Of the many perception battles the world’s mining industry is combating, the role of women in the sector is among the most pressing.
Roughly 17% of the mining industry globally comprises female employees, a surprisingly low number considering half the world’s population is women.
This is notwithstanding the wide array of opportunities that exist in the sector if one only scratched beneath the surface.
The fact is that not all mining is deep underground and strenuous, although there is an argument to be made as to why more women are not employed in such capacities anyway.
The problem is, however, that so few women bother to explore career opportunities in mining – which still shapes in the modern consciousness as monolithically forbidding, intimidatingly toilsome and dirty.
According to Nichole McCulloch, who heads up the UK Chapter of Women in Mining (WIM), an advocacy group, there’s first the challenge of attracting female skills to the mining sector, and then the job of retaining them.
It is boys who are pushed into the stem skills that feed mining, says McCulloch.
As for the women who make it into the ranks of mining, it’s sometimes hard for them to see how career progression is possible, especially as so many men occupy the senior seats “above them”.
It was only in 2014 that Glencore – one of the world’s largest mining companies – appointed a woman to its board in the person of Canadian veteran Patrice Merrin (which was followed by Glencore’s appointment of Gill Marcus, a South African, to its board in 2017).
Where women do make an impact, it is often unique and important. Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Anglo American from 2006 to 2012, is famously remembered for putting lives before commerce, following a series of underground fatalities in SA’s platinum mines.
Closing a shaft in the event of a fatality is now standard practice, but it was not when Carroll was facing down her male counterparts.
A new edition of a book published every two years by WIM is on release now.
Titled 100 Inspirational Women in Mining, it seeks to tell the stories of women from a diverse array of technical and professional fields across all mining jurisdictions and job levels – from board directors to geologists in the field.
One of the takeaways is how the notion of motherhood is unseated as the single largest career inhibitor.
Several women speak of participating and competing in the mining industry while raising children; and anyway – says McCulloch – raising a family is more of a shared duty between the genders than ever before.
From a South African perspective, there are some particular challenges in increasing the level of female participation in mining.
One is the preponderance of underground mines, which can present hazards for women – although that is largely to do with safety of a very different ilk.
“I think ensuring women are safe in places such as SA is a key challenge,” says McCulloch.
“It’s a difficult subject to talk about, but sexual assault is a problem where it is prevalent not just in the mining sector but across society as a whole,” she says.
The Minerals Council said in a March publication that its members were making sure women employed underground worked in closer proximity to one another than before, and had better access to toilets and changing facilities, and that equipment – including protective clothing – was custom-made rather than having to cope with the one-size-fits-all approach of the industry in the past.
That’s an important advance.
SA’s mining sector is shifting to increased mechanisation, and away from expensive underground mining, however, there is still some 22% of the total 53 100 women employed in the sector working in platinum and gold, most of which is found underground.