This article was originally published by the AusIMM Bulletin magazine – August 2016.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked ‘are you a cleaner here?’ or ‘how did you get this job, you don’t see many girls out here?’ since working in the mining industry, I could buy you all a house.
And not one of those small houses. I am talking a big house. With a garden, and a swimming pool. The works. But you know what, I don’t take it personally. I cop it on the chin, smile and simply answer ‘no’ and ‘by working hard like everybody else’.
See the thing is, I get it. I get that the mining and resources industries are male-dominated. They have been long before I was born. Back in the day when you could wear stubby shorts and a singlet to work.
It must be strange for some of the fellas, particularly the older ones who have always worked with men, to suddenly be working alongside a woman who’s doing the same job. I mean, women can’t operate a crusher or mill deck, can they? Operate bore fields and desalination plants? Surely they aren’t strong enough, or mechanically minded. Come on now, let’s be serious.
I have heard it and I have lived it. But the best bit is, girls can do it, they have always been able to do it. Times are changing and the best way to help ideals change is to prove the naysayers wrong. Stand strong, keep calm and get the job done. It earns respect and eventually the message will filter through. Because you know what, women can do it and sometimes, they can do it better.
Which brings me to the next part of my story, but for this we will be going back in time. Let’s go back to the first part I mentioned, the bit about being a cleaner. My answer wasn’t always ‘no’. In fact, that was how I entered the mining industry, as a young lady in Western Australia. I will never forget getting off the plane in Telfer on a 46 degree day and thinking, ‘this place is bloody great!’ The heat, the flies, the red dirt. I loved it. It’s like I was born to live in the outback! I cleaned dongas, ablution blocks, offices and worked in the bar. It was a 2-and-1 roster that offered a comfortable life, and while I loved it there, I always felt there was something more for me in the mining industry. I had a taste for the FIFO life and I wanted to make it a permanent part of my lifestyle. So I set out to achieve this in the only way I know possible, with sheer determination and grit.
A six-month course in mining exploration was the initial turning point, which might not seem like much but for someone who never finished school, it was a challenge. This was followed by a number of employment opportunities that involved huge variety including FIFO, DIDO, long weeks away, heat, cold, desolate landscapes, dingos, camels, snakes in boots, remote Indigenous communities, local towns, the drunks from local towns, swags, dongas, sleeping next to drill rigs, camp cooking (most memorable was the rotten meat, but that’s another story), dead flies in camp cooking, outside camp dunnies (dug by hand), a drillers offsider who always whinged about the outside camp dunnies, solar showers hung from a tree and more sand than you could poke a stick at! It was insane and amazing.
I worked all over the place with interesting and unique people, some of which are still very close friends to this day. I got to do all kinds of jobs and had fantastic experiences, life changing experiences. From sampling next to drill rigs in Eucla, digging soil samples along streams in Claremont (QLD), taking rock chip samples from picturesque forests in Emerald (QLD), dodging cane toads and vipers on the road to Townsville (QLD), moving geophysical cables so cattle wouldn’t eat them in Cloncurry (QLD), changing three flat tyres after a 4WD getting bogged setting up electromagnetic surveys in Kanmantoo (SA), digging geophysical receiver pits in 48 degree heat in Leinster (WA), and walking over 20 km a day marking out GPS grid lines for surveys Hilston (NSW).
Each and every job was different and each and every job made me that little bit more resilient, stronger, savvier and driven. I worked with some amazing people who always had my back and taught me so much. ‘I’ve got this’, I used to think to myself.
From there I changed direction and went back to working on mine sites. Gone were the days of not showering for six weeks at a time. For the first time since I began my career in exploration I finally had a permanent room, with air-conditioning and a shower. The camp had phone service. Well, it was intermittent, but I was living the dream! This job was different to the others. I was working underground. Next to big machinery and big men, it was busy. And busier than working with a few crew in exploration in the outback. These guys didn’t know me and once again, I was the only girl doing my job. The ‘best bit’ was there were no toilets underground and I used to wear overalls, with a large belt that held my survival gear should there be a mine collapse. Picture that for a moment and then ask yourself, how do you go to the toilet underground with men around you and overalls and no trees to hide behind? With great difficulty, that’s how! See that’s when it dawned on me, this industry wasn’t even set up for females. But I managed. From there I moved to another site. This time I got a job as a process technician. I felt completely out of my depth. I had no idea what a valve was when I started there, but I was determined to make a go of it and succeed. And that is what I did. I was fortunate to have some great people help me and teach me new things. Terminology was probably the hardest bit to learn. I’ll never understand why you need to have so many different words for a spanner. Nonetheless, I became a senior operator and in time I could run all areas of the process plant, including the control room. But you know, it didn’t come easy. Sometimes people would make comments like ‘you just got this job because you’re a girl’ or ‘the company is trying to fill a quota, that’s why you’re here.’ That is really soul crushing when you bust your gut to do the best you can. But again, you can’t take it to heart.
Let’s fast forward to 2012 now. So as I mentioned earlier I never finished high school, but in 2012 I decided I wanted to go to university. It had been 12 years since I had been at high school so I was incredibly nervous to sit the stat test for admission. To my surprise I got in and not only did I get in, I did quite well. I studied a bachelor of Environmental Science, specialising in global water resources (namely hydrogeology and hydrology). My goal was to go back into the mining industry with a different career. I felt my time as a process technician had come to its end and it was time for a new challenge. After graduating from university with high distinctions, I received a scholarship to complete a Master of Science in Energy and Resources Management.
Which brings me to today. I am currently finishing my thesis on environmental research related to Marine Renewable Energy Devices (wind, wave and tidal) and working as an Environmental Advisor for a resources company, which is a dream come true. Now is a pivotal time in my life, as I am about to embark on another journey. This one in a different direction and although I have a degree now and have overcome some serious challenges, I am still prepared for those that lay ahead. The knowledge that women in the resources industry are still a minority and that unconscious bias plays a big part in this is something I find incredibly disappointing.
Recently, I attended the Women in Leadership Symposium in Adelaide, care of a fully paid scholarship from the Women in Mining Network South Australia (WIMnet SA). The day really confirmed that the experiences I have encountered over the last 15 years are not a one off. Sometimes they can leave you feeling deflated and down. Sometimes the negativity penetrates and installs doubt: ‘what if I’m not good enough to be here, perhaps it is a man’s job, what if I can’t do it because I am not strong enough?’ I have had those thoughts on more than one occasion, but you know what, everyone can do whatever they put their mind to and I would like to think I am a good example of that. It is not about size or gender, how smart you are, what your hobbies are, it’s about whether or not you are dedicated and willing to learn and exceed expectations.
The women in leadership symposium really drove that message home to me. We need to stop segregating people based on how it used to be. People are equal and should be treated as such. As Ann Gale, SA Public Advocate, said at the symposium, the challenge is not creating a diverse culture but creating one that embraces equity. That is, not treating people the same but actually including them and accepting their differences. Personally I feel that until that happens, there won’t be a 360-degree turn around for the mining and resources industries. Although, if we all make small changes and improve how we treat people, I think it can start to make a huge difference.