Erica Smyth has almost 40 years’ experience in the mineral and petroleum industries and loves geology. Originally she thought she would become a chemist, but realised after a year of studies that she didn’t want to be in a white coat, stuck indoors in a laboratory for the rest of her life. She’s moved from the mine face to the board room and urges young women starting out to enjoy going to work. “Find things that excite you about what you are doing because you need to make sure you are not wasting your time and not doing anything about it.” But she thinks mining companies and governments need to do make significant changes to childcare provisions to help women on their path to executive roles. By Camila Reed
How did mining come to you? How did you choose mining as a career?
I had an inspiring chemistry teacher at school so I intended to specialise in chemistry at university but I needed a fourth unit in the first year so I looked at something to do for fun and started doing geology. I quickly realised that I didn’t want to be in a white coat stuck indoors in a laboratory for the rest of my life; I would rather be outdoors. I loved my geology units so I switched to a geology major.
How difficult was it to get that first job?
Not as hard as I had imagined. I turned up at the right time and one of my friends said he’d heard that someone in a mining company was looking for a geologist, if you were willing to go into the bush for a new iron ore mine. So I turned up in person and said could you meet with me and I got employed on the spot.
I just went looking that’s all. It’s about knocking on doors. It’s much better to give an impression face-to-face than what is written on paper in a CV. That certainly worked for me.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector? Did you encounter much discrimination in those early days?
It’s hard to tell because it was such a male-dominated world. I stood out in the crowd. I don’t think I would call it discrimination. You had to learn very quickly how to behave and I decided very early on that I was not going to out-men the men.
I didn’t do the foul language or super dirty jokes or any of that sort of thing. In those days, men moderated their behaviour in front of a woman anyway. I found that you have to display the behaviour you want shown to you.
Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
There have been plenty of people who have offered me opportunity and now I would call them my advocates. Within BHP I had a career where after 2 years in a job I would get offered something new and different, so I moved around a lot and got a very broad base within the minerals exploration business. Then I moved into exploration administration and then got a chance to move into the area of ‘you have found it now how do you get it approved’. And once I moved into that section and got away from straight geology and I was dealing more with people, that’s when things really started to work for me.
I was an OK geologist but nothing very brilliant however I am good with people.
So I was fortunate that I found a niche where I could understand the science of what I was trying to get approved but also was able to communicate it as well.
What’s been the most enjoyable and the most challenging of the roles you have had?
My move from minerals into petroleum, where I went up a very steep learning curve and was suddenly dealing with 7 of the largest oil companies in the world and steering through getting an approval for a very major expansion — I found that was a fascinating exercise. I was leading the negotiations with the federal and the state governments on not just environmental approvals but also the local content and taxation issues that we were facing. So it was across the board approvals. I had to get expert help from within the organisations in the joint venture. It was challenging as you had six different groups trying to help! I think that was a very stimulating time for me.
What would you like to do next? Something left undone?
I don’t want to go back into executive roles, I am really enjoying the board roles where you can pilot the ship a bit. You want to make sure that everyone is heading in the right direction and you don’t end up on the rocks.
I really enjoy making sure of the standards and direction the company is going in and I like being on a high learning curve. After a while you need to renew yourself and you will see that in the past couple of years I have left three organisations after seven or eight years with them and I have taken on some new ones.
I will probably start to slow down in about 8 years and enjoy my retirement.
What is your opinion in the women on boards’ debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
I am very much in favour of transparency, and if not, why not. In the resource industry I don’t want women to fail, so I want the main emphasis to be on women getting senior executive positions so they come into the board roles well prepared.
So I’m not yet in favour of quotas but I am very much in favour perhaps of quotas into senior management within companies, as I think that is a preliminary step to getting on boards.
Being a woman on a board does not suit everyone. It is a very different role to be a non-executive and its high risk. If you are very young and you have got children, you need your eyes wide open about that added risk of being on a board. You need to be really well prepared – well I think you shouldn’t try and do it too early.
Until we get a lot more senior executive women then we are going to suffer from a shortage in the resource industry. There are plenty of women out there so companies should be held accountable. We need to be careful about quotas in the resource sector.
Given there are plenty of women out there why are the numbers in executive positions so low and why aren’t women getting the opportunities?
I think there are some unconscious systems in place, that have been in place for a long time that have certain traditional male models and we are not really aware these barriers exist.
My career would have been very different if I had had children. Somehow women are more prepared to sacrifice their careers in favour of their children than men seem to be. And that is all because of the systems that are in place.
We need to stand back and think about that. We need to have some significant changes to childcare. In Australia it is really not friendly towards working women because child care facilities are not open long enough hours or located near to their work.
I would like to see a lot more obligation to provide good quality childcare that matches shifts and location and that should be part and parcel of what resource companies provide.
Then they will be guaranteed a stream of women and helping them through that important phase of their career when they are in their 30s. It is not just childcare for babies but after-school childcare as well.
Women try to do absolutely everything. Men don’t yet realise how much they are losing out in establishing family bonds, although the younger generation of men are more willing to share roles.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
What I didn’t realise for a long time is that you’re building the platform for your future when you are in your 30s and early 40s. You have enough experience so people will remember if you are good or not to work with. You are earning the respect of others, so that when you get to your 40s and you want to branch out and do other things then people will remember that.
You leave a judgment call – ‘she was hopeless’ or ‘yes I will back her’, and it’s that period in your thirties where you are creating a platform for all your options in the future.
I didn’t realise how important it was. And usually it’s not normally your technical abilities but how you deal with other people.
What are your most useful skills?
I’m pretty good at listening to everything that is going on around the discussion and pulling it together at crucial times. I can draw the nub of the conversation together because I actively listen. My listening skills are good but I can also verbalise it.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
Make sure you are really looking forward to going to work and find things that excite you about what you are doing because life can be very short and you need to make sure you are not wasting your time and not doing anything about it.
You do need to put up with things sometimes but you should not be doing that for too long. You need to be taking action if things are not working for you, it might not be something dramatic. It might just be talking to someone about their behaviour through to looking for another job.
Don’t sit around, take control of your life and don’t waste it!
I think for young women in our industry you need to be yourself and if you are comfortable in your own skin and you can stand up straight and be proud of your own actions, then you can earn the respect of others.
Just be yourself – but you have to recognise your impact on others.
What are you passionate about in your work now?
I have become passionate about the understanding of what is going on around me. I am involved in all sorts of research organisations and I enjoy enabling these research streams to happen and seeing the bigger picture of improved understanding. I always have something to read about that is relevant to what I am doing.
I still enjoy my geology — I have never lost that interest — but now it is often when I go on holidays and understanding the scenery through my geologist’s eyes.