Mining – it’s not just about rocks!

Published: 29/06/2016

This article was originally published by the AusIMM Bulletin magazine – June 2016.

‘Mining is the extraction of minerals and metals from the earth…’ or so the definition in the dictionary goes.

Steph Mathews Kimberleys WA
Stephanie Mathews.

When people talk about mining, it is usually described as lots of dust and dirt, heavy duty machinery, high-vis clothing and remote locations, as well as regularly being termed a ‘male-dominated industry’. Although described as such, there is much more to mining than just rocks and dusty blokes in high-vis!

Typically, careers associated with the mining industry are grouped into geology and engineering. They are the ones that get the most airplay. But there are other areas/sectors where both the genders find themselves working within the mining industry. I interviewed three women in the minerals industry with a variety of backgrounds to get an idea of their experiences working in the sector. With the current roles held by those I spoke to covering document control, environmental planning and ecology, they provided a broad cross-section of thinking and experiences. What follows is a summary of what came out of my discussions with them.

Choosing a career in mining

Mining was not overly talked about by lecturers or career counsellors at university during the 1990s, something mentioned by the two who studied environmental planning and ecology. It was only when they started their careers in consultancy that the opportunity to work for a mining company came to light. Although this was the case, all three were exposed to various engineering projects in the beginning of their careers and managed to gain mining opportunities through contacts in both FIFO and consulting roles.

‘After finishing I heard one of the other graduates had got a job working for a mining company and remember thinking I would never work for a mining company. I was a bit idealistic and very naïve!’

‘I really didn’t know much about mining when I left university. That has changed now. There is more communication across disciplines about the sorts of work that are available to graduates.’

The mining industry was not an initial career choice for those interviewed and when compared to other industries, they shared common views about the differences. The two key ones were:

  • salaries being well-known to be higher due to the typical FIFO lifestyle and required hours of work
  • career advancement having the potential to be faster when compared to other industries due to the limited number of people choosing to ‘stick with it’ in remote roles.

‘It is very difficult to find the same two satisfactory development criteria in any other industry I have worked in.’

Differences between the mining sector and other industries

Other differences raised by the group between mining and other industries focused on the stability of organisations and their approaches to non-operational issues. One individual spoke of the fact that smaller mining companies are usually reliant on external finance to fund exploration and feasibility studies. This uncertain source of funding can stall the progress of a project, directly impacting job security of those working on it. Such a situation is a common one for junior mining companies, more so than smaller organisations working in other more secure industries.

‘Most of the mining companies I have worked for have been junior miners who are constantly looking for additional finance to fund exploration or feasibility studies. This means that the progress of a project stops or slows down when money runs out. In my experience this is different from working for other industries which are usually less volatile. Also I have found that some mining companies have a less collaborative approach to social and environmental issues than in other industries.’

Improved focus on safety, environment and community

In addition to volatility of the industry, the attitude to safety, environment and community has improved over the last fifteen years within mining. This has resulted from legislative requirements being placed on companies such as the need to undertake detailed environmental impact statements with extensive community consultation and formal relationships with local stakeholders.

‘I don’t think the mining industry is that different. Things have come a long way. There is a greater influence on environmental impacts and safety these days.’

Just like an individual’s career, there are many stages that an organisation must go through before being able to call themselves successful miners. Exploration, feasibility studies, and approvals must all be undertaken and approved prior to a mining lease being granted, a process that can take many years. The transition then to a profitable operation is almost as difficult. Those people fortunate enough to start with a company in the early phases and be part of the team that brings the dream of an operating mine to reality are rare. Nevertheless, being a part of the entire exploration to operations process is a significant achievement and one which can contribute considerably to an individual’s career.

‘I have seen many positives like successfully rolling out a project and knowing you have been a huge part of that and receiving recognition for that from management.’

Work-life balance

The mining industry has stood out in recent times as a fast-growing industry where an increasing number of people, both men and women, are encouraged to ‘give it a go’. Workers were in short supply only a few years ago and opportunities were ripe for the picking. Mining salaries reached a point were other industries could not compete and Australians with no mining experience decided in droves that they wanted to join the sector. Although this was the case – and in some states still continues to be so – are the big dollars worth it and what sacrifices are made in order to pursue the mining lifestyle? I asked the interviewees if they thought the mining industry differed to other industries, and, as a woman, does working in an environment where you are one of the only females alter your experiences at work?

For both genders working in the minerals industry, there is typically a large sacrifice made for work-life balance, especially when in a FIFO situation. All three interviewees commented that at regular points during their mining careers they have found it hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance. In terms of the impact of working among mostly male colleagues, even as recently as fifteen years ago they felt they had to struggle to be heard amongst the rest of the workforce. Discussing this further, the three explained that they found this need to speak up had resulted in a stronger personal character and drive for self-confidence than they had prior to their mining career beginning.

‘To overcome these challenges I have always tried to maintain a professional attitude and prove my abilities by achievement. Believing in myself and knowing I ‘can do the job’ has been a driving force to deliver above-standard quality work.’

Overcoming and learning from professional challenges

As many industry professionals can attest to, a mining career can enhance your skill set and resourcefulness. This can not only help you progress within the industry, but it can also contribute significantly to developing other potential career paths. When asked questions regarding challenges in mining, all women spoke of the large personalities they have come across in their careers. Interestingly, ‘large’ was not always seen as a negative thing. Having strong personalities was seen as a useful part of the industry, as it allows individuals to learn how to manage different and sometimes difficult personalities in a professional capacity.

‘I have come across some challenging personalities in mining companies! I have found it is important to try and get an understanding of people’s experience and perspective on issues to inform the approach to discussions and develop strategies to get agreement on the way forward.’

‘Early in my career when I was overworked and under a lot of pressure there were negative impacts. I also dealt with aggressive male clients that did not respect the environment (eg threatened species) or my advice about the impacts mining could have and the legislative requirements. These days it is a breath of fresh air when the clients understand there are legislative requirements relating to the environment and accept my advice.’

Developing a diverse and inclusive industry

The participation of women in the mining industry is currently sitting at 13.4 per cent, with groups such as the Australian Women in Resources Alliance (AWRA) and the AusIMM Women in Mining network (WIMNet) targeting a level of 25 per cent by 2020. As discussed by the three professionals who contributed to this piece, many women may not be aware of the diverse range of careers that are available within the minerals sector. To see any significant change in the number of women joining and building successful careers in mining, one of the critical success factors will be via education about career options. Greater visibility of the diverse range of roles available within the industry and what study is required to reach them is needed among female students of all ages, from primary school through to university. Developing interest and passion at an early age will influence subject choices and career path decisions, making it critical to inform and train teachers about the choices available in mining.

As those interviewed for this article pointed out, mining is a diverse industry with plenty of opportunities and one that is full of passionate people.

‘If you have the opportunity it is a worthwhile experience working for a mining company.’

‘There are more women in the mining area these days, which is great. I guess given that I have been working within engineering companies (as an environmental consultant) for the past 14 years, I continually build on past experience. I also think understanding how people operate differently helps too, regardless of sex. My background in psychology and hospitality have helped with this. I also have two boys, so I live in a male-dominated house!’

‘My advice is to work as hard as you can to forge your career in mining. It is rewarding, exhilarating, frustrating and amazing. Be sure that you keep your eyes on the simple things in life like family, friends and relaxation. Don’t take yourself too seriously, others will do that for you.’

Working as a woman in mining industry is not just sifting through rocks and dirt but about finding your passion, challenging yourself to develop in this male-dominated industry and believing in yourself.