Interview by Steel Heels, 15/08/2015
Imagine being responsible for overseeing the safe production and maintenance of an iron ore mine located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. That’s about 1,800 kilometres northeast of Perth. There’s about 800 FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) workers on site, the majority of whom are men. And you’re one of the 100 women who work on site. Talk about hi viz.
Sam Wood decided to go with her gut – and is enjoying career opportunities, making the move from operator (driving big trucks) to production supervisor – because of her determination to succeed, no matter what challenges she faced in the male-dominated mining industry. Having the right attitude to build a strong career is another common theme in our #GirlsCanDoAnything interviews. Not being afraid to try something new, and not allowing barriers /pessimists prevent the end goal, are takeaways from all our interviews.
Tell me a little about your background – was this your high school dream job?
This was not at all what I thought I would be doing when I finished school. I actually started a degree to be a school teacher. I grew up in a country town, on a farm in Bundaberg, Queensland and always loved getting my hands dirty. I never dreamed I would have a job like this. I had heard about this place ‘The Mines’ it sounded good but was never an option and the information was never available to even think about getting into it.
How did your career start? Who influenced your decision?
I met someone that was working away and had the opportunity to get a start as a ’greenie’. I took the opportunity as a short term goal initially so I didn’t have to work 7 days a week while trying to study full time. I didn’t realise how much I would absolutely love it! I will always encourage anybody to go with their gut feeling and try new things; you never know where it might take you, what you might discover about yourself, and what you might find out there that you never knew existed.
Any problems you have encountered (challenges/barriers)…?
One of the biggest challenges is to gain respect and be treated equally. Being young and female I have found people are more likely to focus on that initially rather than work. When 90% of the people on your crew are male and older than you it can be quite a task to get them to accept your view.
Are there any barriers women might face?
I have worked for a few mining companies and have found their Male/Female ratio sits around the 15% mark give or take. Out in the field I believe this number is a lot less and even fewer from Supervisor positions up. The challenge is to not let this have any influence in what you are doing other than to push you more. I have never wanted any handouts nor have things come easy because I am female. I want to know that no matter what job I am doing that I worked and deserved to get there, that it wasn’t just to increase a ratio. It can sometimes feel like you have to work twice as hard and do twice the job to be recognized but at the end of the day no matter what is said I know I have achieved and worked for everything that I have.
Tell me a little about what your daily role at Christmas Creek is like – What is a typical day at the ‘office’?
My job changes so much from day to day which is why I enjoy it. I spend a majority of my time in a light vehicle (Land Cruiser) on average doing around 250-300kms per shift. I leave camp at 4:15 and generally get home around 18:30. On any given day I can have from 15-45 direct reports. My role as a supervisor is to create a safe work environment where we can productively move the required dirt to meet target.
What are some of the tasks that you perform?
I run meetings, set up lighting towers (yes I can NOW reverse a trailer). Most of my day is made up of doing safety inspections of the pit and showing operators jobs that need to be completed so we are able to stay to the plan and meet target. My job requires me to make decisions on the spot and think dynamically. Assessing and managing risk and hazards is one of the major tasks on a daily basis.
What are some of the personal requirements required for your career?
You need to believe in yourself. No matter what you’re feeling on the inside, while attending a meeting with 30 men staring at you, be positive, confident and strong on the outside. I have found it also very beneficial to have a good sense of humour.
What are the educational requirements needed to become a Mining Production Supervisor?
As I have worked my way up from an operator there is no specific requirements. I have a lot of on the job training and actively tried to learn and be involved in anything that may help me down the track.
Are there any reasons women may not be able to engage in a career in Mining?
None! In fact mining companies can be very flexible – including transferring new mums into office based roles and closer to home if required. I have also seen Dads stay at home being the primary care givers, while Mum works FIFO, and every two years they do a swap.
Have you ever had a moment of hesitation – the thought “Why am I doing this? Is it really what I love?”
You do have those moments, usually day 12 of every swing. Mostly when you’re missing out on things like Christmas, birthdays, weddings or when you just really need to be at home but can’t be. This lifestyle can be really tough sometimes but it also has so many great rewards. The people that love you will always be worried and want what is best for you. When I first started I had a lot of people telling me not to go, it was a bad idea, and I should finish uni and get a ‘good job’. I took a risk and changed my life, this lead to me being able to do some amazing things and I found something that I love doing. I don’t wake up every day and dread going to work however, I do still wake up every day and dread getting out of bed at 3:30am!!
Who was your role model when you were growing up?
My parents were always very supportive of anything that I wanted to try or do and gave me any opportunities they could.
How have your experiences shaped you? What were some of the greatest lessons learnt?
I have learnt to pick my battles. Know when to listen and when to talk; you can learn a lot from listening to people with a lot of experience. As a supervisor I have learnt to treat everyone with respect and listen, you never know what they might be going through or what they might teach you. By doing this you gain a lot of respect. I have also learnt that this is a very small industry so never burn your bridges!
What would you do differently in your life knowing earlier what you know now?
Maybe just my lotto numbers!!
I definitely believe that everything happens for a reason. Whether it’s good or bad it is leading us to where we need to be in life. Take every experience and pick even one positive that has come from it. Sometimes this can be hard to do and might not happen for some time after the event but keeping this in mind keeps me going and working towards what I want in life. Looking at life like this I wouldn’t change much because if I did I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to keep working in the FIFO industry and continue working my way up the ladder. I enjoy being a leader and want to keep moving forward on this path.
What advice would you give for other women considering a supervisor role in the mining industry?
Find a good mentor. They don’t have to be a female, just someone you can talk to and vent to. Things won’t always go to plan; you will have good days and bad days. If you have someone that will always support you it really helps so you can have a chat and reset for the next day. Working in a male dominated industry I have found that most men are in their comfort zone with all the boys around and therefore have no issues in saying what they think. Sometimes that can be quite intimidating. Keep those wide shoulders back, chin up, a smile on your face and get on with the job you’re there to do.
What do you feel needs to be done in order to see an increase in females pursuing a career in what is normally considered a male dominated industry?
I think giving young women the knowledge of what it is really like out here in the field. Getting them out in the dust for some work experience at school age so they can get a feel for what it is really like. This needs to happen all over Australia and not just in Perth or mining based towns.
What advice would you give to women starting their careers?
Always look out for number 1. YOU. Remember you’re there to do a job; you didn’t get along with everyone in the playground and same goes with work. People will always struggle when they see others succeed. They will make you feel guilty and talk about you behind your back. You can’t control what others think so don’t even try. Just focus on what you want and go for it. In five years time you won’t know half the people you work with now so never hold yourself back because of what they might think or say.