Joanne Farrell is no stranger to being a trailblazer in a world still dominated by men but even she admits to excitement at her promotion this week to the executive committee of Rio Tinto, the highest management level at the world’s second biggest mining company.
The new group executive, health, safety and environment, is Rio’s first executive committee member to have accountability for safety as a discrete unit.
Ms Farrell, a 35-year mining industry veteran including more than two decades with Rio, also becomes its first female managing director of Australia, a largely ambassadorial but legally important role. Her promotion to the executive committee lifts the female contingent to 20 per cent — in line with the miner’s published targets.
“Below the ex-co level we are at 19.3 per cent so we need to get a wriggle on,” Ms Farrell, one of two Perth-based ex-co members alongside new iron ore boss Chris Salisbury, said yesterday.
“I think it demonstrates that Rio is serious about diversity and if I think about all the notes of congratulations I received, I received a number from women in Rio Tinto who acknowledged that it was a great aspiration for them and enabled them to believe it was possible to go all the way.
“(And my) appointment to ex-co enables safety to be engaged in every executive discussion and decision, and that is important (because) the mining industry wants every employee to go home in a safe and healthy manner after every shift.”
Although Ms Farrell has a well-recognised history of mentoring women in mining, it is her safety portfolio that will take centre stage. Her promotion coincided with the death of a Rio iron ore worker in Paraburdoo and Ms Farrell says “without doubt the first goal” is to achieve a fatality-free period.
Ms Farrell has looked after Rio’s health, safety, environment and communities portfolio for three years (but reported to ex-co member Hugo Bague) after spending 15 months heading the strategic support review team.
She says the cost cutting that has swept the sector should, if done properly, lead to improved safety standards.