A blog by Mariam Bouchoutrouch, PIRS Executive Director
Pacific Immigrant Resources Society recently received the Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Award in the category of Breaking Barriers. And in typical fashion, I stumbled at the podium and later someone told me how they loved how humble I was.
I have trouble with public speaking. As I step up to a podium, my brain starts this negative self talk. The kind that says I shouldn’t be up here, how could I possibly top the speaker before me and, why would anyone want to hear my story?
What I’ve come to realize is that I’m not alone. Many women in leadership roles are challenged by negative self-talk, especially racialized women; immigrant and refugee women. We’ve learned all our lives where our place is, and this sure doesn’t look like it. We’ve learned to be afraid of drawing too much attention to ourselves.
A barrier is something that blocks or is intended to block passage. Women, especially racialized newcomer women, face multiple barriers.
Some of these barriers are systemic – it’s just the way our society is set up to keep some people in their place. For example, women are still responsible for the majority of household work. That means that regardless of her career, she still does most of the cooking, cleaning and raising the children. In some cultures, a woman will have her extended family around her for support but when she immigrates to Canada she leaves all that behind and often becomes isolated by her family responsibilities. And while our social programs do work to support her, funding is often inadequate to meet the needs.
Women still earn less than men, and immigrant women even more so. Newcomer families often prioritize the man’s education and job in order to get ahead. And Canadian systems reinforce this. As a result of immigration policies, women still make up the bulk of family class immigrants, which makes them “dependents”. Immigrant women are more likely to change professions once they arrive in Canada and settle for low-status jobs for survival. The lack of an affordable childcare system reinforces this.
Barriers can also be personal. Raised in a patriarchal household, I was taught from an early age that IF I went to university it would be to get my MRS. degree. I learned early on that, while I might be able to have a career, I should focus on finding a good husband and having children. Women who want to have a successful career have to give up something. We don’t have this expectation of men. As a result there is a lot of personal guilt and fear that professional women carry, guilt at not being the perfect wife or never quite achieving the status of super mom or not having kids at all. We just have to look at how Hilary Clinton was portrayed during the 2016 US elections for an example of how successful women are attacked when they try to reach too high, and she is white and privileged.
PIRS’ vision is a world that values the diverse contributions of immigrants and refugees and promotes the enrichment of their lives. On a global scale, we find ourselves facing challenges that are disrupting the status quo and forcing us to slow down and re-examine the way we do things, both as individuals and as a society. Our world is changing and we can lead the change to build the world we want to see.
It all started for PIRS 45 years ago, in 1975, when a group of visionary women noticed the growing isolation of Chinese immigrant women in Vancouver’s Chinatown. PIRS’ programs were set up to break down the barriers that kept these moms isolated. We’ve been doing this quietly in the background, the way women typically do. In fact, many of the innovations in our sector originated with PIRS. So, it’s time to proudly accept this award and to toot PIRS’ horn.
As the leader of an organization led by immigrant women and working for immigrant women, I recognize how my personal struggles reflect and intersect with the barriers of the women we work with. It is time to stop being afraid. It is time to step up and amplify the voices of racialized immigrant and refugee women.