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Digital Skills Training and Skills Utilization among Immigrants in Canada: A Gendered Divide

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

By: Rochelle Wijesingha, Miki Itano Boase, Harry Parameswaran, Nicole Taylor, Samantha Stewart

In the past few decades, there has been a drastic advancement in information and communication technology (ICT). However, there is arguably a digital skills gap that exists in Canada. Digital skills refer to “a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information”. Researchers have identified a digital skills gap between what employers are looking for in terms of ICT-related knowledge and the candidates available to suit their requirements. At the same time, there is also an underrepresentation of immigrants, women, and other equity-seeking groups in the ICT sector in Canada.

Prior scholarship is fragmented with respect to the degree to which immigrants possess digital literacy. This is especially important to understand during COVID-19, when many settlement services as well as learning and programming, have shifted to digital platforms. As workplaces are transforming due to COVID-19, many employers now require a substantially higher level of digital literacy and skills for entry-level positions. This has resulted in a situation where some immigrants who have shifted to remote work or searching for employment are now lacking digital access, as well as the required digital knowledge or experience, contributing to barriers in terms of career maintenance or advancement.

In addition to the fragmented knowledge surrounding digital skills, gender disparities in terms of skill acquisition and knowledge also exist due to issues surrounding access, affordability, education and skills, and technological literacy, resulting in gender biases and gender-based digital exclusion). Digital skills could ‘leapfrog’ opportunities for the advancement of women, immigrant women in particular, through the potential gain in terms of income created and career advancement opportunities, as well as access to general knowledge that could contribute to the well-being of women and their families. Yet there is a lack of research on the state of digital skills training and skills utilization for immigrant women.

The aim of this piece is to examine whether immigrants in Canada are taking measures to improve their digital skills and the extent to which they utilize digital skills in their life. This piece will also examine whether gender differences exist in digital skills training and digital skills utilization.


We used data from Statistics Canada’s Public Use Microdata Files (PUMF) for the 2018 Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS) (n=13,810). The CIUS is a cross-sectional survey that examines access to the Internet, online behaviours and the use of digital technologies for individuals 15 years of age and over, residing in the ten Canadian provinces. Results were weighted so that the derived estimates would be representative of the population. For detailed information regarding the survey methodology, see the CIUS User Guide. The analysis was based on cross-tabulations and chi-square tests were employed to determine significance. The Statistical Package R was used for all analyses.


Immigrants consisted of 24.2% of the sample, of which 12.9% were immigrant men and 11.4% were immigrant women. Table 1 shows the proportion of individuals who took digital training in various forms by immigrant status. Immigrants are significantly more likely to take digital training in the form of free/self-guided learning, through community centres or senior centres, and training paid for by themselves than Canadian-born individuals. There was no statistically significant difference between immigrants and Canadian-born individuals in terms of training paid or provided by employers.

We examined gender differences for individuals who took digital training in various forms. Results show that immigrant women are more likely to take multiple forms of training than Canadian-born women (Figure 1). Similarly, immigrant men are more likely to take multiple forms of digital skills training than their Canadian-born counterparts and also when compared to immigrant women. However, women (both immigrant and Canadian-born) were more likely to take digital skills training instructions provided by friends or family than men.

Figure 1. Digital Skills Training by Immigrant Status and Gender

When looking at digital skills-related activities and immigrant status, it is evident that in general, immigrants are less likely to utilize digital skills in the last 12 months than Canadian-born individuals (Table 2). However, the exception to this is coding, where immigrants are significantly more likely to write code using a programming language than their Canadian-born counterparts.

Figure 2 shows gender differences in digital skills utilization. For coding, arguably the most advanced of the digital skills in the list, immigrant men and women are significantly more likely to use it when compared to their Canadian-born counterparts. Moreover, there is evidence that men, for the most part, use digital skills more than women except for word processing software where Canadian-born women had the highest proportions of use.

Figure 2. Digital Skills-Related Activities by Immigrant Status and Gender

Immigrants have higher unemployment rates in Canada and face a number of barriers to employment. They are also underrepresented in the ICT sector. At the same time, employers are citing that a digital skills gap exists in Canada. The results of our study show that immigrants are more likely to take active measures to improve their digital skills using a number of different methods. However, immigrants were less likely to be using digital skills in the past 12 months. Thus, the issue may not be that immigrants are lacking the required digital skills but rather that they are not being given the adequate opportunities. Therefore, it may be critical to engage skilled immigrants in the workplace using a diversity lens. Employers should target their hiring practices to include skilled immigrants using strong and transparent human resources practices.

When examining gender differences in digital skills training, we found that immigrant men were more likely than immigrant women to partake in digital skills training. However, immigrant women were more likely to take digital skills training than Canadian-born women. When it comes to digital skills utilization, men were using digital skills more than women, with immigrant women being the least likely to indicate that they used digital skills in the past 12 months.

Currently, women are underrepresented in ICT than in any other fields. Mueller, Truong, and Smoke (2018) found that women with the same ICT scores as men are much less likely to be employed in ICT occupations than men. This points to a gender-segmented ICT labour market. To be able to address existing gender-based digital exclusion, adult education and training programs need to remove barriers to participation for women, and immigrant women in particular, by providing more flexibility for skills upgrading.

Examining the state of digital skills training and digital skills utilization of immigrants is crucial now more than ever as COVID has resulted in the rapid transformation of workplaces and employers require higher levels of digital skills. This can have added consequences for immigrants who already face barriers to employment. Thus, evidence-based policies are required to counter the effects of COVID-19 on immigrants.

The PUMF CIUS data is not without limitations. Firstly, it was not possible to differentiate whether immigrants were racialized or not. Moreover, the data did not allow for disaggregation based on types of immigrants. For example, we would expect that there would be significant differences in findings between economic immigrants versus family reunification class immigrants. Finally, the data was limited in its ability to examine immigrants by the length of time in Canada to see whether newcomers were most likely to be taking measures to improve their digital skills. These should be examined in future studies.


*The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors

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