Gaelle Houdy started out working in the wine industry, but her passion for all things mechanical led her to the Australian mining industry. She started at the bottom, working as a cleaner and kitchen hand, but persevered to eventually qualify as a Heavy Diesel mechanic. She has since worked in mobile maintenance, fixing all types of large mining equipment, and in fixed maintenance, specialising in cone crushers; today, she is employed as a mechanical fitter on a commissioning iron ore plant. Gaelle is passionate about gender diversity in the mining industry and is involved in many volunteer initiatives to encourage girls and women to enter trade careers.
By Kathy Sole
I used to work in the wine industry as a sales person until 2011 when I decided to end my wine career. Being a wine expert in Europe is a “proper” career choice. I graduated with a Bachelors’ degree in management of the wine industry in France in 2005. Unfortunately, it did not really translate in Australia and I rapidly realised that when I arrived in 2008. Once my Australian visa was settled in 2011, I decided to join the one industry that seemed to offer good career and income prospects: the mining industry. As I did not know anyone in the industry, I started, as many others in my position, by joining various catering companies. Cleaning rooms, kitchen hand, and bus driving led me to know many people on site. At first, I was interested in driving haul trucks, but realised that any effort I put into trying to get my foot in the door would most likely be for nothing because automation was about to take over. In my personal life, I started to take great interest in mechanics as I had a powerful motorcycle at the time (GXSR 1000 K5 for the bike nerds out there) and wanted to understand how such a small engine could produce such torque and speed. What started with a simple interest by reading Auto Repairs for Dummies transformed into an obsession to learn more about everything mechanical, and soon I was able to hold a (very) basic mechanical conversation with some heavy diesel mechanic friends on Koolan Island where I worked. It’s those guys who actually told me “Why don’t you get an apprenticeship? You need a new career and they are looking for more women to take up trades so go for it”. And what can I say? They were right. I applied for countless apprenticeships in 2012 and finally secured one. The rest is history.
I qualified as a Heavy Diesel mechanic in 2016 and am currently employed as a Mechanical Fitter. While I was in Mobile Maintenance, I mainly worked on haul trucks, dozers, graders, and front loaders. I switched to Fixed Plant Maintenance in 2018 and mainly fixed cone crushers on a gold mine site. I have recently changed company and am working at a new iron ore project in the Pilbara. Our machines aren’t up and running just yet, so I am currently office-based, reviewing and writing safe maintenance work instructions. Many tradespeople would wince at this task; however, I really enjoy it as I get to read all I can get my hands on when it comes to manufacturers’ literature. It helps a lot with writing accurate maintenance plans and I am happy to contribute to better, more precise instructions that can make a difference in the field.
I think I started at the right time in the industry. I have rarely been confronted by openly misogynistic comments or behaviours, so I am grateful to all the women (and men) that have made it possible to work in relative peace and just get on with my job without having to worry for my safety or mental health. What used to be difficult were the everyday remarks about how odd my career choice was. Sniggering and subtle putting down used to really get to me, but with my confidence growing as time passes, it isn’t a concern of mine anymore.
Otherwise, it has been stellar. Every company I have worked for has helped me realise that women do belong in the industry. I have met some wonderful people along the way who have taught me so much. And as time goes by, there are more and more women in the industry and it’s rather pleasant.
Preventative maintenance is my passion. As much as I understand that we will always have a percentage of breakdowns, I love nothing more than returning a machine to service following a well thought-out maintenance/overhaul plan and schedule. All I care about is the health of the machines, achieve the best outcome as a team, and make sure the mine runs efficiently.
From a people’s perspective, I try to be involved in Inclusion and Diversity initiatives inside and outside of the work place. I mainly try to address unconscious bias as well as the absurdity of gendering jobs. I volunteer with TradeUp in Western Australia and Tradeswomen Australia on a national level. Those two organisations help tradeswomen to be seen and to inspire girls and women to think of trades as a viable career because, as we all know, you cannot be what you cannot see. Another organisation I am part of is The Human Library of Perth: I am one of their “Human Books” and my title is A Spanner in the Works. This allows me to talk more actively to the public about what it is to be a female mechanic.
I have done the mentoring program through Women in Mining Western Australia (WIMWA). It was an absolute eye opener as I realised the industry is full of amazing women, far from the “women lack in confidence” stereotype some like to broadcast any chance they get. My mentor, Yvonne Fahey, has had an incredible career and helped me realise the opportunities are there for the taking.
