Dr Alyson Warhurst – “Don’t let anyone put you off achieving what you think is important”

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Professor Alyson Warhurst was drawn to mining from an early age inspired by weekend visits to ancient mine sites with her archaeologist father. She’s had a long career spanning the academic and business worlds and won awards along the way for her work in social and responsible mining. She set up an ethical supply chain for the diamond industry and believes it’s important that miners remember they need a ‘social license’ to operate. Alyson says she’s never compromised and that was challenging because she wasn’t sure the mining industry always wanted to hear what she had to say. She urges women to have confidence and thinks this is why mentoring is good because it helps to build confidence and allows you to blaze a trail — something she has done over the course of her working life, despite being told by many people that she wouldn’t succeed in a male-dominated mining industry. Don’t let anyone put you off achieving what you think is important, develop your networks, collaborate and find a mentor to get ahead, she says. By Camila Reed

How did you choose mining as a career?
My father, who has just sadly passed away, was the Director of the Bristol Museum, then the Ulster Museum and latterly the Manchester Museum. He was an archaeologist. As a child every weekend we would go on field trips – excavations, fossil hunting and visits to ancient mine sites. My interest in mining comes from these very early days.
We used to go on holiday to the Lake District and Ireland, and I always had an interest in geology and landscapes as well as human geography in the form of mining and quarrying.
I did a Master’s degree after my geology and geography degree at Bristol University which focused on the copper industry and progressed to a PhD, as my interests evolved to include the politics of mining and the transfer of technology, particularly to developing countries.
Growing up in Belfast, I’ve always been interested in politics, development and conflict. Mining on the whole nowadays takes place in Latin America, Africa, Asia and North America so I decided to compare the North and South American mining industries with a focus on social equality and development.
Why was North America so successful and the South so much more challenged to provide benefits to miners, their families and wider local communities? I decided that to answer this question I would need to understand technological innovation.
Who drove technological advance in the mining industry and who benefited most from its application. I was awarded a United Nations grant to go to Latin America. This was the early 1980s – the wonderful thing was that this UN grant was a large amount for a student and I managed to make it last two years instead of six months.
It was path breaking and life changing experience. Learning Spanish, exploring the finer details of development, visiting mining areas, going down underground mines and scrapping back my hair underneath my trusty helmet, pretending to be male because women were considered to bring bad luck if they went underground.
In those days of selective (not block) mining the fear of the largely indigenous mining workforce was that the line of the mineral rich vein would be lost if a woman lay eyes on it…

What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector?
I think practically in the early 1908s, and being in Latin America, the environment was very male dominated. I learnt the importance of networking with other women researching mining very early on, with women like Cristina Echavarria in Colombia, Ligia Noronha in India and Donna Mergler, a Canadian professor, who worked mainly in Brazil.
We began to develop networks globally and that was very important because I think it’s just tougher and harder as a woman to demonstrate that you have the requisite knowledge and determination to work in an industry, which has been predominantly male.
So it’s about having to put that extra bit of work in to be recognised. Especially in the mining industry with older men who are quite traditional, I think it takes time to build up your expertise.
I became a Professor and was awarded a Chair at the University of Warwick. It just made me work harder and be more determined to achieve. Merit usually wins through but you do need the doors to be unlocked.


Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
In any career, and I tell my own 16 year-old daughter this, you need talent, luck and a mentor. Without a mentor I think it’s very hard to succeed because there’s so much competition in life. I’ve had female and male mentors.
I had a professor at Sussex University – Professor Geoffrey Oldham, Director of the Science Policy Research Unit where I did my PhD who was particularly supportive of me. He encouraged me to travel to Latin America, Africa and China. He really believed in me and that was absolutely critical. We are still firm friends and he is still travelling to China and afar in his late 80s!
There were also industrial experts. I remember Dr Robert Wilson, a former Chairman of Rio Tinto, who was awarded an honorary degree at Sussex University being very supportive and Dr John Groom at Anglo American.
I changed from an academic career to an international relations career to gain more experience and I had wonderful opportunities in my work at the International Development Research Centre, which was part of Canada’s overseas foreign aid programme. I had a wonderful female mentor there, Dr Anne Whyte, supporting me. In this role I led the programme for research into technological innovation in agriculture and mining, which meant I travelled all over the continent and developed research projects with local institutions, for Canadian government funding. This enabled me to give back through mentoring and encouraging younger researchers.
I do believe in mentors and I’ve always tried to mentor myself as a result – and continue to do so to this day.

Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
Being able to develop the mining and environment research network (MERN) was one of my proudest achievements. I won a collaborative studies grant from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, which enabled a global research programme to be built.
I led this network of male and female researchers who were all working on developing socially and environmentally responsible solutions for the mining industry. We were really listened to and I believe we were an important force for good. We changed the mining industry, making it more responsible and aware of its environmental and social responsibilities in developing countries.
I think the mining companies realised that they had to be more responsible and listened to what we said and we built further on our funding with UK government DFID sponsorship and that came with (hard won) industrial collaboration support.
So I was able to get all the major mining companies to contribute too and this was achieved over a decade starting at Sussex University, then Bath University’s School of Management and latterly at Warwick business School, my last academic appointment.
As a network we wrote books and developed studies and we had a very positive impact on the industry, such that we were a significant force in getting the mining industry to develop its own mining research initiatives around 2000, as the industry began to recognise that they needed to contribute to sustainable development in order to keep their license to operate in developing countries.
That said, once the mining companies started to do it, they inevitably wanted to do it their way with their own staff and chosen consultants. One of the challenges I faced was to accept that the industry wanted to take these research initiatives over and do it their way. It was hard at first, but I recognised that I had done my part and I had to widen what I did as a result. So I started to work on different research areas like ethical supply chain and expand my sector interests.
I went into the diamond mining industry and developed an ethical supply chain process for De Beers Diamonds and an innovative award winning responsible sourcing process and reporting programme.
I then moved into other sectors that were in “catch-up” mode, like oil and gas, retail, agriculture, technology etc. It was an evolution and there were important policy similarities, but it all started with mining.

What is your view on how the mining industry is doing with its Corporate Social Responsibility?
I think a huge amount has been achieved but there’s a lot more that could be done. It is very challenging because mining is at the forefront and at the frontier because minerals are located in remote geographies and those remote geographies in developing countries are often associated with poverty and it’s incredibly difficult for a mining company alone, even in collaboration with government and local communities to solve everything.
Mining is unique as profitability is in part determined by end markets, so when mineral prices are low there is less to spend on development initiatives beyond obtaining the minerals themselves.
It is hard to get that balance. I think It is difficult and people have had to campaign to get mining companies to listen and to recognise that they need to have what I would call ‘a social licence’ to operate. They also need to recognise that this is a continuous process and that it is not just something that is acquired at the start of a project.
Unless host governments and local communities see the benefits for them and it is reciprocal (my favourite word), mining projects are rarely successful. Reciprocity is probably the most important thing I have learnt in my career. It makes for social progress.
In a sense there’s an enlightened self-interest in the mining industry. Mining projects are long term projects. There’s lot of capital expenditure up front and you’re locked in until you start generating value and then it takes a while before that goes back to national communities and local governments.
Trust is therefore key too. Too many mining projects have failed or become expensive and delayed because of a lack of reciprocity and trust. I think as women we have an important role to play here as these are values that are intuitive to us, and we can only be mothers, friends, colleagues and protagonists with these values in place.
More can always be done and campaigning should always continue because it’s a dynamic process. We cannot afford for the industry to become complacent. Every project is different and the next generation of mining professionals must learn from the mistakes of the past and the build on the gains made too.
The diamond industry I found fascinating. When I moved from copper and gold to diamonds, I found there that reciprocity and trust was even more explicit because no one wants to wear a diamond ring if it’s associated with conflict. It is a symbol of love.
So there was a real interest in the diamond industry to develop beyond reproach the socially responsible mining of diamonds because they were also involved in the selling and distribution of diamonds.
Supply chains really fascinate me now – and the customer has more power than we realise. Increasingly consumers are enlightened and will seek ethical solutions back through the supply chains of the products they buy, whether it’s a car or a pendant.

