Monthly Profile Feature
Namibian geologist Zenzi Awases is not afraid to face a challenge head on, carrying out her first job alone in the desert on foot with hyenas prowling behind her. One of the first women in Namibia to study geology in her home country she has discovered diamonds and brought two areas into production from initially discovering them. A mother of two, she juggles her personal and professional life with a strong support network. She’s just been appointed the president of WIM Namibia (WiMAN), an association she helped form a few months ago, to help get girls into the industry, give them a voice and realise what opportunities are out there for women in mining. The association will also look at ways to retain the women who are already in the industry. But she admits she has had her ups and downs and was close to throwing in the towel last year, when she got fed up of endlessly having to compete with men and prove that women can do the job just as well any man. She wishes she had had a mentor during the course of her career and now she´s about to get one through the International Women in Resources Mentorship Programme, created by IWiM and WIM Canada. She hopes this experience will help her to guide others and get more change. By Camila Reed
How did you choose mining?
I didn’t choose mining, I always joke that mining chose me. I became a geologist by accident because I had wanted to be a lawyer when I was young.
The irony is that I grew up in a small mining town, Arandis in Namibia, but I didn’t even know it was a mine. We had the family day mine tours but it did not interest me that much.
We didn’t have the funds to become a lawyer but I had to have further education so I enrolled on a science degree. With no plan other than that I wanted to please my Mum and get a degree. So I went to university and once there I discovered geology in my second year.
We were pioneer students in 1995 studying geology. The course was discontinued but by this time I had the mining bug and I continued and applied for a scholarship to study in South Africa. That is where I started falling in love with the subject. In my third year I did an economic geology tour and realised that geology is the backbone of everything. I don’t think people realise how much we need it. Then I applied for a bursary with Namdeb (a subsidiary of De Beers Group of companies) and they sponsored my studies in South Africa.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining industry?
I love the fact that in Europe and the Western countries the mining industry opened its doors to women in the 1980s. On this side of the world, here in southern Africa, up until 10-15 years ago it was illegal even for women to be in the industry.
When I entered the industry it was 2005. When I joined, I knew no-one and didn’t know anything about the industry or that I would a lone women among men. My first job was to explore for diamonds in the Namib desert.
I went to a camp in the desert with 20 men, it was then I realised I was the odd one out. It´s been a fun and interesting journey since then.
I’ve had my ups and down and it is only as I have reached seniority in my career that I have discovered that the as a woman you are an anomaly, alone, you are a woman in minin
As you look around you see that you have been surpassed for promotions. I have had a good and bad ride and it is only lately that its not been so fun and that is why I am so has inspired to make that change and take part in the IWRMP as a mentee and with WiMAN and let men know that we’re here to stay!
What will you get out of the IWMRP mentoring programme as a mentee?
Until this opportunity came up I realised that I didn’t have a mentor. If I´d had a mentor I would have made smarter decisions.
What I want to get out of the IWRMP is that I will be able to guide a young girl’s career from when she enters to when she’s able to do things by herself. I should like to act as a guide to young girls in their careers.
So the two main goals are that I have a guiding role and also be able to give back to the industry.
I am still trying to figure out if it was because there was a lack of mentorship or I was too busy fighting fires to realise that I needed a mentor.
I’ve had a rocky ride in my career, because as a woman we have to work four times as hard to be treated the same as men and be seen to be working. The men arrive and immediately get adopted by the senior males but they don’t volunteer to help the women as easily.
I have had some informal guidance and mentorship and some good managers as informal mentors. My former managers Dr JJ Jacob, Mr Renato Spaggiari and Mr Alastair Baumann were my informal mentors who told me that I have talent and steered me in the right direction. They have been great and said that I needed to stick with it and Dr Jacob was one of my biggest supporters in my role as the president of WiMAN.
Have you encountered any discrimination?
Not blatantly, no. They are very careful about discrimination because all the HR policies in any industry guard against that.
They won’t come out and say no you can’t do this. But very recently I applied for a position and I was the only female who applied. They appointed a guy younger in age and career experience. Nobody bothered to tell me why I didn’t get the position. I think there was an assumption that because I am a mother and have two young kids that I wouldn’t be able to to the job or be willing to travel.
