Women in Mining
Making their Mark in a Male-Dominated Industry
Women have made incredible strides in the mining industry. Just a few decades ago, states throughout the U.S. had laws that actually prohibited women from working underground. Folklore banned women from mines as well; common belief held that women brought bad luck to a mine or that they were too fragile to handle the demands of working underground. It was not uncommon for women to be outright denied entry to a mine as they began pushing into the industry in the 1970s.
After several class action lawsuits, the last laws banning women from working underground were repealed in the late 1970s, Mines Magazine reports. But, even as women proved themselves and earned positions within mining companies, negative stereotypes continued to abound. When women were promoted, it was not uncommon for fellow employees to assume those women were in relationships with managers and executives, according to mining.com. Women working onsite were sometimes subject to sexual harassment and negative assumptions about their ability to do the job, CBC News reports.
Women were accused of taking men’s jobs in rural regions with few employment options, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence and research conducted by Suzanne Tallichet, a sociology professor at Morehead State University who studied female coal miners in West Virginia in the 1990s. In reality, women working in West Virginia coalmines were often the household breadwinners due to divorce or other circumstances and were dependent on the relatively high income coalmining provided.
In 2021, barriers still exist in this traditionally male-dominated industry, despite the enormous progress made since those days when women were literally forbidden from entering a mine. Negative assumptions still linger, even though the industry is working hard to embrace change and welcome women’s participation at all levels. The MeTooMining association was established in 2018 to advocate for strong programs and policies against workplace harassment, bullying, intimidation, and discrimination and to ensure workers – both male and female – have effective avenues for reporting mistreatment or unfair practices. “Mining related Organizations, Universities, Trades and Corporations are encouraging women to join the mining industry but there needs to be a change in the workplace culture so all workers are safe and secure,” the association’s website summarizes.
How many women are involved in the industry?
BNN Bloomberg reports that women make up around 16 percent of mining employees – a figure that has remained roughly the same since 2001, despite an overall effort to increase gender inclusivity within the industry. In 2013, the mining industry had the lowest number of women on company boards of any industry group in the world, according to the study Mining for Talent by Women in Mining (UK) and Pricewaterhouse Coopers.
Women’s participation in mining varies globally. African mining companies have some of the highest numbers of women in executive positions on the C-suite level and on company boards, S&P Global Market Intelligence reports, while Latin America and the Caribbean have some of the lowest rates of women in top positions within the industry. In Europe, women fill about 12.9 percent of C-suite mining sector positions. In the United States and Canada, women fill only 11.5 percent of these C-suite roles, but they make up 21.5 percent of mining company board members, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
In addition to being underrepresented within the mining industry, women are also more likely to be negatively affected by mining operations – in other words, they bear the brunt of the burden without the benefits, the Brookings Institution reports. Because they are more likely to be the primary caretakers and to be responsible for subsistence farming, women disproportionately suffer from extraction-related environmental damage, involuntary resettlement, and food insecurity. This is not just a problem on the individual level. Women’s economic participation is an important ingredient for economic development and growth, the Brookings Institution points out, so female disenfranchisement affects whole communities, not just families.
The positive impact of women in mining
Gender inclusion makes good business sense. A survey shows that, of the top 500 globally listed mining companies, “The 18 mining companies with 25 percent or more of their board comprised of women had an average net profit margin for the 2011 financial year that was 49 percent higher than the average net profit margin for all top 500 mining companies,” the Brookings Institution reports.
Indeed, research demonstrates that women’s participation in the workforce can lead to higher profits by raising innovation and productivity, as well as developing company engagement with local communities, according to the Brookings Institution. Forbes reports that companies that promote inclusivity and cognitive diversity outperform their peers and are likely to be more creative and productive overall. Gender inclusivity also boosts safety records and improves social and environmental responsibility ratings, Mines Magazine reports.
The industry has been impacted by the research showing the benefits of gender inclusion and many companies have begun to actively recruit women, Mines Magazine reports. This opportunity can be especially helpful to women in rural areas where the resource industry offers the highest paying jobs, says S&P Global Market Intelligence. Women in low-income households and single mothers in regions with limited income opportunities could particularly benefit.
They climbed the ladder
Women have not only made it into the once male dominated mining industry – they have made it to the very top. Take Hilde Merete Aasheim, for instance. In 2019 she became the President and CEO of Hydro, the biggest integrated aluminum business in the world. Aasheim joined the company in 2005 as Executive Vice President for Leadership and Culture and led the planning of the integration between Statoil and Hydro’s oil and gas operations in 2007, Mining Global reports. After the merger she became Executive Vice President of staff functions and corporate service for StatoilHydro. Now, as President and CEO of the behemoth company, Aasheim is focused on sustainability and green initiatives.
Eva Arias, another leader in the mining industry, brought her company back from the brink to become a national success story. Arias comes from a family with a long history of mining in Peru. After a career in architecture and construction, she decided to continue her father’s legacy at Compañía Minera Poderosa, eventually becoming Executive President of the business. Over three five-year cycles, she steered the business from bankruptcy, transforming it into the most profitable company in Peru – not just in mining, but in every sector, Mining Global reports. She has also focused on improving relationships between the mine and the broader community, government, and employees; minimizing environmental impact while maintaining operational efficiency; and achieving high safety standards.
Amanda Lacaze is another woman who turned her company around. As CEO she brought Lynas Corporation back from a 99 percent drop in its share price, Mining Global reports. Lynas is the second largest producer of separated rare earths in the world, and the only producer of scale operating outside of China. The company’s rare earth mine in Western Australia is one of the highest-grade on the planet and its processing facility in Malaysia is the largest single rare earths processing plant in the world. In addition to bringing financial success to this global enterprise, Lacaze brought greater gender equity. Under her leadership, the number of female employees rose from 51 to 120, Mining Global reports.
Women have proven their value to the mining industry, from manual labour jobs all the way to the boardroom. As Aasheim, Arias, and Lacaze demonstrate, women can bring valuable perspectives, strategies, and insight to mining operations. As the world continues to evolve and mining companies face new challenges, these perspectives, strategies, and insights will only become more valuable.