Driving positive change: Building bridges through inclusivity

Women have been excluded from large parts of public, social, and political life in society, and while much progress has been made in the past 100 years, many areas in remain where unequal treatment is still experienced. 

“Just because you are a female, doesn’t mean you can’t build a bridge,” says PRL (ASX:PRG) Company Secretary Elizabeth Lee.

With more than 20 years’ experience in corporate governance and company secretarial functions Lee has spent her career fostering relationships and building bridges in the figurative sense.

As 8 March 2024 marks the annual International Women’s Day (IWD), Mining.com.au sat down with a wide range of women working in various levels throughout the resources sector, discussing how the industry has evolved, challenges that come with the job, inequality and unfairness, and how females are go-getters just as much as their male counterparts. 

This year’s IWD theme ‘Inspire Inclusion’, is an apt one.

As PRL’s Lee explains: “When we inspire others to understand and value women’s inclusion, we forge a better world. And when women themselves are inspired to be included, there’s a sense of belonging, relevance, and empowerment.”

Those industry workers and executives who spoke to Mining.com.au agree that across the industry women are keeping ahead and are seeking to ‘cross the bridge when it comes’.

A bridge too far?

Speaking ahead of International Women’s Day, Lodestar Minerals (ASX:LSR) Exploration Manager Coraline Blaud says there is a full diversity of women now in every role “without question and that’s a big change”. 

“Even when I started 10 years ago, there were a lot less of us around — more people would be surprised when you arrived and now you are just another person on the job.”

As this news service previously reported, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows that over the past 20 years, women employed full-time in mining rose from 8,700 in August 2002 to 45,000 in August 2022.

However, as the Association of Superannuation Funds Australia (ASFA) shows there is still a long way to go with Aussie women still retiring with 25% less super than men.

Tan Mears (Farquhar) from Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO), an 2023 Women In Resources Awards (WIRA) ‘Outstanding Young Women’ finalist, says despite these shortcomings, the sector has ‘positively’ changed. For one, she says there is less tokenism and more importance placed on participation in leadership roles. 

“It’s important to recognise that mining is an industry for everyone men and women. For a long time the resources industry was not a consideration for many women, including myself, and there has been a shift in mindset and desire for change.

We are seeing more women in leadership roles, more women joining the industry in both operational and commercial roles, and greater access to flexible working arrangements for everyone.”

We are seeing more women in leadership roles, more women joining the industry in both operational and commercial roles, and greater access to flexible working arrangements for everyone

According to S&P Global, the number of women holding executive or board positions in publicly traded metals and mining companies has increased over the past 2 years.  As of 2023, women hold 14% of executive positions in comparison to 12.3% in 2021, while they hold 12.3% of board positions in comparison to 8.1% in 2021. 

PRL’s Lee tells Mining.com.au the sector has indeed improved ‘significantly’ throughout the years. 

“I’ve been in the mining sector for over 20 years and business used to be, many years ago, a male-dominated industry. The language and the behaviour of the men were, I suppose, not very complementary to women. 

Now women have facilities and everything that accommodates women’s needs. There is more work that women can do. During my time I had never heard of a female truck driver, but yes, we have female truck drivers now.”

Agrimin (ASX:AMN) Managing Director and CEO Debbie Morrow says this growing acceptance in previously male-dominated roles has taken a somewhat long turn. For one, Morrow notes, there’s more amenities provided for women that were once non-existent. 

“When I had my child, there were not proper locations for pumping when you came back to work and were breastfeeding. 

So I think we have come a long way in terms of making sure that it’s a flexible enough environment for women to want to come back to the workforce and specifically to want to come to mining.”

As is often the case, some of the cultural changes come from the largest organisations and then they trickle down and are adopted to the mid-cap and junior players.

Mining giants such as BHP (ASX:BHP) and Fortescue Metals Group (ASX:FMG) are openly talking about diversity policies and have set targets in place. 

Rio Tinto is working collaboratively with BHP and Fortescue to develop programs that make the sector safer through its ‘Building Safe and Respectful Workplaces’ program being delivered to all new apprentices, trainees, graduates, and vacation studies.

Rio Tinto’s Mears says the program focuses on the affects of sexual harassment, bullying, and racism in the workplace. 

“Eventually the intent is to extend this program beyond mining, which would be fantastic to see us have a positive impact on society.”

The Queensland Resources Council (QRC) is also setting targets in place. CEO Janette Hewson tells Mining.com.au “the QRC has set an ambitious target of 30% female representation by 2026”. 

“While positive progress has been made, the industry is continually working to do better and to encourage more women to consider a career in resources.”

Cazaly’s MD Tara French says these are examples of great deal of changes she’s witnessed since she started in the industry 25-plus years ago. She notes refining maternity leave, and cultural changes within the sector that previously were non-existent.

