Latest Faculty of Information News

Student’s film explores Canada’s failed promise to immigrant women in STEM

Submitted on Thursday, June 02, 2022

When Elizabeth Kalbfleisch enrolled at the Faculty of Information to study Library and Archives, she was looking to redirect her career and better understand how the nature of information was changing. The fact that the entire first year of her program would be held online, due to the pandemic, didn’t faze her. In fact, as the mother of two young children, she considered it an advantage.

Two years later, as she is about to graduate with a Master of Information degree, Kalbfleisch has no regrets. Despite the constraints imposed due to Covid-19, she was able to forge ties with students and professors as well as put to use her background in the visual arts to produce a short animated film documenting the struggles and frustrations of immigrant women with STEM qualifications.

Elizabeth Kalbfleisch

Library and Archives student Elizabeth Kalbfleisch says she felt angry when she read about how immigrant women with STEM qualifications often can’t find work in their field in Canada.

The film was made as part of a research project overseen by Nadia Caidi, a professor in the Faculty of Information who has collaborated for years with Saadia Muzaffar, the entrepreneur who founded TechGirls Canada. Their most recent work is a study of 74 university-educated women across the country who were unable to find work in STEM despite the fact that Canada had actively recruited them to immigrate as highly trained workers.

Using a grant from the Mitacs Accelerate program, Caidi and Muzafaar hired Kalbfleisch to help them find new ways to get attention for their research beyond the regular academic channels. They eventually settled on a short animated film.

“I felt angry when I read their research. The results were so stunning to me,” says Kalbfleisch who took Professor Caidi’s course on communities and values during her first semester in the fall of 2020. “I wanted people to know about this and not for it to roll over as just another headline about the challenge of the immigrant experience.

“We thought if we could make something beautiful, it might grab people’s attention. The film is meant to be a conversation starter, a way to get people talking about these issues. For many people watching a five-minute video online is easier than reading an 80-page report.”

Aesthetics were hugely important to Kalbfleisch, who has taught art history and worked in the museum and cultural sectors, and wanted the video to convey the message of the research in a nuanced way.

Dani and Elizabeth workshop a scene

Elizabeth Kalbfleisch (top right) and animator Dani Elizondo (bottom right) work together online to workshop a scene from the film.

To find an animator, she put out feelers to her network, sending inquiries to everyone she knew, and found Dani Elizondo last summer. “Dani connected with the issues in the film,” says Kalbfleisch, explaining that the two worked closely together to develop the collage look used in the film and to create Maia, its main character. Doing the animation took several months. “It was so painstaking and time consuming for Dani to do. The labour she put into this was extraordinary,” says Kalbfleisch.

When Kalbfleisch presented the finished product, entitled “We Were Here All Along”, to Professor Caidi’s class in March, it inspired the students to think about what’s known as “arts-based knowledge translation” as another option in their information toolkits. It was also the first time Caidi and Kalbfleisch had met in person despite having interacted virtually every week for months.

The plan now is to use the film to raise awareness and to support, not replace, other forms of research dissemination. Its target audience includes employers in STEM industries, the immigrant settlement agencies who support newcomers, the civil servants and analysts who are designing immigration policy, information professionals who work at the community level and the broader public.

In their study, Caidi and Muzafaar identified many intertwined issues that are sketched out in the video. “Employers need a better understanding of what their own hiring practices are. Settlement workers are really well intentioned but their focus is often ‘let’s get a job’ even if it’s not necessarily the right fit,” says Kalbfleisch. “From an information perspective, something is broken in the transmission of information. It does not take into account the variety of contexts that the women operate in.”

As the film is rolled out, Kalbfleisch is working on another project with Caidi, this one funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada and looking at Covid-19 vaccination and misinformation on the digital platforms used by newcomers to the country.

Kalbfleisch is excited that her two daughters will be able to watch her convocate later this week and she is also on the job market. “Working on this project showed me that I can do something else with these skills other than working in an archive or a library,” she said. “I have a more open mind towards the kind of opportunities I’m looking for than when I came in.”