By Emily Roberts, HighGrade
The former chairwoman of the AusIMM’s WIMnet group (Women in Mining network) says mining companies luring women into the industry is “flavour of the month” but not necessarily due to a fundamental shift in recruitment attitudes. Rather, it’s due mainly to the current skills shortage, she says. Not that that’s a bad thing.
Sue Border believes the current resources boom is providing good opportunities for women to cement places in the industry and “become a bit more main stream”.
“Unfortunately, most mining companies will always take the easy way out and although there have always been certain people who have favoured diversity because of the benefits to team work, the majority take the easiest path and if it’s easiest to take an homogenous team they will do it,” Border told HighGrade.
WIMnet aims to promote recruitment and retention of women in the mining industry. Border, who owns New South Wales-based consultancy Geos Mining with her husband, concedes there is a fair amount of “unconscious discrimination” among some mining companies.
“There are some companies that aren’t concerned about their gender imbalance and I feel they are the ones that miss out,” she said. “We have a very diverse workforce here, including a number of nationalities and a number of women, and we do find a few people in the industry who seem quite biased and discriminatory in the way that they are quick to blame the women and the people with non-English speaking backgrounds first.
“While I think there is a lot of subconscious discrimination, I think on the whole things are improving. I think because the industry was monochrome for so long that people got used to expecting what determined a good field geologist, which subconsciously they were thinking a good geologist is someone like me.”
Border has a diverse working background, having studied mining geology (honours) at the Royal School of Mines at the University of London in the mid-1970s before working in Zambia for four years. This included stints underground, which for a woman was initially against local mining regulations. She had to get special dispensation from the chief inspector of mines and even then there was discussion that she be accompanied by a male.
“They [university] tried to persuade me from doing the mining geology degree at university because they thought I wouldn’t get work [because I was a woman],” Border said. “So I decided to prove them wrong. I got vacation work there [Zambia] and I knew there was someone doing the surface geology job who would like to work underground, so I asked them for his surface geology job if I could’t work underground. But I did end up going underground because there was a shortage of geologists. I enjoyed it a lot personally and professionally, and it was a great place to work.”
Before starting Geos Mining in 1998, Border worked in a variety of roles, including consulting in metals and industrial minerals with Robertson Research Australia, lecturing and research at universities, exploration manager with Minerals Corporation Limited, and motherhood (her two boys are 23 and 19). After 3-4 years as a sole consultant, Border made the deliberant decision to employ more people. She said she enjoyed working in a team and learning from others. Geos Mining now employs about 20 people.
“We are planning to move offices this year or next year because we have outgrown the current premises three times over, and we will probably open a branch office in another state capital. Our work is mainly Australia based, but we are working on a couple of overseas projects at the moment too.” Border said she has three women geologists on her team, and would love more but very few apply for positions.
“I think most of the new graduates are being snapped up as soon as they graduate,” she said. “Most of the women who are willing to do field work at all are very popular at the moment. I think a lot of companies are trying to attract more women now and are realising they need a core number of women to make it attractive to other women. Any good female students should have a good choice of jobs at the moment, and it should give some critical mass in some companies.”
According to last year’s figures, only 7% of AusIMM members are female, and there has been no increase in women’s members since 2004. Of that 7%, 35.8% are students and 31.3% are graduates. With about 18% of women comprising the national mining industry workforce, Border and her team are looking to uncover why more women are not becoming members, and what they can do to attract them. One of the most successful initiatives is proving to be the WIM network groups that are run by coordinators in each state. This involves an event, usually sponsored by a company and featuring a guest speaker, held every couple of months.
“Since I have been involved in WIMnet, which is about eight years, things [attitudes to women in the industry] have changed,” Border said.”I would promote [to young girls considering a career in the industry] the adventure, the good opportunities for really interesting work and the feeling of achievement. However, you do need to work hard and put up with conditions and be able to work as part of a team.
“What I love about our company now is the teamwork: it’s a very diverse team of people and it’s good because we all learn from each other.”