A woman on the frontier during the West Australian mining mad men days
Dr Sandra close was one of the first female field geologists to work in the Australian mining industry back in the early 1960s – a time when the number of women in the industry was little or none. She’s been well placed to observe a number of positive changes for women working in the industry, but says there’s still room for improvement.
Dr Sandra Close at the 2015 Diggers and Dealers mining conference, she’s been advocating for women in mining since the 1960s. (:Nathan Morris)
Quietly flanking Sandra as she floated throughout the sea of suits at the 2015 Diggers and Dealers mining conference in Kalgoorlie this week, was her husband Jim, a man who has been a long time supporter of his wife.
“He came to one of the earliest Diggers, and he came home and said you’ve got to go – and I reckon he must have been the only man there that went home and said to his wife come,” said Sandra.
Sandra first started as a field geologist in the early 1960s, and moved to Kalgoorlie to work at the beginning of 1967 when nickel was booming.
She’s since worked around Australia and overseas, and her career has transitioned into finance and general management.
With a love of science and adventure, and armed with an unwavering determinedness, she is a woman who continues to advocate for women in mining.
Kicked off the bus
“Women and Diggers and Dealers; believe me in the first few years, they were few and far between – you could count them on a hand or two in the early days when the numbers were lower,” said Sandra.
But over the years she said the work environment and opportunities for women, continues to improve, albeit slowly. She said now you’re seeing more technical women; working in geology, mining metallurgy, and with each new year, their numbers grow.
But it wasn’t always the case. Sandra recalled a time when she was at Diggers and Dealers in the late 1990s. There was a mine tour scheduled and a bus had been organised to transport conference delegates out to site. Sandra said she lined up with everyone else to catch the bus; she was the only woman. “I was literally, removed from the bus – ‘you can’t come.’ “And I was escorted off the bus – it was utterly appalling. “I stood there and I watched who went on the bus – anybody else if they were male were let on the bus, but I was escorted off it. “It was extremely humiliating.”
As for the reasoning, Sandra said she believed it was simply because she wasn’t male.
“The one thing he didn’t know though, which he subsequently found out, was that his managing director happened to be an old mate of mine that I’d gone to Uni with.” “In terms of diggers, that was a low point.”
Getting your hands dirty
When asked what it was like for a woman back when she started in the mining industry, Sandra replied: “Well there weren’t, I guess is the short answer.” She said women were confined almost entirely to the office, even if they were fully qualified mining professionals.
But her love of the outdoors, and commitment to be recognised as a professional equal, galvanised her determination to buck that trend and work in the field. “I actually made the breakthrough and became the first woman in Australia that got a full time field job as a field geologist. “That was an enormous breakthrough and really very much unusual, particularly in the Goldfields in those days,” she said.
Driving her, was simply about an interest in rocks, getting her hands dirty and staying out of the office, but it didn’t come easy. “By one means or another I managed that, but that was a hard, hard thing to do.”
“There are guys who couldn’t care less, unfortunately there are still guys who are very unsure of themselves and have difficulty, some of them, accepting women as equal,” said Sandra.
No line up at the ladies, because there wasn’t a ladies
“One of the excuses why you couldn’t go and do this and you could never go underground in a lot of places (is because) there were no toilets.” But over the years she says the toilet issue was resolved, to the point where Sandra says: “These days there are so many women now sometimes you actually have to line up for the ladies – that may be a funny way to say it, but we’ve moved a long way.”
Women as leaders, not helpers
Over the years Sandra said she’s seen: “A greater acceptance of women, not as much as one would like to see, and a lot of it’s still on the, you might say almost the peripheral side; in that the acceptance as a helper rather than the leader, that’s a much harder thing to get acceptance for.”
With the value of hindsight, Sandra laments the reality of only having one life to achieve everything she’d like to achieve. “If I could start again now, knowing what I’ve learnt, and go back to 20 and begin all over again, it’d be dynamite now,” she said.
And while there were challenges, reflecting on the life she has led this far, and what she’s achieved, Sandra acknowledged the opportunities she’s had. “Who’s had a life where in your 20s you’re in charge of a large field team, you’ve got a chopper or two to fly around in… and the freedom. “Very few people in their life have had those sorts of opportunities that I’ve had in those early days… it was a pretty challenging place to be, but gee, what extraordinary adventures.”
Advice for women entering the mining industry
As a woman who’s had such vast experience, and a long time advocate for women in mining, Sandra said she still had to acknowledge that the reality for women in the industry, was that it was still going to be tough.
“I’ve always found that difficult because I’ve always felt that I could never in all honesty induce a young to come into this industry. “I just didn’t feel that one could suggest to them, ‘come in, it will great’, because I knew the obstacles they would face. “On the other hand, any woman that wanted to come in, I’d support her to the hilt.”