Where are the management level Women in Mining? Interview with Neala Gillespie

Published: 21/07/2014

A recent global study by McKinsey found that CEOs believe the top four attributes for leadership success are intellect and stimulationinspirationparticipatory decision-making and setting expectations and rewards. As these attributes were most commonly found in female leaders, it begs the question, why are there so few on the top rung, and even fewer still in male dominated industries such as mining?
The problem really is industry-wide within mining. A Women in Mining (WIM) report (2013) by Amanda van Dyke (Chair of Women in Mining UK) and Stephney Dallmann (of PriceWaterhouseCoopers) found that mining companies have the lowest number of women on boards of any listed industry group in the world.
There are, of course, many companies at early stages of development and they have only a few board seats to fill; but if they expect to grow and mature, there is no time like the present to lead the way in increasing women at executive management level roles within mining.
The likelihood that women will have a board seat or participate in a board committee not only varies by company size, but also by geography. For example, 21% of the committee seats of listed South African mining companies are occupied by women. Prior to the 1990s, South African women were prohibited or otherwise constrained by legislation from being employed in mining activities underground, so they did not get the chance to obtain any experience which would have opened the doors to senior positions within the industry.
But South Africa largely seems to be a minority. An inability to embrace women at high level management has real-world consequences for shareholders and stakeholders in the communities where the miners operate. Mining companies with women on their boards see performance improvements on a number of fronts, from financial to social as well as environmental performance. Additionally, the amount that mining companies spend on community initiatives does seem to exponentially increase with the number of women on the board.
The WIM report also stated that profit margins are higher for mining companies with women on their boards and this is consistent with the findings of other studies. It cited a similar survey undertaken by Catalyst, a Canadian pressure group, which showed that companies with women on their boards also benefited from higher return on sales, equity and invested capital. Similarly, a study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that companies with women on their boards have a higher return on equity, lower gearing, higher price/book value and better than average growth.
When the WIM report was issued, women occupied 8% of the board seats of the top 100 global mining companies, and just 4% when this widened to include the top 500 companies. However just 1% of the executive directors of the top 100 companies are women, with the rest holding non-executive roles. Among the next 101-500 companies the figure is slightly higher, at 3%. Overall, among the top 500 mining companies, women hold just 3% of the directorships.
The WIM report also acknowledges that mining is a sector where finding women to undertake senior roles is a ‘challenge’, partly because women are less likely to stay in mathematics and science education. Other factors include the need to travel abroad and take roles in remote or obscure areas – which is not always a viable option owing to family responsibilities.
However, women are making the necessary strides to succeed in the industry and one such example is Neala Gillespie, whose career in mining has spanned over 25 years and taken her all over Australia, as well as Africa, North America and South America. She currently works in an operational capacity on a remote mine site in Ghana and is their Occupational Health & Safety Manager.
WRS: What was your career path to get to the role you hold today?
NG: I’ve now worked in mining for 25 years, give or take. I initially got a degree in environmental areas and undertook my Masters when it became obvious that health and safety and environment would combine to form one discipline (ie. HSE). I prefer a site role, as opposed to a corporate function as I like the fact that I get to be in remote locations and not work 9-5 in a city/office based role.
WRS: Some mining companies are doing a great job to dismantle barriers and ‘cracking the glass ceiling’ open. How common a trend do you think this is?
NG: I have to be honest I have never really noticed the glass ceiling in the industry. Even at a grass-roots level, where qualified personnel are concerned, the number of men far outweighs women entering the industry. I personally believe that the right person gets the job, irrespective of gender, and aside from the odd international country where women are prevented from working by the nature of the culture and the role of women in that society, I have never experienced any bias or limitations.  The doors have been open to me at all times.  The women I know who have gone through the perceived “glass ceiling” have, like the men I know at that level, been intelligent, driven and have had the right skills to undertake the role. 
WRS: What challenges do you face within your role?
NG: Presently I work in the developing world and on a FIFO roster (6 weeks on 3 weeks off).  The job itself is dynamic and ever-changing – often I find myself struggling against a regulatory system where the goal posts frequently change – but you make do and get on with it.  You have to approach these roles with the attitude of doing more with less and getting the same assistance or resources is certainly more challenging than when the job is in Australia, the USA or Canada, for example. 
WRS: With the ever-present skills shortage in Mining, despite some downturn in the sector, what would your advice be to women considering a career in the industry?
NG: I wouldn’t hesitate recommending the industry to anyone considering it. I have travelled all over the world, met Presidents of a number of countries and met some exceptional people.  But it’s a tough industry.  And I would suggest that if someone wants to go into it with a view of a corporate role in 10 or 20 years that you would do well to get on a site for some Operational experience.  If you have an interest in it, study Process or Mining Engineering and the doors will be opened for you.
WRS: What were your drivers for going into the Mining industry?
NG: I grew up in a mining town in Western Australia.  I don’t recall ever making a conscious decision to head into mining, I initially started in agriculture, but that wasn’t for me. It was never my intention to end up in mining when I was studying but after a few stabs at other careers, I ended up in this industry. I like the people and I like the lifestyle. 
WRS: Lastly, any general comments on being a woman within the Mining industry – the pros, cons and opportunities?
NG: Without looking at it specifically around being a woman, it’s a good life, you get to travel to some remote locations that people wouldn’t normally get to see and experience environments outside city life.  The hours can be long, particularly on sites, and I believe as an industry we need to get back to basics a little … work together more across the disciplines, less empire building!