Virginia Lawson has over 30 years of in-depth operational and technical experience in copper, nickel, lead-zinc, and precious metals extraction across heap leaching, gravity concentration, flotation, grinding and fine grinding, roasting, and smelting.
Virginia started her metallurgy career in small operations in the gold industry prior to moving into base metals at Mount Isa Mines. At Mount Isa she worked in both copper and lead zinc across a variety of roles of increasing responsibility. Projects included the construction of several successful concentrator flowsheet changes and expansions to improve performance of the mineral processing circuits by increased grade and recovery.
Virginia then spent 12 years in Sudbury, Canada, in copper/nickel operations and technical and project roles, as well as in consulting, until she returned to Brisbane with Glencore Technology, where she transformed the Jameson Cell market through its use in innovative flowsheet design in base and precious metals. Now, as General Manager of Processing with the Glencore Copper group, she is working on establishing technical standards in the areas of metallurgical processing, metal accounting, project design, development, and operations.
Virginia holds a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering degree from the University of Melbourne and has published over 25 operations improvement papers.
By Kathy Sole
Please tell us how you came to select metallurgy and mining as a career choice?
I loved the sciences at school and knew I wanted to study something in this area. I followed my brother into engineering. On completing my Chemical Engineering degree, I couldn’t find any jobs in the traditional chemical engineering areas, but there were loads of jobs in mining and I quickly found a job in a small gold mine in a remote part of Australia. I guess I entered the industry by chance, but I loved the small town living, in particular the people, and also loved the technical challenges I faced. It was a great match and I have loved my years in the minerals industry since.
Please describe your career progression and how you reached the level of General Manager in charge of all of Glencore’s global copper operations.
Early in my career I wasn’t particularly ambitious. I just had fun. I loved the technical work and the community in small mining towns. When I got to Mount Isa, I was lucky to work with some of the great metallurgists of the Australian Industry and in very diverse roles. I got a great foundation in concentrator plant operations, projects including both R&D and capital project delivery, as well as leadership. I discovered my passion for flotation and have enjoyed a great relationship with understanding bubbles ever since. When I moved to INCO in Canada, I already had a really well-rounded experience and was able to quickly progress to leading teams of engineers and, in particular, developing young engineers, which has probably been the most treasured part of my career. It was great using my skills to deliver successful projects and develop successful engineers. After a stint in consulting and business developments roles, I took on my current challenge. The steps in a career are never evenly spaced, but I think the strong diverse foundation at Mount Isa was pivotal in allowing me to get to where I am today. The people who influence you along the journey support your development and enable success. I try to provide the same influence and support to the next generation of engineers so that they may also be successful.
Most of your career has been based in Australia and Canada. In your current role, you now have responsibility for technical processing in regions as diverse as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South America. How would you characterise the mining cultures in these various locations, particularly with respect to acceptance of women in this industry?
That’s a great question. Australia and Canada are both very diverse and inclusive countries with a large positive influence from immigration. My international travel in the minerals industry has allowed me to see that not all locations have the same equality, nor do they have the same positive perspective from immigration or cultural diversity. That being said, I believe in equality of opportunity, and I will always support people who need or ask for support. Being Australian, I can be very direct in my communication, which has got me into trouble sometimes in the different cultural environments. I have a lot to learn about how I can best support the women in these other regions to gain the same access to opportunities that I have had. I find being an advocate for women at a senior level in the organisation can support people at a local level.
Please describe your personal and professional attributes that you consider have been most influential in your success.
I am a cheerful optimist. I see the good in people and try to be inclusive of opinions and open to learning new things. I have been very lucky to have great family support that has enabled me to balance work and personal life. Without the support at home, my career may have been very different.
I also love change. This has helped me navigate some challenging times over the years, particularly mining downturns, and I think this perspective, tempered by my technical knowledge, has been a strong lever in my success.
What has been the most rewarding professional experience(s) or project(s) of your career?
I have had many rewarding experiences. The things I have been most proud of were the projects constructed where I was responsible for the testwork, justification, design, construction, and commissioning: flotation expansions and flowsheet changes across a couple of operations. They are the technical highs. The career highs are seeing my team succeed – watching young engineers get their professional engineering status and being successful in their own right, and knowing that I had some influence in supporting them on their journey. It’s the success of my team I really cherish.
What has been most challenging in your career?
The most challenging have been probably the same things – working on tight timelines while balancing family. Getting the balance right – I think often, as women, we beat ourselves up over that balance. Again, a supportive family has made this possible for me.
As a leader in this industry, working with a variety of stakeholders including C-suite executives, general managers, and technical and operational staff, please share your leadership philosophy and how you manage diversity in the workplace.
I have tried to be a strong advocate for diversity. I have three adult daughters and a son – each with a very different personality, and I want each of them to have equal opportunities to be successful.
Don’t be afraid to speak up when you are confronted with something that doesn’t make sense. I have these discussions often in the workplace as I want everyone to be comfortable having the conversation about diversity. I don’t think there’s anyone I work with who doesn’t know my views – being vocal helps make the conversation easier for those who have quieter voices or less access to be heard.
You have held several senior technical and management roles. Do you believe that the presence of women in significant operational and technical influences the ultimate success of the project or operation? Does a more diverse operating team lead to better or different decisions?
A more diverse team will always be a benefit. Diversity covers many more areas than just gender. A diverse team and a supporting environment where people are comfortable to share will always provide a wider range of thinking to increase the value of a project or an operation. It makes us better people as well.
It is important to bring new talent into this industry. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for attracting young girls and boys to enter a technical career in a science or engineering field?
I think it’s really important to engage kids early in the STEM fields and show them the joy of science and problem solving. I remember the first time I saw a flotation test I knew I wanted to understand how it worked. Showing the marvels in simple visual displays such as this can be really powerful. We can also do this by bringing the sciences into everyday life to ensure kids understand the importance of this knowledge in providing a sustainable high quality of living. The earlier they learn this the better, but this needs to continue all through university and the workplace.
Do you have any advice to young women starting out in their careers? What do you wish you’d known when you were 25?
I wish I’d known how important communication skills were. I now think the main part of my role is being able to communicate complex information in simple messaging. Developing relationships with people and understanding team dynamics are really important areas for young women to think about.
Have you any hobbies, pastimes, or secret talents that you would like to tell us about?
I have had many hobbies over the years at different stages of life. Now I love time spent fishing – it’s not about catching fish—it’s about being in a peaceful environment with the potential to catch fish…I am also enjoying spending time building Lego cars! I love to bush walk and intend to make more time to do this.