Kristy Christensen

Kristy Christensen

Job title (at time of interview)Director and Female Inclusion Expert at Shesfreetobe Ltd. | Senior Mining Engineer at Taharoa Ironsands Ltd.

LocationNew Zealand

I will always stand out in a male-dominated workforce, so I have chosen to bring my full self and always be authentic, because anything less is not helpful for me or my organisation

October 2020

Kristy Christensen is Director and Female Inclusion Expert at Shesfreetobe Ltd. She is an experienced technical and operations leader with experience in geology, geotechnical engineering, gas drainage, and mining engineering in gold, coal and iron sands  commodities across Australia and New Zealand. During her 15-year career in the mining industry, and most prominently when she worked in underground coal mining, she felt the structural barriers that exist in our mining workplaces. She is on a mission to help organisations correct the many small issues, which, when combined, add up to a workplace experience that doesn’t welcome, care for, or value women. Her goal is to ensure that the workplace works for women, so that everyone thrives.

 

By Kathy Sole

  • How did mining come to you? How did you choose mining as a career?

    It all started with my grandfather’s rock collection. I was fascinated by all the amazing coloured rocks, and loved holding and looking at them. At 14, I decided I wanted to be a Geologist so that I could work in the outdoors. Once I had finished my study I met Vivienne, who was a Geologist and tenement consultant. She gave me a part-time job and helped me get my first full-time role with a junior exploration company. I loved that I could tell people I got paid for searching for gold! It was love on the first day: it was exciting and challenging, and I was hooked.
  • Please describe your current role.

    I am Director and Female Inclusion Expert at Shesfreetobe. We help mining and heavy industry organisations achieve better health, safety, and wellbeing solutions for their female workforce so that women can thrive at work. We do this by identifying and breaking down structural barriers to women in their workplaces (PPE, facilities, job design, etc.). It started after I created my Shesfreetobe Toolkit for women who work underground or in remote jobs that has tools and hacks to help her manage her period and urination requirements. It’s grown into something so much more incredible, with clients across New Zealand and Australia.
    I am also a Senior Mining Engineer at an Iron sands Mine in New Zealand, after spending 10 years in Australian underground coal mines as a technical and operational leader.
  • What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector?

    It’s been a thrilling rollercoaster ride – that’s for sure! My time in gold exploration partially prepared me for the lightning bolt in my life that was underground coal mining 12 years ago. I lost my Geologist role in New Zealand due to the GFC [Global Financial Crisis] in 2008, so decided I would cross the Tasman Sea to Australia to embark on a crazy journey that took me to the central Queensland underground coal mining scene as a FIFO [Fly In Fly Out] Underground Geologist. I remember my first time going underground: I was gobsmacked at the scale of the gear, the vehicles, the length of the trip in, the crazy 90-degree turns, and how far in the earth I was. I was also very aware of how much I stood out. I had assumed there would be other females, but I was the only one working underground in a team of 1000 and I was uncomfortable about that. But perseverance is strong in me and, after six months, I had discovered that my role was exciting, had lots of people interactions, and was a great challenge. I pivoted a lot of times in my roles, to Geotechnical Engineer, Production Manager, Gas Drainage Superintendent, and Senior Engineer, and I loved it. I had found my way to survive, and was keen to share my knowledge to help bring females into this industry that I had developed a deep love and respect for.
  • What are you passionate about in your work?

    Building connections between the organisation and the employees and questioning everything. As a woman, I have never found myself aligned with any one ‘group’ like a manager or operators. That enabled me to influence across all levels of the business, because I’m good at building trust with anyone and I always found myself as the exception to the rule. I got a job done because I shared with my team the long view or vision, and they knew why they had to do something a certain way to achieve that. They were free to   question me too – sometimes they had a better way and we compromised on the ‘how’, while keeping the vision in mind. I always made time to chat, remembered what my team shared with me about was going on in their lives outside of work, and invited people’s ‘whole selves’ into the workplace.
    Through Shesfreetobe, I want women to feel free to bring their whole selves too. They have different functional needs that the traditional workplace was not set up for, and I am inviting organisations to use my experience to explore what’s possible to create a workplace that welcomes, cares for, and values women. The result is a workplace that works for everyone.
  • Have you had mentors or sponsors that helped you on the way?