There appear to be many women in CSR roles at mining companies, why is this?
It doesn’t surprise me because women are more socially aware as a result of their special position and the challenges they face to have an equal role in society. They also know that they can only succeed in their own roles as mothers and managers – as working women – if they work in partnership with others.
They are acutely aware that they cannot do things alone, so reciprocity – that key value explains a great deal. I should add that this was a value explained to us by indigenous communities in Colombia who explained that this was what they needed the mining companies, who wished to explore on their land, to understand. It is a community value, not an individual value.
The mining industry found this hard to understand as they were used to making alliances with individuals – head of the mining ministry, a local mayor or a tribal chief.
So it doesn’t surprise me that social progress in a broader sense is important to women and that they like to do that type of work, they find it rewarding.

What are you passionate about in your work?
When I did my PhD there was one amazing gold mine called Homestake Gold Mining in California. It was a very rich gold mine but it was also located in a wine growing area and so it was only allowed to be developed if there was full-scale reclamation. It was a case study of “the possibility of zero impact” for me in my early days as an academic.
The mine was a living laboratory while it was operating. Schools visited, research scientists lived there. They tried all the latest technologies and they were only allowed to mine if they had zero impact on the environment. So they worked really hard to reclaim everything and for there to be no visual impact of the mining afterwards. They used gravity and an impressive array of hardy grasses and beautiful rocks to re-landscape the valley.
I followed this project from start to finish but overall it impressed me because it shows it can be done, whereas if you go to developing countries the mining industry has left such a mess behind it, because it did not reclaim as it went along. You see dumps, that generate dusts and effluents that are polluting the local environment. I saw children playing on mine tailings and unstable dumps. This I found to be the unacceptable face of mining. It still exists throughout Africa and Latin America, I am afraid.
And it’s a very hard job, as everyone knows in life, to go back and clear up a mess. It’s much better that you budget for it. Reclaim as you go and it’s part of the cost of mining. We as females know this is the case too. I think we are more organized and plan better.
It’s the fact that it can be done and be shown to make economic sense and have wider community benefits in the process that proves to me that it can be done everywhere. The Rockies are like the Andes. Some societies benefit more than others and it’s getting that balance right. We are not there yet.
If it can be done in the United States it can be done in South America. I have had a passion for socially responsible development and equality in development throughout my career.
There’s a huge amount of pollution to be cleaned up from previous mining and it’s a challenge. It’s difficult to legislate for it and it’s difficult for new owners to take on board, because if you have to take on the costs of previous owners’ tailings and deposits it can make a project uneconomic and it doesn’t deliver back to the government or to society.
We don’t have the solutions yet. We have not costed the true costs of mining yet and industry is reluctant to do this as we have not built the costs into the supply chain and the end products that we as consumers buy. We need a global re-think, I believe.

What did you do next?
I developed my interest in mining in parallel with my university career, and indeed I became a university professor, which I enjoyed for many years. However, as time went on and with a young family, I didn’t want to spend so much time travelling and away from my children. So I developed a business idea that had the potential to allow me to work from closer to home.
My business idea was to bring alive risk and responsibility through mapping software, with a focus on developing countries and to find visual ways of communicating it. This tool was not just for mining but for oil and gas, retail and other sectors. It was a much a broader proposition.
I built up this business over 10 years. It was more successful than I ever imagined it would be so I gave up my day time job in academia and left behind all those meetings! Indeed, I really enjoyed being an entrepreneur and then a couple of years back I sold my company and so now I am fully retired (and probably driving my children mad as I am around all the time now!).

What would you love to do next?
What I might do next is become a non-executive director (NED) for some companies. I have been a NED for Transparency International for nearly nine years and for a coal company, New World Resources. I might also write a novel. I am also enjoying developing friendships and other interests. As a working mother, there was rarely time for social activities.

