Samira Manfon, 28, has faced more hurdles than most when climbing the career ladder.
While completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Concordia University in Montreal as an international student from France, she struggled to gain relevant work experience without the benefit of a network; public service job postings she applied to openly prioritized citizens over permanent residents such as herself; and she says the best co-op positions seemed to go to white men.
“Even though the federal government system is based on merit, I think the level of comfort the interviewer has with you plays a role. If you don’t fit into a certain mould or speak the ‘language’, it can be difficult,” says Ms. Manfon, who is now a policy analyst with Employment and Social Development Canada in Montreal.
While Ms. Manfon says she was eventually hired by a male immigrant manager in 2018, and has been promoted a few times since, more recently she’s been suffering from burnout and imposter syndrome. “I started questioning everything – whether I had the skills for the next promotion, if people had made a mistake in promoting me, and things like that. And I think that all came from the fact that I don’t see myself represented as a Black woman in leadership positions,” she says.
So, when she learned about a new accelerator program called Jump the Rung that aims to help early-to-mid-career immigrant women of colour get promoted to senior levels, she applied right away.
Jump the Rung’s content is designed to give participants the cultural knowledge they need to navigate office politics and build relationships. Women in the accelerator are taught to advocate for themselves, build their personal brand, find sponsors and other strategies to gain power and influence.
The seven-week part-time program is delivered online through a mix of training, exercises, group discussion, guest speaker presentations and mentoring sessions with racialized female executives. Participants also complete in-depth personal assessments and assignments in between the weekly three-hour sessions.
Launched in May, Jump the Rung is the flagship program of a year-old social enterprise called #FixTheBrokenRung that conducts research, offers workshop trainings to middle managers and delivers keynote speeches to company leaders to advance the careers of racialized immigrant women.
#FixTheBrokenRung is the brainchild of Amal Masri, a seasoned Toronto-based executive, keynote speaker and author with 15 years of experience in the financial services industry. As someone who grew up in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Masri remembers clearly how challenging it was to navigate her early career in Canada as a “triple outsider” – a woman, a person of colour and an immigrant.
In addition to facing microaggressions and discriminatory comments about her gender and Islamic faith, Ms. Masri says being a relative newcomer – she arrived in Canada with her family at the age of 14 – added another layer of hurdles. “There was so much I didn’t know in terms of the business culture and how to navigate the workplace because I was the first person in my family to work in corporate Canada,” she says. “We also didn’t have the networks that I could turn to for job referrals … I badly wanted a mentor who ‘got it,’ but there was no one like me at higher levels.”
Despite this, she says she was privileged to get her first job at an inclusive company where she found support from mentors of different backgrounds. It wasn’t until around 2020 – when more data about women of colour became available – that Ms. Masri realized not everyone with her background was as lucky, and that racialized immigrant women continue to face barriers in their career growth.
In Greater Toronto, 1 per cent of corporate executives are racialized immigrant women despite making up 17 per cent of the city’s population, according to a 2019 Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council report and a recent report by Ms. Masri’s organization. And despite studies showing racialized women are more educated and ambitious compared to other women, only 63 of them advance to management positions for every 100 white women who are promoted, according to a 2021 McKinsey & Co. report on Canadian workplaces.
That’s a problem, Ms. Masri says. It’s why she also trains middle managers and company leaders on how to be more supportive of racialized immigrant women through #FixTheBrokenRung. That includes providing mentorship and sponsorship, fighting for them to get high-visibility stretch assignments, referring them for jobs and defending their reputation.
“It’s a win-win for both the women and businesses,” says Ms. Masri. “You have this very driven and highly skilled group that’s under-leveraged and underutilized in companies. If employers are able to invest more in their professional development and increase psychological safety for them, then the benefits to their innovation, their productivity and their profitability are limitless.”
For Ms. Manfon, the accelerator program has been invaluable in helping change her mindset around advancement, she says; for example, she’s learned the importance of tapping into her network rather than relying heavily on merit. In addition, she has gained the tools to better communicate with team members in more senior positions.
“The way I was raised is that you have this deference for authority and you don’t have these conversations with people that are ‘above’ you – you take orders and that’s it,” Ms. Manfon says. “So that would also mean not putting up my hand, introducing myself to people or feeling I had anything to offer. But I’ve learned you have to do that to be considered.”
Another participant, Faezeh Shafiee – a 27-year-old marketing manager who moved to Calgary from Iran in 2022 – says what sets this program apart is that it sets the bar high for immigrant women. When she first arrived, she attended several programs aimed at newcomers, including a government-run resume workshop, in which only a warehouse job template was provided. She also remembers the instructor saying, “Canadians will like you and be nice to you until you become their manager.”
“I was so shocked. I thought, This can’t be the narrative for immigrant women,” Ms. Shafiee says.
At work, she says making small talk with co-workers was challenging because their interests and upbringing were so different to hers. “Sometimes I feel like they would look at me as if I was from a different planet,” she says.
Ms. Shafiee says the accelerator program has helped her become more confident at small talk. Participants were encouraged to view their differences as strengths – rather than weaknesses – that could lead to interesting conversations. “I realized I don’t have to become a master of talking about golf and beer to be successful at networking – I can be my authentic self and still win,” she says.
At a practical level, she says she learned the importance of finding at least one professional sponsor or mentor who is different and can provide a safe space to answer questions about cultural references.
Ms. Shafiee says she’s happy that she has found a community of like-minded women who support and understand each other. “It was liberating to be myself and to be able to talk about everything from my promotion plan to racist comments I’ve received,” Ms. Shafiee says. “I used to think that I must have personal shortcomings. But I realized from talking to these women that this isn’t about me. It’s about the system, so I stopped beating myself up about it.”