From marine biology to mining
Patti Wickens, a Senior Environmental Manager for De Beers, initially chose to study biology and computer science. It was only when she was working as a marine scientist, many years later, that she had her first look at the mining world, after De Beers approached her to help evaluate deep-sea mining impact.
“[The project] was fascinating as it was looking at the environmental impacts of the first offshore diamond mining in the world,” she said. Soon afterwards, she moved from the University of Cape Town, where she had been a practising scientist, to De Beers Marine, where innovation and new ventures are always part of the business.
Working in mining means dealing with old and new challenges, old and new technologies, and collaborating within a large network. For Patti, navigating through this new world—and learning how the engage with stakeholders across the business—meant learning from mentors.
“Dr Mark Berry, previous Head of Environment, was a great mentor to me,” she said. “He was dedicated to doing the right things within our company and not being deterred from achieving that. He provided me with great guidance and mentorship both while working at De Beers and while on the De Beers Board.”
Patti was also fortunate to have a number of other role models working within the broader environmental team across the Group—a large number of whom were women.
“Those of us who work in the environmental field generally have a great affinity and passion for our jobs to ensure sustainability within the business in the longer-term,” she said. “A mine doesn’t last forever so we work with operations as they are today while bearing in mind that they will eventually close. I have learnt much from a number of the members of our dedicated environmental team.”
“I have been lucky enough mostly to have worked with really supportive people. Every now and then one finds challenges with people who have difficulty understanding the business case for managing environmental issues and understanding that stakeholders have influence on mining companies and how they operate. One thing that has been essential to entrench is that environment is a discipline requiring appropriately qualified people. And that everyone within the company has a part to play in managing the environment.”
Have people ever been surprised to see a woman in her position? Though it’s a common question, Patti says it’s never been an issue in her career—she’s gone as far and wide as she’s wanted to go and never had to think twice.
“I have travelled to many countries on a number of continents, from the tundra in Canada to the desert of Namibia and out to the mining ships at sea,” she said. “I have been extremely lucky to have dived in a submersible to see the seafloor at 120 metres deep, flown in an exploration airship, been underground and joined game counts at our conservation areas. Gender has not been a barrier to these opportunities.”
Balancing work and personal life, on the other hand, is the hardest part. As a mother of three children—each in their own decade—it took her time to understand the intricacies of how to handle both. But Patti believes that attitudes towards work-life balance have changed over time, making for more flexible work environments. “This is progress!”
As for giving advice to young women considering mining as a career, her message is clear. “Just do it! Within any mining company there are a range of roles so choose the career that you are passionate about and then choose the right mining company to work for.”
Patti currently holds the position of Senior Environmental Manager for De Beers Group and is based in Cape Town.