Overcoming invisible barriers to employment in Australia


Words by Farah Rahmat



Australia isn’t new to me. I moved here briefly in 2009 to complete my postgraduate studies and made some beautiful memories and lasting friendships. Given a chance, I’d have stayed on to pursue a career in cultural studies but my work as a teacher and family back home in Singapore beckoned me back. Living and working in Australia became a dream I pushed to the backburner. Little did I know that what I’d thought was simply a pipe dream, came to fruition some nine years later. 


By this time, I had grown personally and professionally, having built substantial knowledge and experience in my chosen profession and developed valued skills in educational leadership and management. While I expected that settling into a new environment would have its fair share of uncertainties, I didn’t think it would be overly challenging. I was wrong. Gaining access to jobs that match my skills and experience isn’t as easy as I’d imagined. There are invisible barriers I never knew existed which certainly left me floundering at times. 


I’m not alone in this strange and painful journey. Migrant women experience particular hurdles in their path towards gainful employment as revealed in reports by Women’s Economic Security Statement 2020 and Towards 2025: An Australian Government Strategy to Boost Women’s Workforce Participation 2017. 


Lack of social and professional networks


Networks of support are important to us all but especially for newly-arrived migrant women, they are vital. They help in building a sense of connection to both location and community and can determine how quickly we adjust to our new life. We build our social networks early in life through family and friends and as we begin to establish our careers, we also form our professional networks. 


Based on a report produced by Harmony Alliance on A Strategic Approach To Improving Employment Outcomes Of Women From Migrant And Refugee Backgrounds In Australia, local networks can be critical to gaining employment as many jobs are advertised through word of mouth and candidate selection relies heavily on recommendations from existing networks. 


For many migrant women like me, our professional networks have been disrupted as a result of migration and we find ourselves at the start point of re-establishing our social and professional networks. This takes considerable investment of time, a degree of vulnerability, and significant resourcefulness. 


The restrictions on movement in Victoria brought on by COVID-19 proved a small blessing as I was inadvertently directed to online professional platforms such as LinkedIn to begin the work of building my professional network. It was here that I discovered the Professional Migrant Women (PMW) network and met an amazing pool of international talent who shared similar challenges in securing gainful employment in Australia. The women of PMW supported me both socially and professionally in those months of COVID-19 lockdown. I made genuine friendships with kindred spirits who understood not only my aspirations, but my frustrations. PMW’s structured mentoring program was immensely valuable to my understanding of local recruitment practices and expectations and I learnt to step out of my comfort zone and be at ease with doing things differently. 


Limited understanding of Australian workplace culture, industries and sectors, recruitment and employment practices 


I can’t emphasise this enough – without established social and/or professional networks in Australia, professional migrant women will face an uphill task of understanding recruitment and employment practices including developing well-structured resumes, responding to selection criteria and answering behavioural questions in interviews. These skills are crucial to a candidate’s success and only develop and improve with guidance and practice. For those for whom English is a second language, even more assistance is needed. 


In PMW’s structured mentoring program, I received group and individualised guidance from the team’s experienced career mentors and professional partners who helped me showcase and articulate my strengths and accomplishments with greater clarity. I gained insights into local workplace culture, industries and sectors including the notion of the hidden job market where vacancies are circulated informally within the workplace through employee referrals. Again, this avenue would be inaccessible to those of us without a local professional network to tap into.


Lack of local work experience and Australian reference


With the exception of employer-sponsored positions, more often than not,  overseas qualifications are not always recognised and international experience often disregarded. Skilled migrants may face difficulties convincing employers of the value of their qualifications and their ability to adapt to the local workplace culture (McKay 2008; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2013; Syed 2008). 


Local work experience and Australian reference, on the other hand, are highly valued and considered essential to securing employment especially in sectors that require high skill sets. For many migrants like me, our pathway to a local reference is often through volunteer or casual work. I started my voluntary work this year in the midst of the pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on lives here in Australia and globally. 


I’ve been able to contribute in different ways to the organisations I’m attached to – tutoring, writing and extending growth and reach through social media platforms. I’m certainly benefitting from these experiences as I develop new skills which may perhaps open pathways to various opportunities. Although this is by no means a guarantee that I’ll eventually find work that fulfils me and a career progression that meets my aspirations, it is effort that I must continue to invest.  


While Australia is indeed a nation of immigrants, entry into the labour force isn’t a given. As professionals who’ve already paid “our dues” to build ourselves to where we are, it can feel like a huge let down to know that we may have to start from zero again. Just know that we’re not alone in this. If you need to, seek help to deal with the emotional roller-coaster ride that may seem unending. Do know that as trained professionals who’ve taken the steps to make Australia home, you have the right traits– motivation, resourcefulness, perseverance and plain grit not only to survive but also to thrive in your new environment. In the face of my own challenges, I’ve found the courage to be vulnerable, aligned myself with those who’d encourage and motivate me to keep going and learnt to embrace new experiences – good and bad so that each learning moves me forward to where I want to go. 


So long,

The PMW Team 😉