Student Identity and Work-integrated Learning (WIL): Exploring Student Experiences of WIL by Demographic

HEQCO’s fall 2021 survey of students reveals that women, immigrants and students with disabilities are not experiencing the same levels of inclusive, high-quality WIL as others. These demographic groups report statistically significant higher rates of dissatisfaction, barriers to accessibility at different stages of their placement, harassment from colleagues and mental health challenges.

Authors: Ken Chatoor and Lena Balata

While the benefits of work-integrated learning (WIL) are well-documented, research shows that certain underrepresented students — such as women, students with disabilities and LGBTQAI+ students — experience disparities in WIL outcomes, including post-graduation employment rates and salaries. While Canadian literature on WIL focuses heavily on student perceptions, data about diversity and inclusion in WIL are scarce; evaluations rarely include a diversity lens, and few studies focus on how different groups perceive their WIL experiences.

HEQCO’s recent report — Working (and Learning) Online — discussed the benefits and challenges of remote- and hybrid-WIL; HEQCO will soon release a report exploring student experiences of inclusivity in WIL. Both publications are based on data collected through surveys of WIL students, institutional administrators and employers regarding the 2020-21 academic year and administered by the Academica Group in fall 2021.

This data set provides us with an opportunity to ask how student satisfaction with WIL experiences varies by background (demographic) characteristics. We draw from student responses on identity, including gender, disability and immigration status, to examine their personal experiences and varying rates of satisfaction with WIL — across institutions, sectors and academic programs, and across delivery types (i.e., remote or in-person).

Though we are unable to conduct intersectional or complex inferential analyses, the data presented reveal equity gaps in WIL activities and outcomes — along with questions that require further exploration to ensure all students benefit from WIL.

A more comprehensive discussion of methods — and a more thorough analysis of our findings — can be found in the Exploring Student Experiences of WIL by Demographic backgrounder PDF.

Our findings are organized according to characteristics with statistically significant disparities in satisfaction.


  • Respondents identifying as women were less likely to say they were satisfied with their WIL experience (76%) compared to men (86%).
  • Women were more likely to be in unpaid WIL placements (47%) than men (28%).
  • Women were more likely to say they felt uncomfortable at work than men (17% versus 8%), experienced challenges with work culture (43% versus 31%) and faced barriers during WIL (59% versus 44%).
  • Seventy percent of women cited mental health as a challenge compared to 52% of men.
  • Twenty percent of women in in-person WIL placements reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviour during their placement compared to 1% of men.

Students with Disabilities

  • Students with disabilities were less likely to express satisfaction in WIL than students without disabilities (75% versus 82%).
  • Students with disabilities were more likely to say they experienced challenges during their WIL (62% versus 52%) than those without disabilities.
  • Students with disabilities were also more likely to experience challenges during the application stage (23% versus 13%) and the interview stage (19% versus 13%).
  • In the WIL workplace, such students were more likely to say they felt ignored by others (27% versus 17%) and experienced challenges with their mental health (73% versus 61%).


  • Immigrants reported greater challenges than non-immigrants at multiple points through their WIL experiences: the application stage (18% versus 13%), the interview stage (19% versus 12%) and the hiring stage (14% versus 9%).
  • Immigrants were also 23 percentage points more likely to say they experienced barriers during the WIL placement itself (70% versus 47%).

Collecting data on student experiences and linking them to demographic characteristics is important to help us better understand how different types of students experience WIL. Our descriptive findings point to differences in satisfaction based on EDID characteristics of students and move beyond traditional measures of accessibility, such as graduation and labour market performance. Future research should explore how different identities intersect and consider all student identity groups — including how Indigenous identity, first-generation status, low-income background and LGBTQAI+ identity impact WIL experiences.

We recommend the following additional lines of inquiry to motivate future examinations:

  • What factors drive differentiated experiences and why do these differences exist?
  • How do experiences of WIL differ by disability type?
  • How can institutions and employers support students from all backgrounds?
  • How can the application process be improved to remove barriers and increase inclusion?
  • What policies, programs and actions can create more supportive and inclusive environments for women, as well as for individuals with disabilities?

Ultimately, high-quality WIL must be both accessible and inclusive. We must work to ensure that all students can experience WIL’s associated development of skills and labour market benefits.

Readers are invited to explore our complete discussion and analysis in Student Identity and Work-integrated Learning (WIL): Exploring Student Experiences of WIL by Demographic.

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