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Women in Mining

Mining Global speaks with a quartet of leading women from across the mining industry to discuss challenges and future opportunities for women

Dan Brightmore
|Jul 30|magazine34 min read

 Liezl Davies, General Manager, Operations, Rössing Uranium

Liezl credits her background in industrial psychology, and time working in HR for De Beers, as vital to her role dealing with change management during a decade working at Rössing in Namibia, first for Rio Tinto and now for new majority shareholder CNUC (China National Uranium Corporation) a part of CNNC (China National Nuclear Corporation).

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the mining industry?

Liezl Davies: “The typical ones of not being the technical expert, so not necessarily having the experience or expertise in a technical area, so why would any team be led by you if they know things better? That's the challenge I faced. The way I approached it was to say, ‘well, yes, you may know better than me in one area, but I have experience in a different area that can compliment what you do and help us bring Rössing to success’.

“I think it is being open and honest, and straightforward, and not trying to pretend that I know something I don't, being authentic about it. It’s also important to call out when I'm faced with obstacles and say, you need to get on board, you need to be a team player, everyone needs to get into the game and pull together to pull Rössing up through the depressed uranium market and into the future.”

What is needed from an inclusion and diversity standpoint to attract more women into the industry?

Liezl Davies: “When we get to a phase now in our technological development where we have autonomous vehicles you don't necessarily need a haulage truck operator, but you need a more intelligent approach. We need workers who can operate the controls, or design the operating system or the control room or the trucks are running on, employees who can design the pit lay out, and the cycle the trucks need to hang on. It just opens a completely different world where everyone can be there and from all walks of life and physical ability. The underground mining environment is now a place where all our workers can contribute."

What advice do you have for other women considering a career in mining?

Liezl Davies: “We are seeing a growing number of women being interested in the mining disciplines that weren't there previously. I think we're doing quite a bit to encourage them at Rössing so they are motivated to actually study more in the mining disciplines that they see other women succeeding in; it gives them hope. You must not be fooled, it is a tough environment, but all jobs are stressful, so you need to find your happy place, your place in the sun, and this is the type of environment that spoke to me, and that I feel I could actually thrive in, as long as you are a team player, and you can get the job done.”

What do you think, and hope, the future holds for women working in the sector?

Liezl Davies: “We have now moved to a stage where we have women in a host of very important roles - at almost all of our levels there are women in operational areas. I tell our women they have a responsibility not only to themselves but towards the girls who will be the women of the future to create a mining environment filled with opportunities. They can be the ground-breakers for the next generation to come.”

Florence Drummond, Founder, Indigenous Women in Mining and Resources Australia (IWIMRA)

Florence began her career in mining as a machine operator at Rio Tinto’s Weipa operation in Queensland, Australia; she currently works at BHP in Perth as Project Supervisor – Indigenous Engagement Strategy. Florence founded IWIMRA in 2017 to provide a platform for the voices of Indigenous women in mining and resources across Australia to be heard. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the mining industry?

Florence Drummond: “There is a lack of women of colour in leadership roles. It’s important for women to have role models to learn their stories and give us the opportunity to evolve and to continue to refine our narrative. I strongly believe in ‘you can be what you can see’ so, it is excellent to see many more initiatives to create talent pools for in-demand professions. A self-sustaining cycle of mentorship and learning can really positively nourish quality participation and retention.

“There needs to be accessibility to professional development opportunities that are impactful for women who are currently participating in the industry. Traditionally, as a time poor demographic, how can we as women integrate time on-the-job, to advance in the value we hold as a team member and contribute towards a richer workforce?”

What more needs to be done from an inclusion and diversity standpoint to attract more women into the industry?

Florence Drummond: “As an Indigenous woman, I would like to encourage practices to be integrated into operations to allow for a culturally safe workplace. This not only enables a celebration of culture, but a deeper respect and understanding of the significance of land, history, tradition, collaboration and rehabilitation.” 

What advice do you have for other women considering a career in mining?

