Women in Mining

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Workplace diversity in both the mining and broader business communities has been a topic of discussion for many years.  But is all that talk leading to positive change?
 
During the 2013 CIM Mining Conference held in Toronto, an in-depth dialogue on the topic was held regarding the progression to date and what still needs to happen to increase the presence of women in what have traditionally been deemed male-dominated positions.
 
Catharine Shaw, mining client program manager at Golder Associates also serves as president of Women in Mining, a non-profit organization with about 600 members.
 
Shaw served as moderator for a panel of experts that included:
 
Melanie Sturk, director – attraction, retention & transition, Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR); Tina Markovic, senior project manager, operational readiness at BHP Billiton; Dr. Dean Laplonge; Sylvia Apostolidis, senior director and consultant, global member services, Catalyst Canada; and Richard Ross, executive in residence at York University’s Shulich School of Business and former chairman and CEO of Inmet Mining Corporation.
 
Through Women in Mining there has been a concerted push to have more women involved in such non-traditional mining positions, but research has shown the numbers of experienced and skilled female talent is actually declining before advancing to management, leadership and board positions.
 
“It’s very important to learn and share from our experiences,” Shaw tells us.
 
“Our research tells us that we continue to rank the lowest across industry sectors with women representing only 14 per cent.”
 
Shaw says that women in influential roles have the ability to demonstrate global leadership and the courage to change the old-boys school way of thinking. But is the goal attainable, and if so, how can the gender gap be closed?
 
There is still is no shortage of detractors who believe that women, en masse, simply don’t want to engage in these types of non-traditional roles, but Melanie Sturk disagrees with that premise.
 
“If you don’t believe in all the reasons for diversity, here are the numbers,” Sturk begins.
 
“The most recent hiring and employment forecast released by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council outlining our needs at the national level for the next 10 years reveals there are about 145,000 new workers, skilled people who are going to be needed in our sector. Even if you don’t believe in the business case, this is the reality.”
 
In dealing with bigger market issues in the mining sector, much of the need for regeneration is due to the fact that about 40 per cent of those currently employed are 50 or older with retirement coming up in the not too distant future.
 
“Youth, women and Aboriginals are all underrepresented due in part because they may not have the best perception of the industry and may not know what mining is about because it’s often not in your back yard,” Sturk says.
 
“They just aren’t choosing these particular careers.”
 
The lack of educational knowledge combined with the skills gap in the sector desperately need to be addressed for noticeable improvements to occur. Sturk’s company, the MiHR, deals with human resources challenges at the national level and works to ensure the right people are brought to the table for each specialized job requirement.
 
Taking action for diversity means setting strategic goals to ensure the needs of resources companies are met. Sturk and MiHR have been industry leaders in the promotion of this goal.
 
“In just a year and a half significant progress has been made,” Sturk says.
 
“There were increases in women’s representation both at the entry level and the management and senior management levels. We also made sure there was support for companies in terms of identifying programs that already existed in the industry that they could tag in to help grow their strategies.”
 
Sturk says several recommendations came out of the project including the need to have a strong business focus on what a company is attempting to accomplish. Scaling the ambition of the diversity strategy and the proposed actions and benefits must be implemented.
 
“We want that collaboration to continue,” Sturk notes. “It needs to be done as an entire industry.”  
 
BHP Billiton is one of the largest resources companies in the world whose aim is to build and operate long-life, low cost expandable assets in the mining sector. Operating in more than 100 locations in 25 countries, BHP has its headquarters in Melbourne, Australia and employs about 25,000 people along with another 78,000 contractors. The company’s $10 billion Jansen potash project in Saskatchewan is one of the largest in that province, when it proceeds with board approval. It was one of a number of shelved projects last year, blaming a weaker outlook for commodity prices and cash flows resulting in $3.3 billion in asset writedowns.
 
“An inclusive culture should help drive an engaged workforce, which study shows will enable greater business outcomes,” says Tina Markovic.
 
“At BHP we’re not just focusing on visible diversity but more importantly focusing on diversity of thought.”
 