I have had many informal sponsors. I consider anyone who encourages me as a sponsor, but I know it doesn’t always fit the definition. The one person who has made a big difference in my career is Steve Bryce. He promoted me to other leaders without my knowledge and helped me get a better position as a result. It was the best feeling to feel supported and vouched for: I am forever grateful.
The main challenge is to shift the mind-set regarding women in trades and make it as normal a concept as men being in trades: to not raise eyebrows or shoulders; to stop being asked if I’m an operator/admin “chick” (nothing wrong with those jobs) when I’m covered in dirt head to toe and carrying tools; to not be asked when I qualify — no one is an eternal apprentice. Every day it seems to be a novel idea to some, but to me and all other women in the industry, this is my/our life. I rock up to work, I do my job, and I get on with it. It will be amazing the day that it will have become mainstream to see a woman on an inch-drive rattle gun and no one will bat an eyelid.
I used to think I had to fit in to be accepted. I used to be the standard “I’m not like other girls” type. Those days are behind me and I think it was just a natural stage of my development. It served its purpose but, with growth, I realised it was not necessary. As the industry adapts and tries to retain diverse talent, it becomes easier to just be oneself. I could talk about this for hours so I’m going to stop here, but let’s say I hope women and all people, whatever their background/beliefs/sexual orientation/gender/race/ability, can be themselves at work. When one doesn’t spend their time putting up a façade, it’s amazing how much more energy can be put into one’s work.
I have just started with a new company so for the next two years and until all our machines are up and running, I am staying put and fixing machines! After that, I’m not sure. There are a few avenues that I would like to explore, including planning or getting a start on the leadership path. I guess the next two years will help me decide what to aim at.
Overalls are the way to go! It would have saved me so much time not tucking my shirt in. More seriously, I’m not sure I would have wished to know any of it. Everything I have encountered, be it positive or negative, has been the best way to learn about myself and others.
I have no experience on boards yet, however, I am 100% pro quota at all levels. Being nice about parity and diversity has proven rather ineffective. Quotas or no quotas, wherever I go, some people will think I got the job because I am a woman so we might as well have quotas in place. I won’t start on the subject of merit either, otherwise, we will be here forever.
Going back to quotas, I think the real difficulty is getting women to apply for the jobs. It is difficult to reach quotas if barely any women apply. And for the one who has made it, having women in the work place isn’t enough. Companies need to address the diversity fatigue we are experiencing now and properly address conscious and unconscious bias. I sometimes do think about the more “traditional” work force that feels antagonised by the whole I&D concept. It is a changing world and it can’t be easy for them, but all people have a right to enjoy their work — and that includes me and many others who don’t fit the mould.
Absolutely! The further we reach within society, the more represented we are. It’s one thing to tell girls and women they can be whoever they want to be: it’s better to show them!
Don’t be afraid to try new things and try to not care about picking an activity gendered towards men. After all, who cares?
I don’t intend to start a family so it comes easy to me. I am in awe of parents juggling careers and family life (I am looking at you, Donna Stace…): I don’t know how they do it.
I am currently reading Stop Fixing Women by Catherine Fox. A great read for those who don’t believe that leaning in works for all. It’s interesting, as I tend to lean in without thinking about it, but I like the idea it isn’t the only way to go about it to make yourself heard and advance your career.
On a more fun note, I am reading I am C-3PO by Anthony Daniels. The Star Wars universe is one of my ‘go to’ comfort zones and it is a very entertaining read.
Motorbike riding (I have an MV Agusta Brutale Dragster 800RR), ballet dancing (I’m awful, but I love it), knitting, and anything reading/watching nerdy stuff (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Cowboy Bebop, Studio Ghibli, etc…).
Gaelle Houdy is a fixed-plant mechanic working in the Australian iron ore industry. She was born in Corsica, France, and has lived in three different countries so far: France until she was 23, the UK for a further two years, and Australia since 2008. A Heavy Diesel Mechanic by trade, she worked in Mobile Maintenance in the mining industry from 2013 to 2017 prior to her current role as Mechanical Fitter in Fixed Plant Maintenance. She is passionate about helping to reach gender parity in the mining industry. She is also a TradeUp Australia volunteer and a Human Book at the Human Library of Perth, where she promote trades in male-dominated industries as a viable career choice for girls and women. Click on this link to listen to her Tradeswomen Australia podcast interview.