Rapaport Magazine

Women in mining: The next chapter

The number of females in this largely male industry is growing, but is acceptance also rising?

By Leah Meirovich
Mining is a male-dominated industry. That isn’t news. The fact that many large mining companies have started initiatives to recruit and promote women is. But what happens once women infiltrate the sector, only to find themselves alone in a testosterone-laden environment? Can they flourish, or does constant discrimination prevent them from advancing at the pace of their male counterparts?

Perception matters

Lucara Diamond Corp. CEO Eira Thomas grew up in the business. That didn’t prevent her from facing what she considered to be gender-biased comments when an investor suggested Thomas — a geologist — hire an engineer as chief operating officer to back her up. She wondered, she told Bloomberg, if a male with the same credentials would have received the same advice.

Thankfully, other women who work in the industry report more positive experiences. Naseem Lahri, managing director of Lucara’s Boteti Mining, says she has always been judged for the quality of her work, not by her gender.

“It wasn’t difficult to convince the men in the room, as long as I knew what I was saying and it was technically correct,” she says.

Michelle Peters, a De Beers mine superintendent, shares this sentiment. While she says that as the sole woman in the boardroom much of the time, she had to learn to project confidence and competence, she never felt marginalized. Instead, she says, it was her own view of her abilities she struggled with.

“In the workplace, one of the biggest challenges for me was to be able to identify and accept my own leadership style as valid and valuable, juxtaposed against a canvas of a mostly traditionally male, patriarchal model of leading a team, and ‘way of doing and behaving,’” she observes.

A macho culture

De Beers CEO Bruce Cleaver, meanwhile, offers a male perspective.

“While I think, perhaps, many men would say that women do get the same levels of respect, I’m not sure all women would agree with that,” he says. “Some parts of the sector might still be quite ‘macho’ in their culture, and that’s clearly a challenge that needs to be addressed in many industries. In addition, if a woman is the only female on a team, or one of a few, she may not find it as easy to speak up and assert her authority.”

Something on which all agree is that a major hurdle women face is location.

Relocation or the regular travel many mining jobs necessitate can perhaps be more trying on women than on men when it comes to family life. Among the limitations for female professionals is family responsibility, says Peters.

Lahri, in fact, cites this as her biggest challenge. “I had to go to my family at home,” she says. “So I had two jobs. Being a mom, wife and career woman does make it slightly difficult, as you are competing with people who do not have these issues.”

Cleaver believes this factor may make the sector less appealing to women, particularly with the fly-in, fly-out atmosphere the job entails.

Self-imposed barriers

Yet what about when it comes to advancement? How likely are women to get promoted in equal measure?

Lahri is the first female managing director at a diamond company in Botswana, although she sees this more as a statistic than a comment on the industry. She and Peters both believe the only restrictions to advancement are those that women place on themselves. Still, there are a few hurdles.

“It is not so much the institutional barriers, but the subtle social and cultural norms that we all have to be aware of and navigate,” says Peters.

De Beers has made a public commitment to improve and accelerate the progression of women throughout its pipeline by doubling the rate of women appointed to senior leadership roles, in an effort to achieve parity by 2020.

“There is no reason why the career path available to a woman in the mining industry should be any different from that available to a man,” says Cleaver.

Paying it forward

When it comes to paying it forward, many women feel the need to support future generations of women looking to enter the trade. Working closely with female trainees, Peters aims to provide them with support and to be a positive role model.

“I want to show women out there that a woman can achieve anything she wants to,” Lahri adds. “I am married, I have children and I am successful at my job. If it can happen to me, it can happen to any woman.”

Case Study: Michelle Peters De Beers superintendent of asset and environment at Snap Lake Mine in Canada

How did you get started in the industry?

Working as a research assistant for a plant ecologist at South Africa National Parks led to my first role as assistant environmental coordinator at De Beers’ Kimberley Mines.

What kind of training did you need in order to get into that field?

Academically, the bachelor of science (earth science) degree opened many doors, but hands-on training and experience proved invaluable.

Do you feel an essential need to prove yourself as a woman in the mining industry?

I have always held myself to high standards, but never set out to make a feminist statement by my choice of career, and have not explicitly felt it essential to prove myself as a woman in this industry.

Do you believe women in the trade need to be treated differently?

If we are serious about inclusivity and diversity, then yes. We have to consider making decisions and effecting changes to policies…to address the issues.

Do you feel that women in the industry still face on-the-job discrimination?

I have not. There is, however, still work to be done in challenging manifestations of unconscious bias.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to a woman interested in getting into the industry?

There is a huge variety of careers in mining. Pursue your interest, research your dream job, and take action to be ready to seek and seize opportunity along the way.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2018. To subscribe click here.

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