Bárbara Alcayaga graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico, but then encountered the mining and metallurgical industry in her first job with Fluor and her career has since been closely linked with this industry. She has worked in communications, marketing, and management roles with companies supporting the mining industry, including SNC-Lavalin, Hatch, Gecamin, and the Chile–Australia Chamber of Commerce (Auscham). Bárbara has become increasingly involved in issues of sustainability in the mining industry, particularly gender and inclusion in the workplace. Her recent appointment as Head of Operations for International Women in Mining combines her passions for enabling people to work together, promotion and support of women in the mining sector, and networking and project management across a range of cultures, languages, and global locations.
By Kathy Sole
This interview is adapted from the original Spanish version, first published on 20 August 2022 by Minería y Futuro, Chile
You have worked on multiple causes related to the inclusion and diversity of women. What inspires you to be part of these initiatives?
For me, it was a process that occurred over several years as I came to realise how women are minimised in their capacities, their potential, and their opportunities, based only on the fact that they are a woman…not to mention if they are a woman and of color, lesbian, or another “label”! I realised that women are assigned a societal and family role that they must fulfill, and that if a woman wants something more (such as being a professional and working in a mine, for example), she must still fulfill her assigned role and, only after doing so, can she do what she wants to do for herself. Here, I am talking about the professional heroines who take care of the children, the house, and all sorts of other issues, all while looking fabulous.
Although I have been aware of having a certain privilege in this society [Chile] since I was very young, I never considered the depth and impact of discrimination against women. Because I am a woman, those other privileges became a kind of safeguard. As I began to learn about the reality of some women in this industry, I began to see patterns in my own life, which was eye-opening. And once you “know”, you can no longer not know. I have always looked for roles in which my work is of benefit to other people, so delving into the study and management of the inclusion of diversity made sense to me and is what I want to continue doing from now on. It motivates me to be able to support other people in the process of identifying and processing what may be restricting their potential. I hope I can be of support in accelerating advancement of this cause.
Throughout my career in the mining industry, where I served in supporting roles in knowledge generation and networking, I have been able to see and experience first-hand discrimination, not only based on gender, but in its broader spectrum. Serendipity placed Women in Mining Chile in my path when it was founded: since then, I have collaborated with this and other organisations that seek to provide support, raise awareness, and promote initiatives so that all of us—men and women—are more inclusive, treated fairly, and are happy in the workplace. Today, I have the honor of being the Chair of the Gender and Diversity Committee at Auscham [the principal private sector institution representing Australian businesses in Chile]. I also hold a decision-making position at IWiM, a global non-profit organisation, through which I have access to the network of women’s organisations in mining on all continents.
How has inclusion and diversity in companies evolved since you initially became involved in these matters?
With the rise of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Guidelines] and the United Nations 2030 Agenda, the world’s major organisations and governments have addressed gender inclusion as a central axis. Organisational “influencers”, such as the World Economic Forum, and large investment firms, such as BlackRock, set trends in this area. In recent years, large companies such as BHP, Codelco, Anglo American, and more, have incorporated ambitious goals for parity in the industry.
The State of Chile has had the inclusion of women [in the economy] as an objective for a long time, even before the current feminist government that came to power to consolidate this agenda. For example, the Financial Market Commission incorporated gender indicators in the stock market and Codelco [the Chilean state-owned mining company] certified all its divisions under NCh 3262 [a voluntary standard on Gender Equity and Work–Life Balance that can be implemented in any organisation].
These milestones have generated a very favourable scenario for mining, supplier, and service companies to incorporate visions and inclusion objectives, especially for women. It is a virtuous circle, in which the trend favours improvements for all.
Here, we are talking about this from the reality of large-scale mining companies: there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of inclusion in medium and small-scale mining companies. The first thing we need to do there is map the gap.
How do you think inclusion and diversity can be improved?
I’m going to sound corny and idealistic, but love makes true inclusion possible. I read an article about how empathy for the reality of others and compassion without victimisation are ways by which we can change discriminatory beliefs and behaviours. I remember that the article was linked to discrimination of migrants, but these concepts apply transversally.
An internal investigation of an international mining company found that discrimination is normalised by imperceptible everyday behaviours, such as jokes or negative or critical reviews about other groups. Such behavior not necessarily concerns minority groups, but can also be about the night shift, or about people who work in the main offices, or about management. We have all negatively criticised someone at some point; we have normalised it in our way of working. This finding linked this normalised behaviour with criticism and discrimination toward people because of their race, religion, gender, etc. I think this is an interesting link to deepen.
I return to love, demonstrated through empathy and compassion. In general, female leadership—where I mean women in people leadership positions—differs from male leadership, in that it is more collaborative, empathic, and compassionate. These characteristics generate teams that are more committed to the tasks and to the company…food for thought…
On issues of gender equity and inclusion of women, how do you see the mining industry in relation to other industries in Chile?