But no-one asked me how I planned to do the job. They just assumed I wouldn’t be able to do the job because I am a mother with children and that for me is a form of discrimination. It is very subtle, it is not direct.
Could you tell us about some challenges you have faced and how you overcame them?
In my first job I was sent to an exploration camp in the desert, some 200km north of the mining town I was based in, to assess a remnant diamond deposit. The further I drove from the mining town, the more it felt like I was being punished because I had annoyed the exploration manager (my then manager)!
He just sent me off and I was not prepared and no-one prepared me of what to expect at the camp. The first challenge was that I didn’t have a driver’s licence, so I would work all day on foot. They would drop me 20 kilometres from the camp and I would do my mapping on foot and then they would come and pick me up again in the evening.
With hindsight, they probably wanted me to give up and come back crying and say I wanted a softer job in the office. In the first month I worked so hard to get my driving licence so that I could get around.
I gained the respect of my male colleagues and they realised I was not a push over and I could do any job, be it in town or out in the field somewhere remote. When I completed this assignment I received comments such as “you have a tough skin, young lady! You will go far in this industry!”. I learnt how to change my tires and manoeuvre my car out when I got stuck in the soft dune sand or on the beach.
This is the challenge I am most proud of. I managed to take that area from virgin to delineating the resource. They could only give me that opportunity if they believed in me. I overcame the challenge and sometimes it was a bit scary as I was followed by brown hyenas but I had so much fun. Those were two of my best years while I was in the desert.
My second challenge was becoming a Mum while being a geologist. My profession takes me to very weird parts of the world. I became a Mum quite late on. My kids grew up at the same time as my career was peaking.
So you must be a Mum and a professional and fighting the fight each day and it is figuring out the challenge at work and I have overcome it by developing a support system. This challenge is still real in my life.
What are you passionate about?
I love, love, love the exploration part of my job. I love to finish things. I like the fact that I have taken a virgin area, never touched since 1908 for diamonds in my case, and then take it through all the phases until it’s mined. Two of my discoveries have gone through to mining and I can’t put into words the satisfaction I have about this — it´s too much.
What would you like to do next?
These days there are not so many exploration camps but you still work in remote areas. What I would like to tackle and take on, is to make them a woman friendly environment.
Some things are quite small and basic, like making sure that there’s an extra toilet for women in the camp. Usually they haven’t thought about it and I would like to see changes in the safety gear.
The men see you as a woman in the camps and I´d like to act as the bridge between the camps and the women. We´re here to do a job as well and not just to look pretty.
What I also want to do next is get change in HR policies. These have not been adapted as much as they should have been and although we have been made welcome into the industry, what has been done is just to add she, where there is a he very often to policies without thinking things through.
What I want to do next is to be in a decision making role where I can influence even just one policy change and it must be to the advantage of us, to women in the industry. I’m hoping the IWRMP can help me achieve this.
One of the issues we face in the Namibian mining industry is of pregnancy onsite. These types of thing have been dealt with in Canada and other countries. They have got good programmes to accommodate pregnant woman or breast feeding mothers. Here those type of issues are still taboo.
Sometimes the women are scared to mention that they can’t do this job anymore because they are pregnant. I’d like to be in a position to be able to encourage dialogue so that we can come up with a workable solution, industry-wide, on this issue.
In Namibia, there are 7,668 people employed in the mining industry and 1,602 are women. We believe that about 21% of the sector are made of up women and that is up 5% from five years ago. We are very slowly making head-roads into the industry.
What people don’t realise is that we are saying that women have always been in the industry, maybe not in technical positions, but these numbers don’t tell us how many geologists there are. What is the industry doing in terms of bringing on female geologists and technical women? They are out there.
What is one thing you know now that you wish you’d been told when you started out?
Get a mentor and stick with that person. I wish I had known that when I started out!
With hindsight if I had had a mentor I think things would have progressed differently in my career and this is why I want to help young girls and help them recognise the opportunities out there, so they can stop fighting the fight and realise their potential.
Would you like to sit on a board — Your view on women on board quotas?
Absolutely. Yes I would like to sit on a board but based on my ability and not due to the quota system. In Namibia, one out of 36 executives is a female. The odds are against us. There is just one female and she can not make all the change for the industry for all of us.