    I have had some incredible people contribute to my life through formal and informal mentoring, sponsorship, and coaching. One of the most amazing people, my coach Katie Jeyn Romeyn, entered when I had hit rock bottom and didn’t know how to escape the extreme anxiety that had woven itself into my life. I had come back to work after my second child to a workplace that had undergone some radical organisational changes. I had been gone only three months, but in that time my key sponsors had exited the business and there was a battle raging on the leadership front. I got demoted because my new manager didn’t know anything about me, and I felt really alone and angry. Katie-Jeyn helped me lift my eyes to the horizon of possibility, regain control, and steer the ship to a destination of my creation. I decided to build Shesfreetobe and she has been there every step of the way cheering me on. You must understand when it’s time to bring in the experts: Katie- Jeyn was mine, and I am here today steering a positive and inclusive change in the mining industry.
  • What challenges have you experienced by virtue of working in an industry that is predominantly male? Do you feel you have had to adapt to ‘fit’ the industry?

    I read this question and chuckled. I have felt I needed to try and fit, and that the workplace was not fit for me. I recently conducted a survey of women in heavy industry and asked ‘Do you accept ill-fitting PPE as what you have to do to work here’ and 88% of women said yes. That’s a lot of acceptance of a poor standard. I have chosen the things I question carefully. The provision of correct PPE and a workplace design that considers me is something I questioned because it frames the whole workplace experience: Why can’t I have female-sized safety boots? Why are my overalls for men’s sizing and design? Why doesn’t my mask fit? Why is there nowhere for me to express while I’m a breast-feeding mum? Those things quietly tell me I don’t belong here. So when we fix those things, it builds trust with female employees and they think, I am actually welcome and feel like I belong here.
    The reason why I initially created Shesfreetobe was to provide a Toolkit to females working in remote environments. I suffered debilitating headaches early in my career from not drinking water so that I didn’t have to use the non-existent or poor-standard facilities. This is rarely spoken about, but is a very common practice for women. I was ready to quit when I found female urination devices and this changed my life. We fail women if they can’t do the basics, like go to the toilet. The urination device means we can drink water, not compromise our health, and we have the freedom to relieve ourselves safely. The Toolkit also has menstruation aids and lots of advice and hacks, but solving the facilities is the core of the issue and we are working on this.
  • What would you love to do next?

    The sky is the limit! I have just launched a supplier discovery package so that I can help PPE suppliers source and develop the right work and safety wear for women, because I get so many businesses wanting to know how they can develop this part of their business. That means I can help women through their employers, and help employers from the supply chain, so the system will be robust.
    I’m also developing my coaching skills to better help my clients. I can see there is a valley of misunderstanding between employees and organisations, and I want to help build the bridge that connects them. Good questioning meets people where they are at and provides a better path forward. When we feel like a victim, we can have poor wellbeing. I am helping people break out of that mindset, and tap into what they already understand about themselves to see what’s possible.
  • What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?

    That there would be some invisible barriers in my career that become visible over time and you need to speak out against them because silence achieves nothing. You also need to pick your battles, because at each stage of life you pick up more tools to address more battles. I was afraid to speak out when I first started and just wanted to fit in, but I have accepted that I will always stand out (go hypervisibility in a male-dominated workforce) so I have chosen to bring my full self and always be authentic, because anything less is not helpful for me or the organisation.
  • What is the biggest mistake that you’re really happy you made?

    Getting burnt out from negative self-talk, not practicing reflection and self-love, and working hard for a part of the business that didn’t share my values or see my value. It was a BIG lesson on what’s important in life, and created a higher passion for helping others work through issues, rather than burying them until they overflow in a river of poor mental health. I sought the right experts to give me  tools to accelerate my personal and career growth, and I levelled up massively.
  • Do you sit on a board? If not, would you like to? If so, has this been a positive experience?

