A few people have asked me what the most challenging thing is about living in another country. As you’d expect, one of the hardest things is being away from family and friends for long periods. The pandemic has really added to that challenge, with my flights this summer cancelled and no real certainty of when I’ll next be going home.
As a blonde and softly spoken immigrant woman from the millennial generation, the other challenging thing about living overseas for me personally has been having to occasionally deal with underestimating assumptions about my abilities from people I’ve met, whether in a personal or professional setting.
I write the above with a firm acknowledgment that I have benefited from white privilege through my life. I haven’t had assumptions made about me regarding criminal status. Restrictions on the schools I could attend or areas I could live in were not influenced by my race. I was able to move to North America free from expectation I’d face discrimination because of my skin colour, and I recognize how fortunate I am for that.
In this post I’m addressing societal attitudes towards young women, specifically assumptions about their abilities that appear to be influenced by a mixture of general stereotypes and unconscious biases.
I’m 28 years old, and three years ago shortly after I moved to Canada, I decided to stop wearing mascara to work. Make-up was already something I didn’t wear much of, but I was sick of getting styes and realized I didn’t care how I looked without it. Given my naturally fair facial features, an understandable effect of this is that people tend to assume I’m younger than I am. When I was 25, I went through security at Victoria International Airport and the female searcher said “So, you’re probably around 18, right?” I laughed it off, but afterwards I wondered why she couldn’t have just asked me to tell her my age, instead of telling me how old she thought I was.
When corrected on age, people will often tell you to “take it as a compliment” that they mistook you for younger. There comes a point when saying this just becomes annoying. It’s okay if people guess my age incorrectly; what isn’t okay is when people associate this assumed age with my abilities.
At a recent small barbecue, I met a man with a foreign accent who appeared to be in his late 60s. After he brought up New Zealand a couple of times, I asked where in the country he was from, and he reciprocated by asking me where I was from. After I told him, he said, “So, do you have family here?”
When I returned home I felt irritated, and I realized it was because of the man’s question. This is a question I’ve received several times since I moved to Canada. Although part of me knew it was a reasonable question to ask, and although I knew the man meant well, I found it frustrating that his initial assumption had to be that I had moved to Canada with or to be with family. What’s wrong with simply asking “Why did you move to Canada?”? Why must there be the assumption that I couldn’t have immigrated by or for myself?
A few months after moving to Canada, I met with a recruiter to discuss the local job market for HR and recruitment roles. The woman implied my chances of being hired for a permanent job in my field were low because I was on a two-year working holiday visa. I left the meeting with my confidence dealt a blow, the woman’s skeptical expression and fake smile etched in my mind. I felt like her opinion of me had been formed at first glance, and she hadn’t really given me a chance.
That same afternoon, I attended another interview and was offered the job there and then. I work as a Staffing Consultant, connecting job-seekers with employers. My role involves interviewing people on a daily basis, and often these people are older than me. Before COVID-19 led to remote working and phone interviews, it wasn’t uncommon for me to introduce myself to a candidate and receive a blank or confused look in return. Sometimes I would even notice a brief look of disapproval. During interviews, some of these people would make faces at the way I pronounced certain words with my accent.
What’s important to note is that it wasn’t just men giving me this reception. There aren’t enough fingers on my hands to count how many times women have called me “sweetie”, “honey”, or “dear”. People from all genders have said “Oh, you’re so young!” in surprise. They have remarked with embarrassed faces that their son/daughter is “probably your age”. Others have scoffed when asked a question about a job on their resume and said “I think I worked at that company before you were even born”.
While some of these comments and terms of address are used innocently without the intention of causing offence, they are inappropriate and often come across as patronizing. For those with a sensitive ego, their implication in referencing my age is that I am not competent or experienced enough to help them, or that I do not deserve to be the person with authority in this working relationship.
What’s ironic is that we would never say the above comments to someone who appears to be over 60, because society tells us it’s rude to do so. While it’s always nice to feel I’ve changed someone’s initial opinion about me, it’s just a shame the assumption has to exist in the first place. With workers retiring later and Gen Z’s entering the workforce, different generations are working side by side more than ever, and I know I am not the only millennial woman who has been condescended or underestimated by older colleagues.
Having grown up in a society where blondes are still stereotyped as bimbos whose main skills are shopping and posing on the cover of lads’ mags, being underestimated is not new to me, but moving overseas has brought a new dimension to it. It’s not uncommon for someone to assume that I’m a student, or to look surprised when they learn I have a job that isn’t related to hospitality, tourism or retail. Of course there is nothing wrong with working these jobs; I just wish it didn’t have to be the assumption that they would be my only option as a young female immigrant.
A positive of this experience is that it’s given me a tougher skin. I’m getting better at not taking reactions or comments personally, and more confident at (politely) letting the person know they are inappropriate. I try to see such moments as an opportunity to change someone’s perspective towards younger women.
Another positive has been that it’s made me more mindful of my own stereotypes. There’s no denying the reality that everyone has their unconscious biases or believes in irrational stereotypes, whether inspired by society and the media, their upbringing, or other sources. I try to practise being open-minded in everyday life, which is only beneficial for my job. As someone who has been underestimated, it feels good to be in a position where I can endorse those young women (and others) who have been underestimated and overlooked as well.
If this post does anything, I hope it makes readers think about and perhaps reconsider a) their assumptions about the motivations of female immigrants, b) their assumptions about the capabilities of young female immigrants, and c) the way they address and speak to younger females in the workplace.