I think we have to make a difference and if I were on a board I would see this as something I must do. But I do not agree with non-substantive appointments where we have quotas as a legal requirement and companies appoint a women to a board but it is tokenism. In my opinion, women should turn down these non-substantive roles.
Quotas force a woman to be put on the board but it needs to be a proper role, with decision making powers not a non-substantive role. You can’t just look pretty and take a role, you have to make a difference. If used correctly, the compliance and quota system can benefit us all.
Do you think WIM groups can help women in mining?
Absolutely, provided that they do what they say they will. We need to act as a bridge between the industry and women. The industry is not very aware, or claims not to be aware of our issues. WIM groups need to focus on more than just getting sponsorship, or furthering their own careers and work to do what they say they will do when they set out and get girls into the industry and encourage those who are already in the industry, to remain.
I’m passionate about this cause because I know how difficult it is, I have been working for a long time in this industry.
One of the programmes we’re about to launch is the Big Sister Programme to engage with young girls at a grass roots levels. We are supported by the industry, the Chamber of Mines and our Mine Ministry.
I was prepared to leave the industry last year and bow out and say I’m done with trying to compete with the men. That comes from the fact we didn’t have an association. Once we launched two months ago, the men were saying we didn’t realise some of the issues you face, say around the gear we have to wear.
For us it is a huge inconvenience to get out of our gear to go to the toilet. We practically have to undress to go to the toilet and this affects productivity.
If they don’t see us it makes it difficult to believe you can do it too. I wasn’t interested when I was young because I didn’t see one person in the mines when I was growing up in my home town mine. I didn’t see one woman in that mine.
There’s a lot to celebrate but some of the companies are uncertain of what we actually stand for. Some view us a group of feminists who want to disrupt the industry – which is completely unfounded. We have partnered with a local newspaper showcasing firsts of women in mining, like the first women to mine offshore for example.
Any advice to young women starting out?
My advice is to research the industry for any career you want to get into. Don’t be like me and go in blind. Don’t get into it by accident. There is a lot going on now, so take the opportunities being offered to you by the industry and go for it.
Have you felt a need to fit into the industry?
No. There’s been no need to adapt.
How about the work-life balance?
This is an ongoing challenge and I rely on a very strong support structure and I think you should also engage with your management team as they can be accommodating. I have small kids 6 and 9 so engage with your kids too.
I have this obsession with coffee. I love coffee and just two weeks ago I completed a barista certificate — I’m now qualified. My dream is to open up a quaint coffee ship of East African coffees.
Zenzi Natasha Awases is a geologist with 12 years’ experience in diamond exploration and mining. She started her career as a graduate geologist at Namdeb in 2005 where she was employed as a field geologist for two years before progressing to a Senior Geologist role in both the exploration and productions departments. In 2012, she was transferred to DebMarine Namibia where she is employed as a Senior Exploration geologist. In 2017, she was chosen as the president for the first ever Women in Mining Association of Namibia (WiMAN).
She takes a lot of pride in her work. Throughout her career, she has found a lot of mineable ground for both the organizations she has worked for. In addition to her technical duties, she has a particular interest in seeing more women in this previously male-dominated industry – particularly in the technical fields. Zenzi immensely enjoys training and mentoring young geologists. She is a motivational leader and has a contagious enthusiasm and passionate belief in people that inspires them to become prouder, stronger and more valuable contributors to their organization.
She holds B.Tech (Geology) from the Tshwane University of Technology and a B.Sci (Honors) in Geology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is currently a candidate for a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Management and Administration at the University of Stellenbosch Business School and has been selected as one of 50 mentees in the inaugural International Women in Resources Mentorship Programme, which will be launched on March 4-7 at the PDAC International Convention, Trade Show and Investors Exchange in Toronto, Canada.
ABOUT IWRMP aims to empower and promote the career prospects of women working in the international resources industry by developing productive mentoring partnerships to assist in creating a more diverse and gender progressive industry.
Please contact the Steering Committee organisers for further information:
Barbara Dischinger (Steering Committee Lead) firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia Le Sueur-Aquin (Steering Committee Lead) Clesueuraquin@laurion.ca
Ali Burston (Project Director) email@example.com