Anne Oxley was encouraged to head towards metallurgy by an inspirational chemistry teacher, Mr David Miller, who changed her views on what might be possible as a career. She was always very good at sciences but until then had been directed as are many girls in that situation towards medicine. Mr Miller suggested that metallurgy may be a great option. He had another previous student (Dame Sue Ions) who had studied metallurgy at Imperial College and suggested she do the same. Anne followed his advice and enjoyed her time immensely at the Royal School of Mines (RSM), even making her first steps in a male world becoming Vice President of the RSMU.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out that you know now?
This is a very difficult question as many things just come much easier with experience and confidence and these can only grow with time.
There was a time, however, in the early 1990’s when I was in Surinam, as my partner was seconded to a mine there, and looking for work at the local Alumina Smelter, I contacted them once and then waited for them to return to me, in the end the response, just before we left several months later, was “maybe they had something”. If something similar happened now, I would be knocking on their door offering my services and demanding a quick response. Instead I returned to The Netherlands, where we were based, to continue my career, my partner (now husband) left his job to return too.
Can you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?
The Surinam experience brought up several challenges, not least dealing with the expat wives who were all much older than me and were shall we say intrigued that I wanted to work in the mining industry! Most suggested that I started a family while my other half worked his way up in the mining world.
I wanted to do something while waiting to hear about my possible metallurgical position and as such I became involved in the more social affairs side of mining and volunteered to work in a local community orphanage. This taught me a lot about how mining fits with the community and how important the social side of mining is, but also that female prejudice can often stem from women themselves, particularly the older generation.
Another challenge occurs when dealing with very experienced male metallurgists/engineers much older than myself who have over the years ended up working for me, either directly or as consultants. Managing these relationships is challenging, my personnel skills are one of my strengths and these encounters have always proved fruitful and many have ended in good long-term working relationships which I still call on today. I’ve always found that the best way to manage these men is to be tolerant and always listen to what they have to say, even though sometimes it’s not at a time when you want to! and to take on board their good ideas whilst making sure they also listen to your own concepts and thinking. This interestingly is often less of a challenge in developing countries than it is English-speaking nations. For example on a recent visit to Russia, on two separate occasions, one in Moscow and another in Orsk, I was introduced to experienced nickel metallurgists who response to me was “Oh are you Anne Oxley? What a pleasure to meet you, we have read your nickel heap leach papers with much interest and very much wanted to meet you”.
We are constantly challenged on a technical level about the heap leaching of nickel laterites which I am passionate about bringing to commercialisation. There are many, mostly male!, people out there that have very fixed views on how nickel laterites can be processed and they often doubt both technically and commercially the viability of the nickel heap leaching. The heap leaching of nickel laterites is, however, a much more cost-effective and environmentally friendly method for the processing of the vast currently uncommercial resources of nickel laterites in the world.
Laterites account for more than 70% of the world’s nickel resources but only 42% of production. In recent years new nickel laterite projects, both traditional pyrometallurgical (smelters) and the hydrometallurgical High pressure Acid Leach (HPAL) routes, have incurred huge cost overruns, the worst of these being estimated at a cost of USD 1.5 Billion with cost to date of over USD 9.5 Billion which is still a very long way from its name plate capacity, this has compounded many negative views in the industry.
I believe that Heap Leaching will overcome these problems and will one day be a genuine game changer in the nickel industry and prove all these sceptics wrong!
Why did you decide to leave a listed company to become self-employed?
We basically saw a gap in the nickel laterite market that we believed we could fill, to further develop the heap leaching technology. European Nickel had gone through a merger and their focus was changing so we parted company in late 2010 to found our own venture; there are many nickel laterites that currently have no defined route to production and it was our intent to purchase or earn-in to the best of these projects.
I’m passionate about my subject and love the challenges that come with managing our own business. Every day brings new challenges and with them learning experiences. Running your own company requires quick decision-making and great flexibility in all aspects of the business and I thrive on this. It is of course also very hard work and there are inherent risks to running any business but conversely great rewards when you are successful.
Have you been a Board Director/ would you like to sit on a company board?
Obviously as a co-founder of both companies I am on the board of Alyssum Ventures Ltd and Brazilian Nickel. While both are private companies presently, Brazilian Nickel will list most probably in London next year (2015) and has in place already the board to accomplish this and run the company as a listed entity. Our Chairman was the longest standing NED for European Nickel, our COO, a Brazilian, is also an executive board member of BRN and is a NED on various other listed iron ore mining companies. As my co-founder, my husband is the CEO/MD and we have 2 NEDs with much experience of both listing companies and sitting on the boards of listed companies as both executive and non-executive directors. While the board of BRN has only one female director (myself) the dynamics between directors is excellent.
As BRN develops and grows into a reasonable sized nickel producer I feel I would have much value to add on newly developing listed junior mining companies.
Where do you stand on the quotas vs. targets debate?
I agree with the UK government minister for women and equality that “women need confidence not quotas” I believe men and women should be promoted on merit, I would hate to feel that at any time I had obtained a job purely because I was women and not because I was the best “man” for the job.
It is, however, very important to redress the balance and companies need to put in place active policies to promote work place equality.
We are seeing in the UK that targets do encourage more women on boards as long as the targets are actively managed and I would hope that some sort of equilibrium can be established over the coming years.
We mustn’t forget that to have a pool of suitable women to sit on mining boards we need to keep encouraging more women to study engineering and science and also to remain in the industry.
If the target approach does not deliver the expected results in a timely manner though we may need to put quotas in place for a period of time, but in my view these quotas would need to be throughout a company’s structure and include in all aspects of industry, as for instance the brokerage system is still a particularly male bastion.
Anne, you mention mining companies need to put active policies in place to recruit and retain women. Could you let us know which policies, in your opinion, would be valuable to women in the industry?
Companies need to make sure that their labour policies include actively seeking to find female candidates for job vacancies to achieve the correct gender balance within their company; if these are not forthcoming from the usual resources then companies must widen the search to include new sources of female candidates such as Women in Mining.
It has been shown in many EU studies over recent years that active labour policies do have a positive effect on employment outcomes in general for women.
Once women are in the work place retaining them is also an issue, companies along with governments need to address issues such as flexible working and childcare.
What are your recommendations to support the development of women in mining and your feedback regarding the work of WIM Community Portal and the WIM chapters around the world?
“The WIM movement is doing a tremendous job in promoting women and encouraging more female professionals to join the industry.
It could have a more active role in giving career advice to WIM members and help mining companies to recruit and retain their female employees. WIM could for instance help mining companies to prepare women better for roles in remote locations and to understand the culture of the countries they may work in; I’m sure members like myself who have experience of working in both remote locations and within other cultures would happily assist in the preparation of this type of information. Companies also need to improve the recruitment process to attract more women to these roles and make sure the process is not designed to exclude them when they do apply.”