skills are not transferable here,’” says MacKinlay.
Driving and dreams
“Too many social services concentrate on fixing women in these situations,” notes Fuller, “particularly with regards to confidence.”
“Lack of confidence [can be] rooted in a realistic understanding of barriers they fac[e] in services and supports to help them manage the care obligations they have; and also the bias and discrimination they can face in the workplace,” she says.
MacKinlay agrees, commenting that sometimes the women are unaware of better services that might be available.
“One of the first lessons,” she says, “is where is the most inexpensive English class. Doing the research − [it’s] very practical.”
Connections made within the group help the women overcome daily struggles.
“I looked at [two women] and I thought, these women are not going to be friends,” she recounts. “They were just too different. One of them couldn’t take driving lessons with her son crying in the back seat. They teamed up. One would take the lesson; the other would look after the children.”
Program exercises, along with the peer-to-peer communication the program enables, can help women discover what solutions others have found.
“It’s a very common experience in these groups to have somebody sit back and say, ‘I thought I was the only one.’ They’re realizing that they’re all facing the same barriers; they all need to research together,” says MacKinlay.
Mothers and mentorship
But peer support, while useful, is not enough says Fuller. She points out connections need to be made by minority groups to people in power, something the program achieves by way of mentoring.
“People from disadvantaged groups might not be advantaged by the kinds of informal relationships where someone tends to look at junior people: ‘Oh! They remind me of me when I was young,’” explains Fuller. “[But] if you formalize a relationship, people higher up feel responsible for promoting the careers of folks underneath them.”
In the Pathways program, the women meet with mentors twice a month for five months, with discussions and duties varying according to the women’s needs.
“It might be helping with paperwork,” says MacKinlay. “It might be helping by bringing their child along with them to a class. Sometimes it’s traditional mentoring, informational interviews.”
The mentors come from all walks of Canadian life.
“Professional women, define[d] as someone working, could be a plumber [or] an engineer,” says MacKinlay. “[They] want to offer their time for these women in order to help them keep working on their transition and adaptation to Canadian culture.”
Only a few weeks into the program, MacKinlay says, some results can be seen.
“We’re helping them discover their strengths, who they are, and what they’d like to do,” she says. “They start getting stars in their eyes about what they might be able to achieve.”
She adds that she would love to help even more women.
“We’re always looking for more funding!” she says laughing.