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Women in the Industry: The Diamond Ceiling

Historically, it’s been difficult for women to break into the industry – and while there has certainly been progress, barriers to success remain.

Dec 6, 2017 3:41 AM   By Sarah Jordan
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RAPAPORT... If the discussion of women in the diamond-mining sector were taking place in the early 1990s, chances are, it would be less a discussion and more of a question: “What women?” But in 2002, the South African Mining Charter introduced quotas for mining companies, requiring that 10% of their staff be female (in 2000, the actual number was 2%).

This enforced step toward gender diversity created a domino effect, changing the atmosphere in the South African mining industry and the internal policies at giants like De Beers. In June this year, an updated version of the mining charter set even more ambitious quotas, calling for a minimum 25% black female representation at board level and 44% at junior-management level.

The barriers to women working in the diamond-mining sector are myriad and often start with ingrained perceptions of womanhood — such as the historic superstition that women in mines lead to more accidents, as noted in a 2014 report titled “Gender, Diversity and Work Conditions Mining.” The report also points to the traditional masculine image of mining “in which men go down into the mines, endangering their lives, to earn the daily bread for their families.”

The Push for Inclusion

Although technology has changed the landscape of diamond mining, the challenges associated with this lifestyle are still present.
   
“Mine sites tend to be remote and male-dominated,” explains Deborah Craig, who heads the Africa team at International Women in Mining. “It can be isolating, and sometimes the mines have not been developed to include women, so they don’t have easy access to changing rooms or their own bathrooms.”
   
Additionally, in the majority of diamond-mining countries, women are still viewed in their traditional role of primary caregiver. Coupled with childcare commitments, the remoteness of mines often makes off-site head-office and administrative roles more attractive.
   
So what is being done? Wide-ranging initiatives are encouraging women to strive for leadership roles. Petra Diamonds’ Leadership Development Programme consisted of 28% women in 2016, and women accounted for 33% and 31% of the company’s engineering and mining “learnerships,” respectively. For Katie Fergusson, group head of social impact at De Beers, the goal is to encourage more open conversation, offer mentoring opportunities and make role models more visible, as well as “supporting diversity of thought and experience” and tackling gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.

This would be welcome for Zenzi Awases, president of the newly-founded Women in Mining Association of Namibia (WiMAN), who argues that the race to fill quotas misses the larger point. “The barriers we are facing mostly stem from the fact that the mining industry is yet to wake up from yesterday’s mining industry, which was focused more on diversity. Diversity has become a numbers game due to legislation. The industry needs to wake up to tomorrow’s industry, which is focused on gender inclusion.”

A Matter of Values

The proactivity of the mining industry contrasts with the manufacturing sector, in which the cutting and polishing centers of India reveal serious gender parity issues. Aekta Kapoor — founder and editor of eShe magazine and a contributor to Indian financial daily The Economic Times — saw the problems firsthand during a recent visit to Surat, India’s “diamond city.”

“At Hari Krishna Exports’ Varachha facility, there were eight women out of 2,200 employees. All of them were huddled together in one corner,” she says. “Employers like Hari Krishna give many incentives for their employees’ families, something that should have attracted more female applications. But it isn’t working.”
   
Traditional gender biases seem to be responsible, according to Kapoor. “Both the men and women I met consider women to be less valuable to a company or to their families than men, and the only women who would venture out to get a job were those with a great financial need to do so. A woman’s role is otherwise firmly in the home.”
 
In response, a spokesman for Hari Krishna acknowledges that Gujarat, the state in which Surat is located, “practices ‘housewife’ culture at large.” However, he emphasizes, “as a diamond manufacturer, [the company] is playing an important role when it comes to promoting and encouraging women’s employment.”
   
Hari Krishna actually has 24 female employees working in its Surat offices, the spokesman tells Rapaport Magazine — 14 working in the diamond section, and the rest in administrative positions such as reception and human resources. Those in the former category include five “diamond artists” who polish the stones, and two “diamond engineers” involved in the diamonds’ planning. The company also employs four women with disabilities, and four of its female workers “are earning almost equivalent to the top male performers of the company,” the spokesman adds. “They are setting examples for the diamond industry.”
   
One of Hari Krishna’s initiatives is a free two-year diamond-studies course for women who have a college degree, which the spokesman says enables them to start at a salary of at least $1,000 a month. But based on Kapoor’s account, the concern may not be whether women can work, but whether they want to, or indeed have the agency to do so.

Tackling the Misconceptions

Recognizing this issue in its own field, the Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA) recently launched its first “advocacy task force” in the United States to tackle “gender-related biases in the jewelry industry workplace, including policies related to caregiving, advancement and compensation.”
 
At the retail end of the spectrum, Signet Jewelers also pays attention to “diversity of thought,” according to David A. Bouffard, the US-based jewelry company’s vice president of corporate affairs.
 
“As a result of our employment and advancement programs, nearly 70% of all our leadership (assistant store manager and above) are female,” he says. “This includes 40% of the senior management (VP and above) positions.”
   
While gender-diversity policies continue to improve, it is gender inclusion initiatives that are necessary to change ingrained narratives. Only by tackling the misconceptions and traditional notions of womanhood will women secure more parity in the diamond industry.

This article is an amended version of the article that appears in the December 2017 issue of Rapaport Magazine.
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