While more women are pursuing careers in mining, it continues to be a male-dominated industry with few women in leadership roles. Greater workforce diversity brings new perspectives, fuels innovation and aids problem solving. It also helps address skill gaps, improve productivity and can even boost profitability, according to a growing body of research.
As of 2014, just 12 percent of Barrick’s employees were women, which is consistent with other major mining companies. Clearly, the industry has some work to do. Yet, despite this diversity gap, Barrick has many accomplished women working in all areas of its operations. Over the next week, we will introduce you to some of these women and give you an opportunity to hear about their experiences working in mining.
But first, we offer an industry-wide perspective from Tabetha Stirrett, President of Women in Mining Canada. In this feature interview, Stirrett offers a frank assessment of the barriers facing women who pursue careers in mining. She also shares ideas on how to overcome those barriers. Speaking in her calm, candid fashion, Stirrett, who is part of an all-women ownership and management team of a Saskatchewan-based geoscience and engineering firm, also discusses what it’s like to be a female business owner in the mining industry.
Tabetha Stirrett is President of Women in Mining Canada, a non-profit focused on advancing the interests of women in the minerals exploration and mining sector. A geologist by training, she has more than 20 years of experience in the mining and oil and gas sectors. In 2009, she purchased an ownership stake in North Rim Exploration, a geoscience and engineering consulting firm based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She is currently Business Development Manager at North Rim, and part of an all-women ownership and management team. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Saskatchewan.
Beyond Borders: Why is workforce diversity important?
Tabetha Stirrett: There are many studies that have shown that having a diverse management team and board makes a company more profitable. It brings different opinions, different ways of looking at things. Companies that have more senior level women executives also usually rank higher in corporate social responsibility and community engagement. So having diversity in your workforce makes good business sense.
In 2010, Women in Mining Canada issued a report that found that employee diversity — in particular, underrepresentation of women in decision-making roles — was an elusive goal for the mining industry. Has anything changed?
You know, it hasn’t. Women in Mining U.K. recently released a study that looked at the number of women serving on boards in the mining industry. It found that over the last three years we’ve only seen about a three percent increase in women on boards of the top 100 mining companies. So it’s baby steps, and I don’t even know if you can call it that.
Why isn’t it getting any better?
A lot of women aren’t staying in the industry long enough to gain the experience needed to assume senior level positions or become board members. You also need buy in from senior level executives, like the CEO. You need to have a commitment from the top down, and I don’t know if we necessarily have that right now.
On the flip side, more women are entering the field, but where we lose traction is we can’t keep them in the industry. Once we keep women in the industry longer, I think we’ll see them ascend to more senior roles, hopefully.
Why do women leave mining and how can the industry do a better job of retaining women?
Part of it is that, within two-to-five years of graduating from university, many women get married and start a family. They leave the industry due to fears, which are often born out, that companies won’t provide the flexibility they need to manage their schedules. So if companies could provide more flexible working arrangements it would be a huge benefit for women trying to juggle family and work. I think it’s well known that women are very focused and know how to get stuff done in the short amount of time that they have. So paying less attention to schedule and focusing more on output would go a long way towards convincing women to remain in the industry.
You were one of four women to purchase an ownership stake in North Rim Exploration in 2009. The four of you also form the company’s senior management team. How has the experience been so far?
The four of us didn’t purposely get together to buy the company; we just happened to be the four most qualified individuals who wanted to acquire the highest percentage of shares. I did consider who I’d be working with because, in my 20 years in mining, I’d never worked with women before. It can be tough sometimes because we’re all passionate about what we do and where we want to take the company, but we’ve learned to harness that passion. We survived the downturn, I think, because we’ve thought outside the box as consultants and treated our clients like family. So, overall, the experience has been really very good.
Do you come up against bias or discrimination from men?
We’re focused primarily on the potash industry here at North Rim. There aren’t a lot of people who can do what we do and the space has traditionally been dominated by men. When we come to the table, we’re women, we’re relatively young, and the men sometimes do question our capabilities. They don’t do it overtly. It’s more a probing of our technical capabilities to see if we know what we’re talking about. As time passes, our reputation is growing because we publish a lot of the key technical reports for companies here in Saskatchewan. So we’ve earned a seat at the table, which is nice. But we had to really prove ourselves.
Is it difficult when, oftentimes, you’re the only woman in the room. How do you deal with it?
I’ve been in a male-dominated industry all my life and I’ve survived because I am qualified and I deserve to be there. I just tell them what I think and you like it or you don’t.
Do you offer flexible hours to your employees?
We do. In fact, the senior management team all work reduced schedules themselves, but we always ensure that our clients’ needs are taken care of. We do need to be in the office between certain core hours so we know when to schedule meetings. And we do practice what we preach and offer flexible scheduling to our staff.
That sounds great, but how does it work in practice? How do you find time to get things done? It can’t be easy.
No, it’s not. But we’re really good at planning and we make sure everyone knows what’s going on at all times so we can schedule around it. We are, as I said, flexible with our staff’s time because they have lives too. For example, one young female geologist who works for us wanted to take four weeks off to go travelling. We were okay with that, but she had to share her schedule well in advance so we could plan her workload around it. So having that flexibility is something we support. If you’re happy about the decisions you make at work that affect your life outside work, you’re going to be a more productive worker. And it shouldn’t matter if you’re a male or a female, or whether you have a family or not. Everybody should be able to work hard and still have a good work-life balance.
What do your clients think?
We tell our clients that we work on these flexible schedules and it doesn’t bother them because, whenever there’s a deadline, they know they’re going to get their work product and that their project will be completed on schedule.
What advice would you give to women considering a career in mining?
I do a lot of speaking engagements for students and the one thing I tell them is, if you’re in this industry because you want to work at the same job for the rest of your life, then you should seriously consider something else. Mining is very cyclical so you need to prepare yourself for the good, the bad, and the inevitable changes that will happen when the cycle turns.
Also, don’t be afraid to speak up and let people know your ideas. Women have a lot of good input to offer and need to overcome their fear of sharing those ideas because that’s something that will hold them back.
Do you think we are still going to be talking about underrepresentation of women in mining 10 years from now?
I think we will because, if we look at statistical trends like the percentage of women on boards of mining companies, it’s going to take a long time to get to even 30 percent representation. We will never hit parity, but hopefully we will hit a critical mass; I just don’t know how long that’s going to take.