Gender equity slowly improving in mining
By Alexandra Cain
The mining sector has a way to go before there are as many women as men working in the sector, especially at a high level.

While statISTICs show a pronounced gender imbalance in the mining sector, there are some signs that things are improving. Although many female leaders in the field have had to battle their way through their careers, younger professionals say they feel supported to achieve their potential.

CSIRO Discovery Research Program Director Dr Sandra Occhipinti says that conditions are improving for women in the mining sector, albeit slowly. After she finished her science undergraduate degree in 1992, she earned a Master of Science degree at Monash University in 1994, at which point more than half her fellow graduands were women. So, she didn’t realise the mining sector had a gender problem until she started work with the Geological Survey of Western Australia.

‘When I was at uni, recruiters would come around from the different mining companies. It was at that point I realised that there might be a problem being a woman in the industry because I had one guy say to me, “Why are you bothering?” So, I became really determined to give it my best shot; I felt it was my calling.

‘I was the only woman in the regional mapping group based in Perth at the Geological Survey, but I didn’t really notice because I was so young compared to everybody else. Then, I started going out into the field, working on my own. I’d go into mining camps and, initially, I felt the difference between me and my colleagues was my age.’

Occhipinti didn’t even realise there was a gender imbalance until someone pointed out that there were only four women on site, alongside 80 men. ‘I was usually camping on my own, which was quite dangerous for a woman because of the possibility of someone coming across you. So, I just hid my camp site. I was determined just to keep going. I wasn’t going to be stopped by anybody because of my gender.’

Uphill battle

Nevertheless, gaining seniority has been a hard slog for Occhipinti. ‘There was one occasion in about 1997 where I applied for a promotion, and all the guys got theirs and I didn’t get mine. At the time, I was probably producing more work than some of the blokes. The boss said I wasn’t promoted because I was married, so I didn’t need the money. I was so angry, and I stood up for myself. Within six months, I was promoted,’ she says.

Research shows the huge disparity between the number of men and women working in mining firms. The University of Sydney lecturer Dr Marzena Baker, whose work includes an exploration of gender equality in the Australian mining sector, says Treasury data indicates gender equality in the Australian workforce has been slowly improving over the past 30 years. Women’s workforce participation has increased over this time from 43.9 per cent in 1979, to 62.1 per cent in 2022. By contrast, Australian mining organisations remain highly gender segregated.

‘The mining industry is the most male-dominated [industry] in Australia, comprising 80 per cent men and 20 per cent females,’ she says.

Baker’s research indicates gender-based human resources initiatives to address this imbalance are not working as they should. Her work suggests that programs to encourage a more equitable split between men and women in the mining sector, such as positive recruitment strategies, promotion and training, have only had limited success. Programs that support flexible working have better results when it comes to supporting women to stay in jobs in the mining sector.

A way forward

Mining businesses that employ women in senior leadership positions also do better in terms of more equal representation of women in their workforces. This is echoed in Occhipinti’s experience.

‘I look after about 90 staff, and there were only three line managers that were women when I took this position,’ she says. ‘Now, about 40 per cent of line managers are women, and I feel I have had some influence over this result.’

Occhipinti says a critical map is required to effect real change. The components of this map include diversity targets, better recruitment practices and a management style that plans for people to take parental leave. Despite a challenging backdrop, she’s also positive about career prospects for women in mining.

‘It’s a good job – not just for a woman, but for anyone. If you like geology, it’s really fun. You get little pieces of information, and you have to put them together to tell a story. So, it can be quite creative and it pays quite well,’ she says. ‘There’s also a range of pathways you can take in government, the minerals industry, in exploration or in mining.’

Time for change

The University of Newcastle chemical engineering PhD candidate Siân Parkes, whose career in mining is just starting out, has had a vastly different experience to Occhipinti. She feels she has received substantial support along the way, and has not experienced the same gender bias as her more senior peers.

Parkes is particularly passionate about her work’s potential to support better environmental outcomes in mining. ‘I really enjoy the fact that my work is relevant as we shift to a net zero economy, and has positive impacts for the minerals industry,’ she says.

It’s telling, however, that Parkes didn’t know any female engineers before she enrolled in her undergraduate degree. ‘That’s why I’m passionate about mentoring and highlighting that we need diversity within the minerals industry, so no-one ever doubts they belong here.’

Parkes stresses that the minerals industry has already given her considerable support, including opportunities for personal development and technical training. She says outreach programs are also essential to encourage more women to take up roles in mining. ‘It’s up to everyone to be an advocate and talk about their passion for the sector to spark an interest in someone, and let them be aware [that] there are many opportunities within the industry.’

Occhipinti’s advice to women considering a career in mining is to be persistent. ‘Just keep going and stand up for yourself. Pick your battles, be yourself and make the most of new programs to encourage women to take up senior leadership positions in mining.’ 

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