Florence Drummond: “For women considering a career in this industry, or any traditionally male dominated industry, it’s important to be proud of who you are, keep yourself and your team safe, and always remember your own reasons why you want to progress to sustain you. There are long days, uneven rosters, unfamiliar situations, physical challenges, industry culture and bugs to deal with! Yes, it is changing, but it takes time. Enjoy the experience, remain curious to learn more and travel widely within your global operations.”

What do you think, and hope, the future holds for women working in the sector?

Florence Drummond: “The future of women in the industry is developing strongly to which many are working tirelessly towards. I would also like to ensure that we as an industry are also celebrating our male champions who walk alongside us towards gender parity.”

Liezl Van Wyk, Director, Operations Excellence, SSR Mining

Liezl has over two decades of experience in mining across various management roles working for the likes of Rio Tinto and Diavik Diamond Mines before taking up her current position with SSR in 2017.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the mining industry?

Liezl Van Wyk: “I’ve worked in the power, construction, shipping and mining sectors; there are many similarities between these capital-intensive outdoor industries featuring large scale equipment and still with a primarily male workforce. My upbringing and interests, combined with my technical acumen, made entering these industries natural for me. From my perspective it was more an intellectual challenge than anything else. I did encounter that one had to pay a lot more attention to personal safety and conduct which are good life skills. There is a lot more awareness around women and their place in the mining workplace. Alignment of company values and greater diversity of the workforce have reduced the challenges of earlier days.

“I experienced that males in these industries can feel uncomfortable with women in their workplaces, taking on non-conventional roles. My approach has always been that if people are unsure how to deal with you, then show them how. You take the lead. People tend to quickly get comfortable when you do that. Earlier in my career I did find I had to work quite a bit harder and be more assertive to get my point across. These traits of persistence develop good skills, so meeting a challenge developed a strength. You learn how to read the environment a lot better with a multi-faceted response needed for leadership. As they say, challenges are often the seeding ground for opportunities.”

What more needs to be done from an inclusion and diversity standpoint to attract more women into the mining industry?

“Opportunity draws people. Saying you are welcome here and we are open for business will attract more women. Communicating clearly what the areas for growth and value add are means people, can understand and internalise the opportunity, and determine if the barriers to entry are low enough for them to participate. To my mind it’s no different to Porter’s Five Forces Model for getting more women into the mining industry. We have rival industries, threat of substitutes, barriers to entry, and supplier/buyer (workforce/employers) tensions. Mining is such a broad and diverse spectrum industry and a fantastic business to grow in; it’s compatible with several adjacent industries, which makes it quite fluid for people to move into (and out of).  

“My career did not start in mining but my skill set was totally transferable and I believe this is the case for many other women. It comes down to companies and managers to make those connections and plug the women in. People are influenced by what they see, what they hear, what they read. If we want to attract more women into our industry we need to communicate exactly that. The underlying bias that mining is not a welcoming place for women compared to other industries needs to be broken by sharing inspiring success stories to empower women.”

What advice do you have for other women considering a career in mining?

“I would always advocate for women to join the industry. Some sectors are already very mature and quite congested but mining is in the process of structural, not just incremental change. That brings new approaches and the need to widen the demographics providing opportunities for women across the whole mining value chain.

“Women need to be professional, connect with other women in the industry they respect and the male managers championing women in mining. Sit at the table, use your brains and your craft to bring your transferable skills and insights from other industries – they are needed and will add value. Network and seek both guidance and mentorship. Be focused on the positive challenge of problem solving and improving the business. Move around if you can, it’s a big plus in the resources industries.”

What do you think, and hope, the future holds for women working in the sector?

“The mining employment mix has already started to change; a demographically more representative future is upon us. I see women now in all disciplines and sectors across the mining hierarchy. No more dry joints and open circuits – there’s full connectivity and opportunity to contribute wherever your skills and career roadmap fit. The greater inclusivity of women will correlate with greater deployment of technology and innovation, environmental and community stewardship, changes in risk management and governance, stakeholder relationships, energy and climate change responses, and the push towards more circular economies. Obviously, these changes are not uniquely tied to women, but the inclusion of women is having a very positive impact on these elements and it can only keep growing from here.”

