Anju Philip: Exploring South Asian women’s sense of belonging

Posted on Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

Written by Dilshan Fernando

In many Canadian workplaces, South Asian women are a distinct and thriving minority. But what do their paths to success look like?

They don’t have it easy. Anju Philip, a PhD candidate in the Department of Management at U of G’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics says they often navigate complex and arduous parallel cultures.

“I’m always curious to understand how South Asian women conform to the cultural norms that are an integral part of their lives, and yet also assimilate to the host culture that we are in,” she says.

Anju Philip

There seem to be many thick layers in which these parallel cultures unfold, such as employment. Anju studies South Asian working women’s experiences in Canada, with a focus on work-related barriers.

A recent report notes how getting a job in Canada can be such a challenge especially for South Asian women.

Part of the problem is the lack of correct information. She says that’s why studying how these women form social networks - an important behavior that differs across cultures - helps to fill-in information gaps.

Such research could also explain why South Asian women are more inclined to change their jobs than any other minority group in Canada, she says.

Sometimes, subtle discrimination influences these culture-based choices.

Recently, Anju visited a health care practitioner who was surprised with her English skills. “She asked me if I went to an English school,” says Anju. “I find that particularly annoying.” After all, English is her first language. Yet these are the type of daily encounters, based on ignorance, that mostly don’t intend any meanness, that make one the “Other” no matter how settled they get in their host culture and its organizations.

Anju has a lot of experience in this area. Her research on women’s choices, cultures, and networks reflects her own journey as a woman of South Asian descent. She was born in Ethiopia, raised in Botswana, educated in India and the US, worked there as well as in China. So, she’s had to weave through different cultures to make her life choices. This extraordinary inter-continental exposure has had undeniable marks on her scholarship today.

Elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

As a community-savvy person, she deeply values collegial networks. “I'm one of those people who tries to keep in touch, so I will make sure I'm checking in on people,” she says.

But she hasn’t experienced a real sense of belonging as a doctoral student. “The camaraderie is not there, I think that's very different from a South Asian perspective,” she says. 

Houseboat, Kerala, India. Image by Anju Philip, April 2022

And that’s why Anju views CIRCLE as that networking hub at U of G which students like her look for support and camaraderie.

The chance to connect with others who work on under-researched areas like the South Asian diaspora in Canada is encouraging, she says. Much of this student engagement is harnessed by CIRCLE’s active outreach, such as connecting with students like herself and keeping everyone on top of South Asia focused research, she says. While one does not always have time for all their activities, there is something for a diverse audience.

Anju is excited to make further connections through CIRCLE as she reaches out to working South Asian women for her data collection.

“In India, you get together with your colleagues and form a sort of a gang,” she says. “It's so easy to move through a program or organization and be successful when you have that sense of belonging and support,” she says.

Dilshan Fernando is a student writer for CIRCLE. He is in the second year of his PhD at the University of Guelph.

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