Nfld. & Labrador

These immigrant women are experts in their fields of science. Why aren't they working in them?

On paper, these women of science should be at the forefront of cutting-edge research and community health. Prajwala Dixit speaks with four of them.
Eda Erdem Kemaoğlu stands at an open pit mine in Eskisehir, Turkey. (Submitted by Prajwala Dixit)

They are engineers, doctors and scientists. They speak multiple languages. They have global work experience.

On paper, these women of science should be at the forefront of cutting-edge research and community health. Instead, they serve you at restaurants, take care of your children at daycares and answer your questions as customer service agents.

There is nothing wrong with those jobs, except that they are not their professional goals, nor the jobs they trained for.

Four immigrant women in St. John's, all with a background in the sciences, shared their lived experiences with me about finding gainful employment.

Survival jobs will have to do

"Just because I hold a degree from a different country doesn't make me less capable," said Janani Shivshankar, a recent graduate from Memorial University with a postgraduate degree in environmental systems engineering and management.

Shivshankar immigrated to Newfoundland and Labrador as an international student to pursue her higher education in engineering. Within the last year she applied for more than 300 jobs in her field.

From those applications, she was called back for three or four interviews. None of them turned out to be fruitful.

Unable to find employment, Shivshankar moved away from the province looking for opportunities in Alberta where she now works in the insurance industry in a customer service and sales position.

Survival jobs are often the route that immigrants like Shivshankar choose in the hopes of seeking Canadian experience for their resumés, building their social and professional networks and achieving financial security.

I was told that shortening your name or giving yourself an English name makes it easier for the recruiter to have a glance at your resumé.- Janani Shivshankar 

It's a situation that Samatha Chauhan found herself in after she arrived in Canada.

Chauhan studied androgen insensitivity syndrome while working on her PhD in molecular biology from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, after which she immigrated to Canada.

Canada's points-based immigration system rewards higher levels of education.

The higher the education, the higher the points — and hence the greater the chances of being chosen to immigrate. But once here, the ground reality appears starkly different.

"It's not an easy task to find any employment here in Newfoundland and Labrador.… University [here] has limited funding and lot of competition," said Chauhan. "I couldn't find a job in my field and finally, I gave up." 

Dr. Samatha Chauhan presents her findings on androgen insensitivity syndrome at a conference. (Submitted by Prajwala Dixit)

According to a Statistics Canada report, "immigrant women are more likely to be unemployed compared with both Canadian-born women and immigrant men" even though "immigrant women are more likely to have completed university than women in Canada." 

With a PhD, Chauhan had hoped to be working with pharmaceutics or teaching. Now Chauhan works as an early childhood educator with preschool children at a daycare centre.

"When I tell people in my current job about my education, they [are] shocked and always say, 'Wow! What are you doing here?'" she said. 

The beginnings of Shivshankar and Chauhan's journeys are echoed in Eda Erdem Kemaoğlu's immigrant story. What she discovered was the importance of social networks in tapping the job markets.

No network, no job 

Kemaoğlu is a mining engineer from Turkey with an undergraduate degree and two post-grad degrees in the field. If this isn't enough, add 14 years of working experience under her belt. But this still hasn't turned into gainful employment post immigration to Newfoundland and Labrador. 

After seeking survival jobs, Kemaoğlu enrolled in a master's program specializing in oil and gas at Memorial University while working part-time at a food franchise.

"I found my part-time job with the help of my university friend. If she wasn't my reference, I couldn't have [been] hired either. Finding a job is highly dependent on your network rather than what your experience is," she said. 

When you realize that it is taking longer than expected to attain [a job in the field] despite the degrees … and credentials, it's devastating.​​- Janani Shivshankar

Echoing Kemaoğlu's sentiments, as a student Shivshankar recognized the importance of networking and attending professional events. But she found the events weren't financially accessible for an international student working part-time while supporting their expenses. When Shivshankar did attend these events, she came upon an oft-repeated narrative.