“Now men are able to take maternity leave, which is a great step forward, and with more flexibility around working hours and working from home, women are often able to return to the workforce sector. 

Culture is also improving across the board, and future changes will continue if people continue to speak up

Culture is also improving across the board, and future changes will continue if people continue to speak up. I have also found that the younger generations coming through are more open to discussions, and often women in management roles are considered more approachable than their male counterparts.”

In August 2017, Fortescue opened a childcare facility in its Perth office, which is a free service for its employees and is a key element of its diversity plan to help balance work and family responsibilities.

Hewson says these changes needed to happen given the number of women in trade roles has grown by nearly 40% over the past year alone.

“Over the past 10 years, there has been a much sharper focus within Queensland’s resources sector on the need to increase the number of women working in our industry. 

The good news for our sector is that the number of women employed in Queensland’s mining and industry increased to 8,552 full-time equivalent (FTE) last financial year and now account for a record 22.1% of the total workforce.”

Although the numbers are growing in Queensland’s resource sector, the Intergovernmental Forum (IGF) on Mining, Metals, and Sustainable Development reported a gendered analysis of employment in the Australian mining sector in 2022. It found women still only account for 16% of the total workforce in mining. 

The sector ranks as the second lowest in the economy for having the lowest female employment participation rate. 

Candis Rhodes, Rio Tinto’s Sustainability Manager and 2024 Chamber of Commerce WIRA finalist explains it like this: “There are still many times when I am in a room, in a workshop, with a team — where I am the only, or one of the only, women.”

Nature vs nurture

There are many organisations out there helping to support workplace diversity, as well as ensuring facilitating opportunities for women who want to continue working. 

Agrimin (ASX:AMN) Managing Director and CEO Debbie Morrow says: “We need to ensure that we’re nurturing those females to stay in our workforce and I think that’s probably setting the targets and having the 50:50 intake, which the majority of companies do. 

There is a huge resource in Australia that is not being tapped into as well as it could be by our sector, and I think that’s a huge opportunity for industry.”

Morrow explains there are plenty of roles that offer more flexibility, which in turn would help encourage women to participate in the industry or come back had they left. 

“Work anywhere, work anytime” kind of modelling has been proven to work for a lot of roles. With the development of technology, people can work remotely and access operating systems and databases.”

US multinational consultancy firm McKinsey & Company finds that the drop-off rate from entry level to executive positions for females are among the highest.  Among S&P 500 companies in 2021, the firm reported there were only 30 female CEOs — not one of them from mining.

McKinsey’s global survey had more than 1,000 female respondents saying they left the industry (or were wanting to leave) due to the lack of opportunities or feeling undervalued. 

As the women interviewed by this news service agree, a wide range of factors are still contributing to the exodus of any workforce. Yet, there’s a common denominator when it comes to women and mining. 

One is that the resources sector remains largely male-dominated and the somewhat archaic workplace cultures that once prevalent still linger to varying degrees.

Helix Resources (ASX:HLX) Executive Technical Director Kylie Prendergast says during her expansive career she has faced harassment, bullying, non-inclusiveness, and blocked career pathways. 

In one previous undisclosed example, Prendergast was told that she had to stay in a role for 5 years before she could develop further or after she found 1 million ounces of gold. 

“Although scary, I made the decision to leave big company employment to pursue an uncertain portfolio far removed from the patriarchal 90s Australian mining industry. This led me to stay and leave on my own terms.”

‘Not a competition, it’s a workplace’

Lodestar’s Coraline Blaud says being a woman in mining can be a tough challenge, sometimes largely due to a societal point of view that is then placed on oneself.

“From my point of view, it’s always been having to work harder to really try to show that I could do it. I would work harder, do longer hours, carry weight, probably that I shouldn’t have, just to prove that I could do it.

“It’s about being supportive of each other and giving opportunities. It’s not a competition, it’s a workplace.”

However, it can be an extremely competitive environment. According to the federal government’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, only 22.3% of CEOs are women in the country. 

It was not until 2022 that the ASX appointed its first female CEO, when Helen Lofthouse replaced Dominic Steves. This could be a prime example of women having to compete for management or leadership positions due to their gender and not because of their capabilities or skills. 

PRL’s Company Secretary Lee notes: “If you’ve got the qualifications, the years of experience, and the ability to do the world, I don’t think you should be discriminated against.”

Bridging the gap

The federal government reports the gender pay gap in Australia is ‘extremely high’.

A recent Chief Executive Women (CEW) Senior Executive Census report estimates it will take over a decade to reach gender parity in executive leadership teams. 

For every $1 on average a male makes, females earn about $0.78. Over the course of one year, that difference adds up to $26,393. 

PRL’s Lee says pay should be based on the role, not on the gender. 

