Tracey Beck doesn’t like to make a fuss about it. Neither does Helen Robinson or Julie Shuttleworth.
“I don’t like people highlighting that I am a woman working in mining,” says Beck, a Production Superintendent at Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines (KCGM), a joint venture in Australia in which Barrick and Newmont Mining each hold a 50 percent interest.
Robinson is a Business Administration Manager at KCGM who oversees the company’s finance, information technology and continuous improvement departments. Along with Beck, she is one of eight women who have ascended to senior management roles at the Australia-based operation. Shuttleworth, General Manager of Barrick’s Granny Smith mine in Western Australia, is Barrick’s first female general manager. “When people talk about ‘women in mining,’ sometimes I cringe because, for me, if you’re good at your job that’s what you should be recognized for,” she says.
While Shuttleworth and Beck would prefer not to be singled out because of their gender, the reality is mining remains a male-dominated industry. Global statistics quantifying the number of women in mining are hard to come by, but a 2010 report by Women in Mining Canada, a non-profit organization focused on advancing the interests of women in the industry, offers some perspective. According to the report, which cited the most recent data available from Statistics Canada, women represented about 14 percent of the workforce in the Canadian mining industry in 2006. The vast majority worked in administrative or culinary jobs, while men predominated in front-line and skilled positions, the report found.
Jean Lucas, President of Women in Mining Canada, says reports by peer groups in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom produced similar findings. Several long-standing factors account for the relative dearth of women in the industry, according to the Women in Mining Canada report. These include lack of flexible hours; an unsupportive work culture, which can mean anything from resistance from male colleagues to a lack of female change rooms and washrooms at a mine site; outdated perceptions of the industry as dirty, dangerous and low-tech; and the absence of female role models. “There are few women in leadership roles, so young women don’t see opportunities for success,” Lucas says.
This needs to change, she adds, noting that the mining industry is struggling with a worldwide skills shortage that is expected to intensify. The Canadian mining industry may need as many as 100,000 new workers in the next decade, while the Australian mining industry may need as many as 170,000 in the next five years, according to recent media reports. It is unlikely that these needs will be met without a substantial increase in the number of women employees, Lucas says.
There are signs of progress. At KCGM, 213, or 28 percent, of the company’s 780 employees are women. “Men, women, black, blue, purple, we have a league of nations here and women work in all areas of the operation,” Robinson says.
Russell Cole, General Manager of KCGM, says the operation has always focused on employing the best person for the job, regardless of gender, nationality or personal circumstance. His comments echo Barrick’s approach, which is to hire based solely on merit. The company considers men and women equally in its search for new employees, and both genders are encouraged to apply in all job categories. Furthermore, men and women are compensated equally for doing the same job, with experience and length of service being the only variants.
“A lot of companies, ourselves included, are looking at ways to improve the workplace and make it more appealing to women,” says Darian Rich, Barrick’s Vice President of Human Resources. “We are seeing a number of progressive strategies implemented at our sites, including flexible work practices, and we are working with educational institutions to raise the industry’s profile and attract more women into mining careers.”
KCGM’s Beck, who has two young daughters, says she made it clear when she joined the company that family comes first. “I indicated up front that, on some mornings, I might have to get the children to school, and it has never been an issue,” she says.
In fact, Beck, 37, says her boss insists she attend her children’s school assemblies, noting wryly that she “hates school assemblies.” Still, she says she appreciates the support, as well as the hard-won advice shared with her by several male co-workers during her career. “Some of the men that I have worked with saw their families split apart because they were hardly ever home,” she says. “They told me that ‘Your family is everything, do not screw it up the way we did.’ ”
Shuttleworth, 38, says women shouldn’t feel extra pressure to prove themselves, or change their personalities to try and fit in. “The message I try to give is that you don’t have to change,” she says. “You can still be the person that you are without having to turn into a rough and tough miner. Don’t start swearing and carrying on if that’s not who you are.”
While men need to treat their female co-workers with respect, Beck says she doesn’t want to be singled out for special treatment. For instance, during meetings, when Beck is sometimes the only woman in the room, male colleagues will occasionally utter a profanity and then apologize to her. “That probably bugs me more than anything,” she says. “If you’re going to swear, swear – just don’t single me out as the only one in the room who may take offense.”
All three women acknowledge encountering discriminatory attitudes at times during their careers, though for the most part, they say they have been treated as equals. Their advice to women who face resistance is to keep a thick skin, do a good job, stay confident and don’t let anyone keep them from their goals. “Yes, of course, there are people who don’t believe women belong in mining,” Beck says. “People are entitled to their personal views, as long as they’re respectful and civil, and don’t let their personal beliefs have a negative influence in the workplace. As time goes by, people who weren’t sure about me usually see I can do the job just as well as anybody else.”
Robinson, 50, came to mining after working as a nurse. A mother of five, she says that when she was in high school, mining wasn’t considered a potential career for women. “It was not something that was offered to us,” she says. “Mining companies didn’t come to our school on career days. KCGM does a lot of school visits now and tries to explain to young women that there are a lot of opportunities in mining, which is something they may not realize.”
Shuttleworth regularly visits high schools and universities, and speaks publicly about the opportunities in mining for women and men. One of the things she tells people is that mining is an exciting, challenging and interesting industry to work in with many career options.
At the recent Prospectors & Developers Association convention in Toronto, more than 800 people attended a reception held by Women in Mining Canada. That’s up from 650 last year, Lucas says, noting that more men attended this year’s reception. “I think that’s indicative of a growing acceptance of women in mining,” she says.