Failing to employ women runs skills and image risk for world mining – McCulloch

Nichole McCulloch, WIM, UK

OF the many perception battles the world’s mining industry is combating, the role of woman 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 comprises women, and especially given the battle the mining sector has in attracting new skills. 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’s an argument to be made as to why more woman aren’t 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 environmentally hostile.

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 work in retaining them.

It’s boys who are pushed into the stem skills that feed mining, said 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 in Glencore’s typical quick-fire response to market pressures, with the appointment of Gill Marcus, a South African to its board in 2017).

Where women do make an impact, it’s 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 South Africa’s platinum mines. Closing a shaft in the event of a fatality is now standard practice, but it wasn’t when Carroll was facing down her male counterparts on the issue.

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 whilst raising children; and anyway – said 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 women participation in mining. One is the preponderance of underground mines which can present hazards for women, although that’s largely to do with safety of a very ilk. “I think ensuring women are safe in places such as South Africa is a key challenge,” said 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 the society as a whole.”

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. Whilst South Africa’s mining sector in shifting to increased mechanisation, and away from expensive underground mining, there’s still some 22% of the total 53,100 women employed in the sector working in platinum and gold, most of which is found underground.

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