    I have just joined my first board in May, and plan to learn and develop my skills in that arena. I love how boards steer strategic direction, and I know my strong STEM skills and years of conquering human, financial, and technical challenges are a solid base for this.
    I am on the MinEX, Health & Safety Extractives Board in New Zealand through my role with the NZ Branch of the AusIMM. I am passionate about worker H, S & W [Health, Safety, and Wellbeing] after so many experiences where I felt the industry could have done much better for me. One focus of my business is addressing the lack of available PPE to women onsite: in most cases the correct PPE exists to be purchased, but is not available where it’s needed at the coal face. Every organisation has a duty of care to provide PPE that is fit for everyone. If we improve this for females, we improve it for everyone, because not every man fits in the ‘average sized man’ category for size and shape either.
  • What is your opinion in the women-on-boards debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?

    The board needs to reflect the communities we operate in to understand each unique challenge that needs to be managed. Quotas are a vehicle to correct the imbalance. They bring with them the talented women who are out there; however, the talent of those individuals is questioned because of that. It’s a Catch-22 situation. I believe we need to start at quotas and evolve to seeing the value that women and other minority groups bring without the need for quotas.
  • Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?

    Yes! I have been a part of some incredible WIM organisations and I love the connections to industry leaders, and sense of belonging they create with other women in resources. I have felt very alone at times through my career, then when you meet someone who has seen those same challenges you feel much less alone. In the past, these groups have struggled to reach down from corporate and technical roles to the women operators driving the trucks and in the production panels, but with WIM awards and businesses realising the value of the community, that gap is closing.
  • Any advice to young women starting out in their careers? What do you wish you’d know when you were 25?

    Always be clear in your communication. If you want an opportunity, you have to tell the right person that you want it, do the work, and present a compelling case. Don’t wait for someone to recognise your talent, take time to understand how awesome you are, and know your career is in your hands. If you are lucky, someone will notice your talent, but people are busy and it’s a risk to leave it in other people’s hands. Your career is yours to own and drive. If you can’t get the opportunities you want where you are, then find another role or organisation. If you have an issue with someone, sort it out, because if you can’t, its either you leave or they do – and you can only control one of those.
    Brené Brown says ‘Clear is kind’: this applies to how you talk to others, but also how you talk to yourself.
  • What is your secret to work–life balance?

    I dislike the label ‘work–life balance’: it’s all life. It infers you need to keep home life and work life separate and enforces the fact that, in the past, organisations have discouraged bringing your whole self to work. We can’t ignore that we have our incredible families and that what happens at home affects us at work. I want to be my whole self at work and at home. To create psychological safety between teams, so many studies have shown that sharing about home life and being vulnerable is important to your well-being at work and creating trust.
  • What books are you currently reading? Do you have any books that you can recommend for professional development?

    I just finished Michelle P. King’s The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers that are Holding Women Back at Work. It is incredible and I loved it. It is now my bible for inclusion because it makes a compelling case as to why the modern workplace is still not working for everyone – men and women. Shesfreetobe focusses on how to fix the workplace, not the women, which has traditionally been the focus. “Be more aggressive”, “Ask for a pay rise” (which women do, but are less likely to get), “Work harder”, “Change this, change that”, etc. If we change our workplaces for women, they are better for everyone. The old model of ‘fixing’ the women is not working: there are barriers and we need to deconstruct and rebuild them with everyone in mind, not just the Don Draper ideal man.
  • Have you any hobbies, pastimes, or secret talents that you would like to tell us about?

    I love gardening and growing food. It is food for the soul to get your hands deep in the soil, create a balance that can support life, and bring forth food to feed your family and community. I wanted my children to learn that our food is created when people care for and harness the power of the earth, not just bought at a supermarket. It’s spring here, so I’ve just planted out our summer garden. We always have an incredible crop of tomatoes that we share around our friends and the children’s schools, and the kids help me harvest it all.
    There is a misconception that being part of the mining industry means that you can’t also care for the environment. With Geology as my foundation, I have an incredible respect for the earth, its cycles, and that to support our modern lives we need to have balance. Mining provides the building blocks for our “green future”: if it isn’t farmed, it’s mined. I dream of a day when, instead of seeing mining and environmental challenges as opposed, we can be curious, ask the right questions, and learn from each other to bring our communities together.