Michelle Ash, CEO, GEOVIA (Dassault Systèmes)

Michelle is the former Chief Innovation Officer at Barrick and the outgoing Chair of the Global Mining Guidelines Group (GMG). A skilled technology transformation leader, she took up her role as CEO at mining engineering software leader GEOVIA in October 2019.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the mining industry?

“For me, as a woman in the industry, it was important to keep that work/life balance, especially as I got older and my son was born. I was lucky to be able to progress with my career thanks to help from family and a carer, but a lot of women don’t always find the support structure they need. It’s difficult for women because we end up torn between career progression and family. I was a general manager spending a lot of time on site but I also wanted to spend quality time at home. Nowadays it’s good to see men taking a bigger role in family life but unfortunately, they also face that trade off with the pressures of work. 

“I’ve had comments in the past from colleagues, and even team leaders, asking how I can abandon my family for my career and saying it’s ‘interesting’ that a woman would make that choice. Emotionally it’s difficult to accept such judgemental behaviour and the implication that for a woman to succeed she must have sacrificed something.

“One of the big advantages I had was that I was able to meet and maintain the confidence of a series of male leaders who wanted to ‘take a chance’ on putting me in my next role. Whether that was in my first job in mining as a blasting engineer, later on as the superintendent of a truck shop without a maintenance background, or when I was appointed as the general manager of a petrochemical business because of my culture change experience. A big challenge for many women is being able to clearly present your skills as transferable, showing your ability to learn from one role to the next. This is a male dominated industry so you do sometimes need good sponsors prepared to show faith in you to progress. Part of that problem is that when you look at how many women are in CEO positions across the industry, just six worldwide, it highlights the lack of role models for women who can sponsor the next wave of women into leadership roles.

“I’ve experienced why there is a lack of women at the top because a few years ago I went for a CEO role and they said to me that I had great financial and business improvement experience but was light in operations. Yet this was after I’d been the COO of Acacia and the GM of a petrochemical business. I believe there’s still this unconscious bias that women face. Are we going to be tough enough? Will we be experienced enough? Will investors accept us? Years ago, I was knocked back for a customer-facing GM position and the rationale was that their customers weren’t ready to see a woman running the business.”

What more needs to be done from an inclusion and diversity standpoint to attract more women into the industry?

“The tide is turning. We’re seeing a lot more women at GM level which is fantastic and vital if we’re to attract more women into the industry. Traditionally, on executive teams, we’re seeing women in HR and finance roles but how many do we see in operations and exploration? Companies might be well meaning but there needs to be an examination of the underlying bias that still exists. We can all have them for different reasons.

“We’re certainly seeing more women on boards. It’s 28% now which helps because more women are becoming involved in the executive and the recruitment process for CEOs. However, again it requires a number of sponsors, men in the industry on boards and in chairman roles, even in recruitment, who are prepared to actively seek out good candidates and get more women into senior roles. It’s that visibility that will show women the mining industry is open to them.”

What advice do you have for other women considering a career in mining?

“For young women, it’s about taking a chance on yourself and being prepared to put yourself into a role you may not be 100% for but are a good fit for in terms of knowing the gaps you can work on. This is where the role of sponsors can be really important.

“The industry has a variety of roles available and the great thing now is that you can take a less traditional path and find something that you’re passionate about and interested in. In my career I’ve not only had the opportunity to work on site but also in strategic roles, with communities and governments while contributing to safety and risk management projects. What I love about the mining industry is that it offers a bit of everything; we do construction and literally help build communities while implementing the latest technologies.”

What do you think, and hope, the future holds for women working in the sector?

“Hopefully as more women reach higher levels across the mining sector it will become even more apparent that there is a clear pathway for women to find rewarding careers. The mining industry has changed so much in the 30 years I’ve been part of it. When I started out there were barely any women’s toilets let alone a variety of opportunities. Now, there is a real desire to develop a more diverse workforce. There are still challenges to overcome because by definition bringing in diversity means you’ll have people with different opinions to your own which can be quite confronting and makes you examine your own thinking.

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