"I was told that shortening your name or giving yourself an English name makes it easier for the recruiter to have a glance at your resumé," she said.

A recent study conducted by the Public Policy Forum revealed that, regardless of gender, "immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East fare worse than Canadian-born workers, while immigrants from Europe fare better than non-European immigrants."

The research also indicates that systemic biases, such as the one noted above, propel immigrant women — especially those who are melanin-rich — toward service industries where there is a tendency to be poorly compensated.

Dr. Komal Ambaliya has yet to wear her stethoscope and coat to practise medicine in Canada. (Submitted by Prajwala Dixit)

Red tape

"I just give [the] advice … that if you are [in] the medical profession, don't come to Canada.… And if you come, don't expect to work in the field of what you have worked before. It's almost impossible, despite [the] shortage of doctors," said Komal Ambaliya.

Ambaliya has been living in the province for almost two years but has had difficulty in gaining licensure to practise here.

"I can't go back in India and start working … as my PR application [is] in progress," she said.

"Also, the Medical Council of India denied giving additional hours of internship to meet Canadian standards as it is completed as per MCI standard."

Without these extra hours of internship and no means to complete it here or in India, Ambaliya said her dreams of practising in Canada have yet to be realized.

Ambaliya, like Kemaoğlu, intends to repeat her education in Canada again. But, in Kemaoğlu's case, a new impediment stands in her way as an international student.

If I knew my situation would turn out like this, I would never had studied medicine and become a doctor.- Komal Ambaliya

"I have a study permit right now with 20 hours a week limit. As an international student, it is very difficult to find part-time engineering jobs here," said Kemaoğlu.

While at MUN, Shivshankar attended the sessions held by Professional Engineers and Geoscientists Newfoundland & Labrador to be able to work on her licensure. However, the requirements to be accepted by MUN's faculty of engineering do not always coincide with those to receive licensure from the association.

"I did try registering with PEGNL. However, they don't consider my four years of [a] biotechnology degree to be an engineering one and so I didn't [pursue it] further," said Shivshankar.

But if she weren't an engineer, how did she get accepted for a graduate program in engineering at Memorial?

"[MUN] did consider it [to be an undergraduate degree in engineering], and that's why I was eligible for a [graduate] degree in environmental systems engineering and management," said Shivshankar.

Janani Shivshankar celebrates at her graduation ceremony in 2019. (Submitted by Prajwala Dixit)

Time, energy, money, all down the drain

The education in the sciences has not been cheap and has cost these women significant time, energy, and financial resources.

Ambaliya said her personal journey included financial and cultural struggles in India to become a doctor with the hopes of helping the community she lived in. The current situation of COVID-19 and being unable to practise has amplified her frustrations.

"If I knew my situation would turn out like this, I would never had studied medicine and become a doctor," Ambaliya said.

As an international student, Shivshankar spent approximately $25,000 on tuition for a master's program at Memorial. Add to this the costs of acquiring appropriate study permits, visas, travel and living expenses — and the price tag increases significantly.

Being an immigrant woman has more difficulties. I feel like I need to prove myself more than others.- Eda Erdem Kemaoglu

"When you realize that it is taking longer than expected to attain [a job in the field] despite the degrees … and credentials, it's devastating," said Shivshankar.

For Chauhan, the loss of an identity has hung heavy on the heart. "It's not a good feeling at all.… I always regret not working in my field. In fact, I regret studying in my field," she said.

And for Kemaoğlu, the mental toll this has taken on her is intangible. "Being an immigrant woman has more difficulties," she said.

"I feel like I need to prove myself more than others. I have to be unbeaten all [the] time, no chance to fail or make a mistake."

Progress is being made through a variety of provincial and federal initiatives in helping achieve gender and racial parity within the sciences — pure and applied.

However, what is evident through these narratives is the global talent and experience that continue to go untapped in Canada. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Prajwala Dixit


Prajwala Dixit is a journalist, columnist, playwright and writer in St. John's.


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