Placing gender on the agenda

Mining News Premium, Tuesday, 2 December 2014 – Australia

By Jack McGinn

THE G20’s call to close the gender gap across its nations by 25% over the next decade has drawn attention to the future employee demographic of the mining industry.

Late last month Miningnews.net has ran a series of letters from women in the industry in response to Allan Trench’s Strictly Boardroom column ‘The Real Housewives of Mining’. These letters gave varied accounts as to what working in the industry meant for women. While some were more positive than others all agreed on one thing – it can be tough as a working woman in mining.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics August figures, there are 26,700 women working in Australian mining across coal, metal ore, non-metal, exploration and non-specified mining areas. These women make up just 14% of the 191,400-strong mining sector workforce. When compared with the 46% of women who make up the workforce in Australia, this figure is very low.

Of course the mining industry has its own unique challenges in attracting female employees. There are a number of factors which limit the recruitment of women into the industry, but public perception of the industry as male-dominated seems to be one particularly damaging gap-closing efforts.

Perhaps it comes down to education. A Graduate Careers Australia survey of last year’s mining engineering students found 13.5% of respondents were female. In geology, just more than 40% of graduates were female, while ABS figures from 2010 found around 30% of engineering; ICT and science technologies apprentices and just 9% of vocational engineering students were female

Lynn Olssen is the chair of the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s (AusIMM) Women in Mining Network (WIMnet), as well as general manager for geosciences at mining consultancy firm Snowden. She said much of the imbalance at tertiary and vocational level came down to schooling.

“When you look at trades, engineering and metallurgy, they are very male-based,” she told miningnews.net. “A lot of it’s to do with what happens in schools — there are still a lot of schools out there that push females into traditional roles and don’t promote what they see as masculine career options. It’s getting better but it happens. “It means the kids don’t know what their options are.”

It’s not just on (and under) the ground or in the classroom where women are outnumbered by their male peers. Management and boardroom figures across the top Australian mining companies make for interesting reading.

According to study published by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the UK’s Women in Mining in 2014, the top 500 Australian mining companies had just 8.7% women in executive and senior management positions. Australia was the only country in the survey with less than 9%.
When looking at women on boards and committees across our top 500 mining companies, Australia registered just 6.3% and 6.2% respectively. These figures were mid-range, and well below that of South Africa, whose committee (21.3%) and board (19.3%) numbers were easily the highest across all included countries.
The top 500 mining companies in the world had less female board members than any other industry, sitting three-quarters of a percentage point below oil and gas at 7.58%.
Interestingly, the survey found that those companies in the global top 500 with two or more women on their board delivered an average 6.39% on assets, while those with all-male boards returned an average loss of 2.85%.

Olssen says these results point to the benefits of gender diversity at all levels of the business model. “When you have good gender balance you get diversity of thought,” she said.

“In the workplace women bring more of the emotional intelligence side of things than men typically do. If you put a bunch of men in a room you’re going to get a stereotype driven in one direction, and if you put a bunch of women in the same position you’ll get the same. “If you mix it up you’ll get something balanced, but it’s not enough to just have one women or man on a board — they’ll get overpowered.”

Of course, so little diversity from top to bottom in the mining industry means greater scope for improvement. But it appears to be a matter of knowing where to start.

WIMnet believes the first step to addressing gender imbalance across the industry is measuring achievements. “Our opinion is that in order to understand and address the imbalance, we need to measure it,” Olssen said.

“A lot of mining companies now have diversity targets, which are typically soft and don’t outline detailed achievements. Some are doing really well, but unfortunately for some companies it appears to just be lip service — they’ve got diversity on their agenda, but when you get into it and look at what they’re actually doing there isn’t a lot happening.”

She looks to companies like St Barbara, which measures its pay-gap every month in an effort keep track of where it sits in relation to its long-term gender goals. “They’re actually physically measuring it and keeping track, whereas if you just set a target and don’t go to that effort you tend to miss the mark,” she said.

“From a WIMnet perspective, we’ve put a strategic plan in place that sets us a target of 20% by 2020 for women in the mining industry. We’ve got a series of initiatives we’re going to follow-up on. If things are already being done by other organisations that we think is going to achieve the goal we’ll assist, and if there’s space for more to be done we’ll start.”

But a target of 20% by 2020 still appears a pipe dream. A recent Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA release predicted an increase of just 1.5% of women in the Western Australian mining sector workforce to 2020 – 4.5% shy of the WIMnet national target.

According to Olssen, the retention of young professionals in the industry is the key to meeting their desired number. “There are more women in younger roles, but as you move into the senior roles they fall out of the industry. A lot of that is to do with having families and the lack of flexibility within the industry for childcare and the everyday things,” she said. She says to improve the gender ratio in the industry a holistic industry approach is required. “If you don’t get school student you don’t get intake, and if you don’t support those in the industry you lose them before they get to leadership level,” she said. 

“The importance of the board and executive levels is that they’re role models. They’re the ones that are going to promote and support the others and show if they want to have a career and family it is possible. “Gender diversity needs to be driven by the senior people. Things won’t change unless the leaders make it a priority and it becomes second nature at their level, then it will drive back down through their organisation.”

Organisations such as WIMnet, Women in Mining WA, the Australian Women Resources Alliance, Male Champions of Change and various individuals are doing their part to address the gender imbalance in the industry through school involvement and varied targeted initiatives, but there appears to be a long way to go to meet their own targets, let alone closing the gap to the extent of the target set at the G20 summit.

Out of interest, meeting that target would see women make up 32% of the industry’s workforce by 2025 – a figure even the most optimistic of people would agree is ambitious.