Over the last ten years there has been a “slow but significant” change in attitude towards women in the mining industries says Pat Schraven, human resources manager at Oceana Gold (New Zealand) Limited.
“The tight labour market has fast-tracked the change required by mining companies to attract women by creating an environment that values diversity, engages women in decision making and recognises their positive impact on mining communities.”
Until the 1990s women were confined mainly to administrative or support roles but now undertake a diverse range of vocations including professional and operational roles.
“There has been an increase in women taking up studies relevant to mining such as geology, metallurgy and engineering and also a noticeable increase in the number of women taking on entry levels positions such as driving haul trucks and process plant operators.”
Oceana Gold has female staff in a number of key roles across its three New Zealand operations.
Currently, 12.7% of the company’s New Zealand-wide workforce is women, an increase of 3.4% from the previous 12 months.
“Our approach to recruitment is not specific to either gender however we continue to review and where possible, adapt policies and practices that go towards attracting and retaining women.”
Annie Fitzgerald, personal assistant to the vice president of Oceana Gold’s New Zealand operations, says that confidence, independence and motivation are essential qualities for women considering a career in the mining industry.
“In most cases mining is undertaken in remote locations in the outdoors or underground, and in all extremes of weather. It involves shift work and can be physically demanding in certain fields.”
The work can be challenging, but there is a lot of support within the mining community which is like “one big happy family” she says.
Schraven agrees that mining can be a tough industry, but says that in return employees are generally well compensated through remuneration and benefits.
“Historically mining has been associated with a work hard, play hard mentality but there has been a growing shift towards restructuring roster patterns to obtain a better work and life balance and to increase education around health and fitness.”
Remuneration processes, in general are based on equal pay for equal work, with male and female staff having equal opportunity to progress through the level system.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics May 2007 showed a gender pay gap of around 23% but Schraven puts that down to the high proportion of men taking up work in the industry and staying in mining through to the more senior and specialist positions.
“These factors would reflect in the earnings of women in mining relative to men along with more intangible effects, such as fewer mentors available to women and other similar obstacles to promotion that can be found in male-dominated industries.”
Mining has always been a peaks and troughs affair that is at the mercy of the markets. Globally the drop in nickel, iron ore and zinc prices has forced a number of mines to lay off staff, but with record gold prices, Oceana Gold is currently in a good position.
Working safely and cost control, is however imperative to ensure the sustainability and growth of the industry, Schraven believes.
She says there are a few male workers who are still “getting their heads around” the emergence of women in the industry, but that on the most part they accept women are having a positive impact.
“The attitudes towards women in mining have changed significantly and there are now real opportunities available to women with the relevant skills, motivation and confidence to succeed.”
PROFILE – Debbie Clarke
After 13 years working at Macraes Mine, Debbie Clarke says she is now an “old hand” in the industry and one of Oceana Gold’s longest serving female employees.
Clarke started with the open cast gold mine as an environmental technician straight out of university and is now its environmental supervisor managing up to three staff.
It was while completing case studies on the mine during her degree that she first considered taking on a role in the industry.
“I found the mine really interesting so when a job came up here I applied.”
Clarke is now in charge of all the environmental elements at the active mine site, including day-to-day management, monitoring of a number of environmental factors within a 10km radius of the mine, resource consents and site rehabilitation.
“Every day is different and there is so much variety. There is a nice balance between dealing with people, doing stuff on my own, being in the office and being in the field.”
She says that working in a male dominated environment has never been an issue.
“I was straight out of university and pretty green when I started so I just got on with the job and didn’t take a lot of notice. I did end up finding my husband here which is one of the funnier aspects. There are certainly advantages to being outnumbered by men in the workplace.”
Clarke believes her gender has not hampered her career development and that she has been able to progress through the ranks based on her merits.
“I’ve never been held back and if a project needs to be done, I am supported to just get on and do it.”
She says the mining environment can be challenging and that women with an open minded and flexible approach tend to handle it the best.
“You have to be able to work alongside men and not try and work against them. It is a male-dominated environment, and men can be blunt. You have to be able to accept that and co-exist within it.”