By Tobi Cohen, Postmedia News
OTTAWA — When it comes to obtaining higher education, women continue to outpace men, while newcomers are arriving in Canada with more post-secondary experience than the average person who was born here.
According to figures released Wednesday by Statistics Canada, women ages 25 to 64 now hold 54 per cent of all university degrees, and 60 per cent of the degrees among young adults (25 to 34 years of age).
But women remain underrepresented, compared with men, in the so-called “STEM” fields: science and technology, engineering, math and computers.
Meanwhile, the Statistics Canada data suggest immigrants comprise just one-quarter of Canada’s total adult population but account for more than one-third of all adults with a university degree. They most likely to have earned their credentials abroad come from the Philippines, India, the U.K., China and the United States.
What’s difficult to extrapolate from the 2011 National Household Survey, however, is whether immigrants and women with degrees are actually working in their respective fields, whether they’re climbing the corporate ladder and whether they’re being compensated appropriately for their job.
It’s no secret that immigrants, despite often-high levels of education, face language barriers, credential-recognition difficulties and higher levels of underemployment and unemployment.
While the government is taking steps to level the playing field for women and ensure Canada welcomes newcomers who are most likely to be successful, experts argue there is still a way to go.
“In the purely graduating figures, (women are) doing pretty well,” said Penny Collenette, a University of Ottawa adjunct professor and founding member of the Taskforce for Women and Enterprise.
“Where we’re still missing a step is what I call the drop-out rate after. So you get women graduated, they’ll get a job. But then at some point, because of children, because we lack child care in this country, because there are still barriers within certain sectors, they drop out.”
Collenette believes pay parity “should be a given” and is dumbfounded that some women are still earning less than men for doing the same job. She also believes companies ought to take a leadership role in providing child care if the federal government and provinces can’t deliver on an oft-promised national strategy.
While the federal government recently created an advisory council to promote the participation of women on corporate boards, Collenette said talk is cheap.
“We need some action,” she said. “In some other countries there’s actual legislation that says you’ve got to appoint a certain percentage of women . . . Unless businesses . . . get serious about this, we look like laggards in the world.”
Women’s Executive Network founder Pamela Jeffrey added that in many fields, growth has been slow. It’s certainly the case in STEM fields, but also in her field, law. While it’s been 25 years since she graduated from business school, the number of females in her program has “inched up” just five per cent.
She argues women need to be more aggressive in their pursuit of promotions and bigger salaries, but that companies also need to recognize that “dipping into the other 50 per cent of the talent pool” makes good business sense.
On the immigration front, the federal government has taken steps over the last few years to reduce the number of incidences in which physicians and engineers turn to driving taxis for a living.
Tough new language requirements, greater attention to credential recognition and an emphasis on youth, in-demand skills and pre-arrival job offers are expected to go a long way towards rectifying the situation, said Nick Noorani, who helps fellow immigrants settle and succeed in Canada through his website, magazine and speaking engagements.
“What use is education if you can’t speak the language?” he said. He expects the situation will improve, but argues regulated professions like medicine remain a tough nut to crack for newcomers.
Anirudh Kapoor and his wife Summi are learning that first-hand. The radiologist and ophthalmologist from India left their home and successful practices to move to Vancouver. A year-and-a-half later, they remain unemployed, are running out of money and may have to return home if they can’t find work soon.
“It was my lifelong dream to live in a civilized country . . . to not have to deal with the basics of living,” said Kapoor who is now upgrading his skills.
Kapoor, who has strong English skills, said he’s considering dropping his specialty to become a general practitioner but admits even getting into a residency program is difficult.
Despite the struggles many women and immigrants face, the figures are promising on some fronts. According to Statistics Canada, six out of every 10 young medical degree holders are now women, while 47 per cent of young doctorate degree holders are women.
Immigrants, meanwhile, make up half of all adults who hold degrees in so-called STEM fields.
Yet, according to the figures, the top female jobs were in retail sales, administration, nursing, cashiering and teaching at the elementary level.
The 2011 National Household Survey, to which 2.65 million households responded, replaced the mandatory long-form census. Experts say the voluntary nature of the survey leaves some gaps in the data from groups who do not tend to respond to voluntary surveys, including Aboriginals, new immigrants and low-income families. But despite this, they also say the data should provide a fairly accurate broad scale picture of Canada.