What is your opinion in the women on boards debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
Yes I do believe there should be quotas put in place to speed things up, especially in the mining industry. I was on the board of a mining company and I was the only female there the entire time and it was a big company.
Existing Board members can give reasons why not to do something – and someone always knows someone who they trust would make a good new Board member, and so that’s why quotas take the reasons why you can’t do something away.
I was chair of the nominations committee on a FTSE limited company. You need to get out there and look for talent. And women on boards probably need to look for other women. And if there are quotas it obliges you to look harder. The first step is to get onto the nominations committee.
Personally there’s no excuse for not having more women as there are some fantastic female professionals out there. They are bright so while they might find the first year challenging, you learn as you go. Women may lack some of the experience but if you have the right support on the board then you get there and the same goes for NED positions too.
We need quotas and mentors, and to prioritise female board members on nominations committees.

You’ve won lots of awards — which award has meant the most to you and why?
I think an award that was very special and surprised me was the Beyond Grey Pinstripes award. I was the Inaugural Winner: European Faculty Pioneer in 2003.

What was special was that I won the inaugural award as a woman in the academic community for entrepreneurship and promoting responsible business. It meant a lot to me as it was a complete surprise that I’d been noticed.
Then in 2010, I was the recipient of the British Insurance Woman to Watch Award. I don’t know if these things do any good but they are nice to get along the way. What means more to me is inspiring women rather than a glass award for my mantelpiece. I’m not even sure where these awards are, they are not parading on my shelf!

Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
I worked really hard, longs hours, day and night and I think that is the challenge. You have to be prepared to work hard and finish things. You should look for a mentor to guide you because it helps not to make the wrong choices and you need encouragement and networks to collaborate.
Mining is so multidisciplinary. You can’t expect to manage all these things alone and whether you are on a board, which I was, or at the coal face, which I was while doing my PhD, it always helps to collaborate with others. So networking, collaborating, working hard and mentoring.
Make sure you have your armory. Be prepared and have those things in place to have the greatest chance of success and never compromise. Don’t be put off if someone tells you that you cannot do something or if someone pulls the rug from underneath you. That is life. Get up and brush yourself off!
I never compromised and that was challenging because I don’t think the mining industry always wanted to hear what I had to say — especially the men it, as it was mainly male managers when I started. There weren’t many women.
I think you have to have confidence and that’s why mentoring is good because it helps to build confidence and you need it if you want to blaze a trail.

How do you find the work/life balance?
There are three things in life. There’s family, work and friends and something has to give. For me I just focused on work and family and only now am I having a lovely time making friendships and spending time with people and doing all sorts of things I’ve never done before, because it was all work and bringing up a young family. There was no time to socialise.
There are trade-offs and everyone has got to make them, women particularly have a tough time. There is no easy answer. It is important to get that balance when you can. In my case I have retired early and so I’m balancing it that way and having a wonderful time with my children now that they are a little bit older.

Any else that you feel is important that you would like to share?
I do think it’s good that women in mining groups exist because they stop women from becoming invisible as the industry remains so male dominated.
Don’t let anyone detract you. I had so many people telling me not do things — like not go to Latin America when I was young or not to develop a socially responsible mining research programme. But I had such a phenomenal experience and gained so much.
I had so many people tell me I wouldn’t succeed in a male-dominated mining industry but I think you work out who you can work with and who are good mentors and supporters and sponsors.
Don’t let anyone put you off achieving what you think is important, and trust your mentors to help you determine what is important, keeping the values of trust and reciprocity at the forefront of the trail that you blaze.

Prior to retiring in December 2014, Alyson Warhurst was CEO and founder of Maplecroft, the leading source of extra-financial risk analysis for the world’s largest multinational corporations; banks and asset managers; governments; and, NGOs. Coming from an academic background, Alyson has advised global companies and organisations at board and senior level on: global and political risks, human rights, ethical supply chains, corporate reputation and responsibility. She was an advisor to the World Economic Forum over many years and previously spent a nine-year term on the Board of Trustees at Transparency International UK, holding membership of the Nominations Committee, the Membership Committee and the Remuneration Committee until 2016. From 1999 to 2009, Alyson was Chair of Strategy and International Development at Warwick Business School and was Honorary Professor from 2010 to 2015. Alyson was also on the Board of New World Resources, 2013 to 2016, where she was on the Safety, Health & Sustainability Committee, the Capital Committee and chaired the Nominations Committee. She is an accomplished speaker at high-level international events and has written several books and more than one hundred articles.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.