“If I’m a woman truck driver and I’m working with a male and he gets paid 20% more, I’m going to be pissed off. I drive the same truck, I go the same route, I have to observe all the same safety standards. Why is it that he gets paid more? That’s not fair.”

The evidence of the gender pay gap was previously reported by Mining.com.au last year when covering the International Women’s Day.

An AusIMM report shows 85% of female respondents said gender inequality was ubiquitous, while 70% of respondents said bullying was common. 

Morrow says: “Particularly the bullying, sexual harassment, and lack of psychological safety in the workplace is unfortunately still common across the industry.

If people speak up and there is lack of action, then it means that others don’t speak up, they don’t feel comfortable to speak up and some of these behaviours are then ingrained in culture.

Particularly as a female leader in the industry, you think, what more can we do?”

Is this a bridge too far or is there now enough water under the bridge to resolve this?

Driving positive change

Xplore Resources CEO Kim Wainwright says there is a lot of ‘great’ work happening within the resources sector.

“Conversations are happening and I do believe that a lot of the companies are taking their time to put in place policies, procedures, and structures that really support to facilitate the women in the sector. 

I think we have come so far, but I still think there are conversations that need to be had, so that anything negative is removed as much as humanly possible.”

As of June 2022, the Western Australian parliamentary inquiry handed down a final report ‘Enough is Enough’ in regards to sexual harassment against women in the fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) mining industry. Minister for Resources Madeleine King put forth 24 recommendations urging ‘stronger’ action to support a growing female workforce. 

Cazaly Resources’ MD Tara French finds a silver lining regarding the report.

She says that while the report outlines ‘horrific’ examples of sexual harassment, it’s positive such issues are topics of open discussion, so corrective actions can be taken. 

“Managers also need to take the responsibility to manage any poor behaviours to remove these destructive influences from sites. There is only one way to address any problem — and that is if it’s acknowledged in the first place.”

As mentioned, the mining majors have to some degree played their part. In Australia, many organisations offer women sponsorship opportunities, mentoring programs, events, and a place to connect with industry peers. 

Rio Tinto’s (ASX:RIO) Candis Rhodes, who is a recipient of the Chamber of Mining and Energy’s (CME) ‘Women in Resources Awards’ says she feels lucky to be a part of such an important sector.

“Creating forums and communities for women so we don’t feel ‘different’ or the ‘odd one out’ make us feel welcome and included. These organisations and events are all great ways to celebrate the amazing women in the industry.”

Rhodes holds a Masters in Logistics and Supply Chain Management, and has an undergraduate degree in Management and International Business.

Queensland Resources Council CEO Janette Hewson tells Mining.com.au the council fully supports these initiatives. This month’s annual resources awards is an important example and opportunity to celebrate and recognise the achievements of women in the industry. 

“These awards have become an increasingly popular event on our industry’s calendar and this year will be our biggest ever, with over 1,200 people attending at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.”

For the sixth consecutive year, the Australiasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) is also celebrating the achievements of women, with this year’s theme being ‘driving positive change together’.

The theme encourages individuals working in the sector to advocate diversity, equality, and inclusion. Something that often still gets overlooked.

Xplore Resources’ Wainwright says this year’s theme comes back to supporting one another and continuing to educate on the importance of women in all industries. 

“It’s a great theme. Women make up 50% of the population and so we’d be silly not to push the recognition of the contribution and the continual growth of women being represented in the industry as a whole.”

Lodestar’s Blaud adds: “Sometimes women can be hard on each other and I think it’s about remembering we’re all doing the same work. So supporting each other and always being there and knowing that there are always people to have your back if it is required.”

Meanwhile, Helix Resources’ Prendergast says the theme represents togetherness with mind and heart wide open. 

“We are working with social constructs built within literally millenniums of patriarchal culture. In respect of that timescale, what has been achieved in the last 10 to 20 years is extraordinary — and I’m game to keep at it, so my daughter can live and work in a fairer and safer world.”

With well over a century of history and change, the first International Women’s Day was held in March 1911. 

World-renowned feminist, journalist and activist Gloria Steinem reportedly once explained: “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

Australia was the first country in the world to grant women of European heritage full suffrage. The country has helped pave the way for the rest of the world in terms of gender equality. 

Yet, in the workforce, and specifically in mining, as the women who spoke to this news service will attest, there are still some ways to go in terms of reaching complete parity. 

But as they say, what an industry to fight to be a part of.

Write to Aaliyah Rogan at Mining.com.au   

Images: Supplied
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Written By Aaliyah Rogan
Relocated from the East Coast in New Zealand to Queensland Australia, Aaliyah is a fervent journalist who has a passion for storytelling. When Aaliyah isn’t writing stories, she is either spending time with friends and family or down at the beach.