A broader approach needed to make mining safer for women

Sinead Kaufman, CEO, Minerals at Rio Tinto

ALMOST all women in the mining sector, anywhere in the world, will have a bad story to tell. At its worst it might be about rape and assault. Or it could simply be being casually referred to as ‘girls’ or ‘bitches’ by men, who may also expect that any woman in a meeting will make the tea.

In the last two decades that women have been entering the industry in greater numbers, they rarely complained, or felt they had a right to complain, about this treatment. But the issue has recently attracted considerably more attention with the release of surveys conducted by BHP and Rio Tinto among their staff, and a broader enquiry by the Western Australia parliament.

In August last year, BHP said it had fired at least 48 workers in the past two years for sexual assault and harassment. Earlier this year, Rio Tinto released the results of a survey of 10,000 of its employees on workplace culture. It found that 21 of women at its sites had reported actual or attempted rape or sexual assault over the past five years, and more than a quarter of women had experienced sexual harassment. The report also found that racism and bullying was widespread in both South Africa and Australia.

The parliamentary report into sexual harassment in the Western Australian mining industry (which is largely ‘fly-in-fly-out by nature) found it was prevalent. One woman quoted in the report said: “I have been to about half a dozen sites, and I can truthfully state that I have been sexually harassed at every single one of them.”


Rohitesh Dhawan, president and CEO of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), says other than the reports commissioned by BHP, Rio Tinto and the Western Australian parliament, there was little global data on the prevalence of sexual violence, bullying and discrimination in mining. It was probably greatest in countries where the level of gender-based violence (GBV) was high.

Nevashnee Naicker, head of corporate communication at Anglo American, says underreporting of these incidents was probably linked to several factors, including fear of dismissal, economic dependency on the perpetrator, as well as social norms around what constitutes harassment and violence, linked with religious and other norms around marriage.

Rio Tinto CEO, Minerals, Sinead Kaufman says the group’s own report highlighted some universal truths. “When there is a minority in a team, or in leadership, the workplace feels different. If we don’t have representation in the workplace, it changes the conversation in the teams. As long as women remain a minority in leadership, it is difficult to create an inclusive workplace.”

Policies and principles

Dhawan says all large mining companies have policies in place to prevent harassment and assault, yet problems persist.

“A few things need attention. Firstly, there needs to be cultural change in the industry on issues relating to psychological harm, i.e. bullying and harassment. ICMM recently updated its principles on diversity, equity and inclusion, including additional actions to eliminate all forms of harassment and unfair discrimination from our workplaces, proactive steps to achieve gender equality and the unencumbered participation of all peoples, and elevating psychological safety to the same level as physical health and safety.

“Secondly, looking at the worst scenarios like rape, which is continuing to occur, here the industry is taking further steps to ensure women are protected. That includes taking stronger measures if sexual assault has happened. Mining companies must ensure such an incident is handled by trained professionals, and that the consequences are severe, it is not brushed under the rug.

“Thirdly, there must be policies at every mining company and mining site to ensure meaningful participation of all minorities. No one should be prejudiced because of race, sex, religion, or any other factor.”

With 26 member companies, representing one-third of the global mining industry, ICMM members must lead by example and encourage non-members to change their behaviours in this area, Dhawan says.

As long as women remain a minority in leadership, it is difficult to create an inclusive workplace

Naicker says Anglo American has a ‘Living with Dignity’ framework, aimed at preventing and responding to violence (in particular, violence against women and children) in the various spheres of employees’ lives, at home or at work. It recently updated its policy on bullying, harassment and victimisation and in March it established a GBV Office, the Living with Dignity Hub, as an independent office with the necessary resources to provide ongoing and committed support to employees.

Glencore Alloys established a ‘Women in Mining Alloys’ committee in September 2021 to identify key issues to ensure the group is an employer of choice for women, including challenges women face in the workplace, career development and transformation. In 2022 the focus areas are safety, security and the physical environment; skills development and mentorship; personal protective equipment (PPE); GBV; gender diversity and unconscious bias; and wellness.

Adapting the workplace

Large mining groups have taken basic measures to ensure women’s physical safety, including separate change rooms, better illumination and sometimes a ‘buddy’ system to make sure colleagues look out for each other. Other measures that will help to attract and retain women are ensuring PPE is appropriate for women and that working hours accommodate women’s family responsibilities.

Kaufman says many of Rio Tinto’s mine sites are old, with facilities that were built in a different era; for example, there are no women’s change rooms or bathrooms. This infrastructure is being rebuilt for mining of the future.

One of the group’s sites, where work has been ongoing for many years, is Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) in KwaZulu-Natal. “There the challenges are a combination of racial discrimination, a cultural power dynamic and male/female dynamic,” Kaufman says. “You have to start small and work at those expectations in the business over a long period of time. RBM has already done work on the facilities, and it has an advocacy programme to ensure women enter the workforce and progress into leadership positions, improving diversity every day. They are also addressing education.

“They face great challenges, and we see the same in other conservative societies, in ensuring there is a clear general understanding of what respect means in the workplace. We can’t change the world but we can ensure we have the correct mindsets in this organisation.”

Changing the culture

There are many examples of everyday sexism, and in many places both men and women have accepted this behaviour as the norm, Kaufman says. People should be made aware of what discrimination and micro-aggression look like.

“One of our priorities is to create a culture where people call out when something disrespectful is said,” she says. “We are doing awareness training, starting with all senior leaders, to raise awareness to ensure an inclusive engagement with people is our minimum expectation, for all different settings and cultures.”

Solutions lie in both prevention – awareness, education and working to support victims and bystanders to report incidents, but also providing the mechanisms to help perpetrators address and overcome their behaviour

Naicker says culture change does take time, but it is the basis of systemic behavioural change. “Solutions lie in both prevention – awareness, education and working to support victims and bystanders to report incidents, but also providing the mechanisms to help perpetrators address and overcome their behaviour – and in strengthening response services, which means having very clear policies, escalation and disciplinary processes which underpin a clear zero-tolerance message.”

Kaufman says change requires senior male leaders and other men to stand up and be allies. This problem cannot be solved by women on their own, as mining is still a largely male-dominated industry. Men have to ensure cultures in organisations are changed, not seeing women as inferior and taking extra steps to ensure that workplaces acknowledge and support women’s child-caring responsibilities.

Reporting and penalties

At Rio Tinto, reporting systems are being re-established to ensure ‘victim-first’ reporting so that staff who are reporting issues of harassment or discrimination feel valued, not questioned, Kaufman says. Since the survey was published, the group is seeing a big increase in the number of people coming forward to report offences.

A key factor is to raise awareness, both for the victim and the perpetrator. When a staff member reports discrimination, the perpetrator is engaged at the outset to ensure they understand the impact they are having. Often people are not aware of their impact.

“Mostly, it requires explaining to the individual concerned, find the underlying reasons and get them to change, but some people are not receptive or the incident is too serious for such measures. We are very committed to ensuring reporting is taken seriously and cases treated,” Kaufman says.