By 2023 the cumulative forecast is for about 446,000 workers in the Canadian mining industry and about half that total in the prairie provinces and about 10 to 15 per cent being required in Saskatchewan.
 
“We are going to be faced with a very tight and competitive rate in the market especially considering the needs of our neighbouring provinces in Alberta and Manitoba,” Markovic states.
 
“Based on 2006 data, women made up about 14 per cent of the mining labour force in Saskatchewan. However, this only amounted to about 850 women. Of those women, only 5 per cent of them occupied trade or production jobs, which is about 45 women in those non-traditional roles.”
 
BHP Billiton is slightly above the curve with about 17 per cent female participation within its organization. However, that number jumps significantly to 34 per cent when focusing solely on the Saskatchewan potash sector. However, that is a number prior to the operational phase being implemented, so the percentage will no doubt be altered, perhaps substantially.
 
“BHP Billiton sees an enormous opportunity to fill the labour gap with women in our current workforce as well as starting to build awareness about women in mining and specifically in those non-traditional roles,” Markovic relates.
 
Another issue facing the industry is that there has been a decline in enrollment by women in a number of engineering-related programs that are essential for success in many mining positions. Further adding to the dilemmas is that in 2011 Saskatchewan was responsible for only 3 per cent of all engineering undergraduate degrees, which means mining operators in that province – such as BHP – need to continue to look to other provinces to meet hiring requirements.    
 
Females are underrepresented in virtually all mining relevant trade groups. There is less than 1 per cent for heavy-duty mechanics and less than 4 per cent for welders. The numbers are about 12 per cent for electronics and instrumentation.
 
“Industry must create awareness which allows young women to make informed choices about what is possible for them,” Markovic declares.
 
“They are rewarding jobs that can lead to long term careers.”
 
Dr. Dean Laplonge is the leading researcher and consultant in the field of gender, safety and communications and his current areas of professional interest include gender behaviours and equity in the oil and gas industries.
 
“I believe that the foundation of the gender work that we’re doing in the oil and gas industry needs more work,” Laplonge flatly states.
 
“We’re doing a lot of work to get more women on board but the understanding of gender that we’re applying and using to do that is flawed.”
 
The way that we understand gender today – what it means to be a man and a woman – has been pretty much the same going on about 200 years,” Laplonge notes.
 
“Around the 1960s there was some shift around how we understand the roles of men and women.”
 
“When I look at the way gender is being explored and understood today in the mining and the oil and gas industries it’s as if 1960 until today never happened,” Laplonge says.
 
“We have missed a whole wealth of information that has come out in a range of disciplines.”
 
Laplonge argues that the core barrier that needs to be broken down is the definition of gender and how it’s applies to various business sectors, including the resources industry. Endless reports coming out of Canada and Australia during the past 20 years have produced virtually the same results when it comes to women’s participation levels in the mining industry.
 
“What I often hear from the men is how the mining industry is changing and women are taking our jobs,” Laplonge says.  
 
“The men think there have been lots of changes but really there has been very little change at all. What companies need to do is reframe their understanding of the word ‘gender’ because if we can reframe the understanding of gender the problem becomes a different problem and therefore the solutions are different.”
 
“Gender is embedded in your production processes, safety processes, HR processes – it there everywhere,” Laplonge states.
 
“When we look at the gender debate that’s gone on over the past 40 years, gender and sex are not the same – possibly – I’m not convinced.  Sex is when you count men and women. Gender is something different. Gender is something we practice and in theory should allow everyone to participate the same way in society. Gender is unnatural and by that I mean it’s not innate; it’s not born in us.
 
If you were put on an island with no other people you would not grow up as the man or woman you are today. It’s something that we learn. It’s unstable, it’s contradictory and it’s never complete.”
 
To show just how difficult it is to overcome the gender – or sex – barrier is that there are women currently within the industry who don’t hold the belief that there needs to be an aggressive push to have more women be involved in mining. Such was the case with one unidentified woman involved on the exploration side, who says she doesn’t see the demand for geologists in particular or any noticeable dearth of women or bad behaviour from men in the industry.
 
“We’re there as explorers, side by side, and it really doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.”
 
By Angus Gillespie
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