The reality of working in mining cannot readily be compared with many other industries. Sites are mostly in remote locations, security is extremely tight, processes are crude and large-scale, shifts are inhospitable, requirements for technical and scientific specialisation are very high, and much more. Everything in this industry creates very particular challenges for gender equality.
That said, I perceive that women who have been and are part of mining—as miners, metallurgists, geologists, and others—are in love with mining. If this wasn’t the case, they wouldn’t be part of this industry. That makes this sector differentiate itself and stand out, because there is passion behind the professionals who fight to enter, stay, be promoted, and generate changes. In this sense, it is easy to understand why this sector has made greater progress in terms of gender equity than other masculinised sectors, such as construction, metal-mechanical engineering, and forestry.
How receptive are decision makers to the requirements of greater diversity in an industry where there is a predominance of men, such as in mining?
We know that mining has been a “men’s club” for many decades, and reluctance to change is expected, especially if such change redirects opportunities to people who are different. Luckily, it is not difficult to obtain data that validate that diverse organisations demonstrate greater competitiveness, greater security, savings due to better performance, etc., etc., which are undeniable for those who make decisions based on production numbers. The inclusion, of women in this case, is good business.
Attaining diversity is a process and we have not yet achieved a situation where everyone is part of the culture of inclusion. But there is a real opening to improve this situation, based on potential economic and operational risks for those companies that fail to attract the best talent, regardless of the group to which that talent belongs.
What are the main challenges currently faced by women to enter, stay, and progress in activities that have the hallmark of masculinity?
I think the current challenges are mainly cultural. Working in an industry with a majority of men can be tough. Language, humor, treatment, and many other cultural aspects can be challenging. The more women are part of a team or group, the easier it will be for them: mutual support is key.
But the cultural challenge is not only within the organisation itself, but in the personal environment. Families and friends are sometimes not supportive of a woman’s decision to enter a “masculinised” industry—sometimes for fear of them being mistreated, or because they do not understand or validate the decision of women to want to work in mechanics, metallurgy, or with explosives. This has a lot to do with what I mentioned concerning the role assigned to women in society, and how this entails sacrifices on the part of women in terms of their desires and tastes. Women’s freedom of choice is constrained by social expectation, and that is much more difficult to manage without structural support.
How should companies attract and retain female talent?
There is a lot of literature about studies, initiatives, best practices, guides, and consultancies dedicated to attracting female talent. Recently, retention has become more relevant, as companies realise that recruiting professionals is not the biggest challenge. While chatting at an event, I remember that a company executive told me that they had managed to increase their workforce to almost 20% of women, but that it quickly dropped to 13% in less than six months and they did not know why.
Among aspects that have been identified as affecting retention of women are the work environment among peers, treatment by supervisors, and lack of opportunities to grow and advance. There are still the usual issues: not being able to function calmly and competently because they are not considered, listened to, or validated in the same way as men.
In essence, we must pay more attention to the culture of organisations, of the industry, of society! We all have biases and, in some way, discriminate against one or another group of people. The key is to be aware of it, notice it when it happens, and correct it so it doesn’t happen next time.
What is your experience of having diverse teams in environments such as research?
There are few women in research and academia. There are disciplines where we find a greater number of women, such as in the social areas, geology, and perhaps water resources, but in general there are not many women in research, and few dedicated to the mining industry. As in any other aspect of the industry, women in research must work to achieve equal participation, where their voices are heard with the same attention and/or trust as their male counterparts.
In applied research, where we work hand-in-hand with industry to achieve science-based solutions to specific problems of a company or operation, it is difficult to find projects led by women. I know of none in which a woman has presented herself as a leader, without a man as backup or support. I think that this should be investigated further, but this doesn’t surprise me because presenting and winning a project goes through business decisions, and that area is still mostly managed by men.
You recently coordinated the first International Day of Women in Mining. How was that experience?
I am very proud to have been part of the creation and inaugural launch of International Women in Mining Day. It was a whirlwind of activities, coordination, learning, and decisions that culminated in a joyful and assertive event, with great quality and relevance for the industry. I was left with a feeling of having done something positive that will last over time, and which consolidates an opening of the industry to celebrate those women who were pioneers, those who continue to open paths today, and those who will be part of the industry in the future.
More than 1000 people from 82 countries participated. We had four featured talks, three important announcements, prizes, and even an online dance contest that was the most entertaining thing I’ve ever seen!
One of the milestones with the greatest impact was the announcement by the International Council on Mining and Metals, ICMM. Its Executive Director, Rohitesh Dhawan, announced that the organisation’s principles were updated to establish greater rigour for member companies regarding the requirements for inclusion of women. He mentioned that at the ICMM board meetings, which are attended by the executive presidents of the 27 member companies, there is currently only one woman. You can watch his talk here.
Rohitesh Dhawan was the only man among the rapporteurs that day, but he was not the only man who participated in the event. We had about 10% men. We would like more men to attend in 2023: this is one of the IWIM objectives for inclusion in the industry.