It wasn’t until the mid-70s that women dared to enter the male-dominated workforce in surface operations.
Toward the end of that decade, they wanted to earn competitive wages like their male counterparts. As well, equipment had become more mechanized and legislation changed, creating opportunities for women in the underground workforce.
Today, women are still “glaringly underrepresented” in mining, despite a notable increase in female mining engineers and geologists, said Peter McBride, the Ontario Mining Association’s (OMA) manager of communications. The booming industry and pending retirements have placed an increased demand on skills for mining, causing employers and related organizations to question where the next wave of skilled workers will come from.
In mid-June, David Foot, demographer and author of Boom, Bust and Echo, gave a presentation on Demographics, Global Markets and the Future Workforce at an OMA conference in Windsor, Ontario. He stated that females comprise 46.9 per cent of the Canadian workforce, but only 13.1 per cent of employees in the mining industry. McBride believes that if the demographics can be shifted in a positive direction, it will be a huge help to the industry.
At the conference, a session on women in mining called How to Make the Mining Workplace More Feminine Friendly, featured a four-woman panel from the Hemlo operations of Teck Cominco and Barrick Gold near Marathon, Ontario. The panel discussion, moderated by Ingrid Hann, vice president of human resources for DeBeers Canada, focused on one of four target groups identified as a source for the estimated 30,000 future job vacancies in Ontario’s mining industry. The other three are immigrants, First Nations people and urban Canadians.
The panel represented a broad range of occupations, including a geologist supervisor, a supply and services worker, an underground miner and an employee relations superintendent.
“The women were not shy about sharing their experiences,” said McBride.
Hann described the session as innovative. “We made people aware and brought the subject to a higher level of attention.”
Four subgroups, each led by a panel representative, explored ideas to help recruit and educate women about a career in mining. Some simple ideas discussed were making clothing and personal safety equipment in smaller sizes and providing two-piece coveralls for easier access when going to the washroom.
Other ideas included the importance of communicating to young people that mining is high-tech, safe and environmentally responsible. The use of female role models and mentors was also suggested.
“We need to walk the talk to show there is a place for females in this workforce right from the interview process to training and operations,” said McBride.
Hann, who began her career in human resources with Denison Mines in Elliot Lake, has a wealth of experience in the industry. She believes mentors will play a significant role in future recruitment efforts in mining, particularly with women.
“Everyone looks up to role models, Hann said. “I think we need to work harder at being role models and being a mentor to the younger population.”
She stressed that all those working in the mining industry need to be better ambassadors to help eradicate the preconceived myths about mining in today’s technologically sophisticated industry.
Panel member Aileen Pajunen, a five-year veteran as Hemlo’s employee relations superintendent, “loves” her job, but she did have preconceived notions that mining was physical, dirty and dark.
“In reality, it is not,” she said. “Everything is so mechanized now that women can do it. It isn’t a dirty job either. It’s almost like a bright city underground.”
Both McBride and Hann agreed that with current technology and equipment, there are no physical barriers.
Within Hemlo’s operations, which consist of the David Bell Mine and Williams Operating Corporation, the workforce is 9.2 per cent female. Pajunen explained that because the 23-year-old mine is approaching the end of its life, management has downsized the hourly workforce. However, she said it is important to heighten awareness and educate women that mining is a viable career opportunity.
“People perceive it as being unsafe, but if you look at health and safety statistics, many other industries rank higher than ours with respect to frequency rates (of accidents).”
Workplace Safety Industry Board (WSIB) numbers back the claims. Mining sits in the bottom third of 17 industry sectors for lost time claims, according to WSIB statistics.
According to Foot, women are also easier on equipment. He told the story of a company in the Alberta oil sands that only hires women drivers because they have found the equipment lasts 35 per cent longer.
Pajunen observed that phenomenon in the sawmill where she previously worked.
“Women find ways to avoid problems that are too physically difficult to fix.”
Pajunen sees mining as an amazing opportunity for all young people entering the workforce and stresses there is a wide variety of careers in operations, environmental protection, metallurgy, engineering and training, to name a few.
“For recruiting, we go to the colleges and universities and we bring with us, for example, young engineers we’ve hired. They relate well to the candidates we are trying to attract.”
Hann sees more women entering the mining industry in the next five years because of the technological changes.
But like all careers, it is important to be competent in the pursued field of study, regardless of gender.
“Whether you are a mining engineer or production miner, you have to know what you are doing,” Hann said. “You have to have the expertise. That is how you get credibility and advance in the profession.”