October 2018

How do we attract women into operational roles?

  • By Sara Prendergast MAusIMM, Senior Manager – Performance Reporting APA, Orica; and Director, AusIMM

A summary of research with key findings and recommendations to ensure the attraction and retention of women in operational roles in industry

When talking about the representation of women in mining, I always recall some key words from an executive general manager (EGM) I previously worked for in Leinster, Western Australia: ‘What are you going to do about it?’. His response was always intended to empower his workforce to act when they identified a challenge or a hurdle that they bought to him (usually in the form of a complaint).

Some of the workforce found this approach very confronting. Rather than being a spectator of the business and its leaders, they were suddenly forced to buy in and take ownership of the outcome. Many found this to be too much ownership, responsibility and accountability.

Consequently, many people left – but that was okay because this EGM was consciously transforming the culture. For me and many others, this was empowering and exciting; for me it screamed opportunity and was somewhere I could focus my passions.

It was with this approach that I undertook research on how to attract women into operational roles and to test associated change management effectiveness. The research was undertaken in the construction industry, but with most of my working experience being in mining, it was my aim to establish findings and practical recommendations applicable to both industries.

It was intended that the research also identify barriers to female participation. The recommendations are practical, easy to implement and cost-effective, with the intention to have significant positive strategic impacts.

What became clear during the research was that the organisational framework required to achieve gender diversity was the same framework required for organisational and strategic success. The benefit of gender diversity is not just the diversity of thought women bring to the table, it also includes the culture and governance this requires. In short, diversity key performance indicators (KPIs) are a leading indicator, or ‘health check’, of the nervous system of your business. If a woman can succeed in your business, you are more likely to have a business framework in place where everyone can succeed, which means all ideas can be heard and innovation can flourish.

The primary method of research, auto-ethnography, is where field research journals are kept to not only record but also analyse experiences. This method of research allows the researcher to retrospectively and selectively write about personal experience to understand cultural experience. Auto-ethnography is candid and exposes a researcher’s bias. It will record varying observations including, but not limited to, body language of subjects, personal impressions, research methodology, or the reasons for choosing one research path over another. Auto-ethnography serves as a methodology as well as providing the final research product.

Image: Gingerss/Shutterstock.com.

Summary of selected key findings

The research findings supported taking action, even small steps, rather than trying to perfectly plan and execute a whole-of-organisation solution to diversity. In fact, solving the whole-of-organisation diversity ‘problem’ seemed to cripple parts of the organisation in terms of actual diversity progress.

The intolerance of managers to women in operational roles acts against action to attract women into operational roles. There was evidence that some managers believed greater gender parity achieved by increasing the number of women would destabilise their current male workforce. Some managers did not see a benefit in increasing the percentage of women at the cost of disenfranchising the current workforce (‘the blokes on the crews aren’t going to like it’), and therefore they made minimal effort to increase numbers of women.

This is in contrast to those managers who were willing to make clear their unwavering goal of increasing gender diversity and increased the number of women in their workforce. A number of managers had not made the connection that the resistant employee is most likely to be costing the business in terms of cultural fit. Pre-empting employee behaviours such as ‘they’ll get put out that a woman has taken one of their roles’ or ‘the crews will give women a hard time’ did not sit in alignment with the company pillars, and yet these values appeared to be tolerated by some managers. These managers had not yet identified that a culture that is not right for women is probably not the right culture for the business to achieve its strategic goals.

‘Cascading reporting’ that travels from executive to crew level on gender diversity is required to disrupt the status quo. Cascading reporting helps to change the view of accountability for identifying solutions to the perceived challenges in increasing gender diversity, and therefore attracting women to operational roles.

Vacant operational roles must be communicated through advertisements – communication about the vacancy must reach outside the current male labour pool (and channels) and reach and attract diverse applicants. Continuing to advertise and select employees from the same sources and channels will only ensure the same diversity outcomes. Twice as many females were placed into blue collar roles and 30 per cent more females were placed into white collar roles when these positions were broadly advertised. As anticipated, there was also a substantial difference between women being placed into white collar vacant roles (23 per cent) versus blue collar vacant roles (seven per cent). It appeared advertised roles opened opportunities to the ‘non-traditional’ labour pool and prompted or allowed more enquiries from recruiters to search for women to fill the role. The roles not advertised tended to be filled with individuals already known to the hiring manager and created a ‘closed shop’.

Being specific about what the role requires (and what it doesn’t), from position description through to advertising and screening, is essential. The research demonstrated that women tended to assume applicants needed to fulfil 100 per cent of the selection criteria. If experience is not required – state it! If training is provided – state it!

Finding and using communication mediums that reach all employees within the organisation to outline the gender diversity strategy is required to attract women to operational roles. Workforces cannot achieve their diversity strategy (or any strategy) if they don’t know what the strategy is, and current employees are usually the best advocates. An interesting discovery in my research was that a large part of the workforce below middle management (predominately operational) were unaware of the business’s desire to increase gender diversity. But in case studies where the operational workforce was made aware, they were supportive and willing to participate in attracting women to operational roles.
The use of traditional communication methods appeared to be hindering the understanding of strategic, production and safety initiatives throughout the workforce – thereby limiting the realisation of wider business goals.

Key recommendations to attract women to operational roles

Communication and spreading the message

  • Communication with the workforce about the business imperative and benefits of diversity should be a priority (and senior leaders should regularly voice this).
  • Effective communication mediums need to be identified, mandated, tested and retested for ongoing effectiveness to ensure messages reach all parts of the business.
  • A campaign of videos and pictures should be considered that shares short stories of women learning roles, what they like about their job and its benefits. This campaign could be used in social media to share the material and add comments to stories.
  • Industry organisations should be engaged to support and use diverse marketing material.
  • Unions should be engaged to contribute to changing perceptions by sending a strong message about the ability of women to perform in operational roles.
  • Roles that could accommodate ‘school shifts’ or other flexible arrangements should be identified and advertised as such.
  • Working groups/think tanks should be created to consider how to make operational roles more flexible.
  • A ‘refer a female friend’ incentive program should be implemented.
  • Promotion and communication of diversity incentives, initiatives and messages should reach the operational workforce.


  • Leaders should create accountability mechanisms (such as reviews, KPIs, links to incentive programs) and ask teams what they are doing differently to ensure diversity within their work teams (especially during the talent sourcing process).
  • Responsibilities and accountabilities for diversity activities and KPIs should be assigned, communicated, managed and cascaded throughout the organisational tiers (using identified successful communication mediums and technology).
  • Business leaders should be educated and developed to understand their responsibility for building an inclusive culture that adheres to organisational values, pillars and overall strategic success.
  • Managers should be empowered to accept that workplace conditions and culture is their responsibility to change, and when expectations aren’t met, leaders should be empowered to say ‘that is not the culture we want here’.
  • Processes and policies should be reviewed to ensure they allow for and promote diversity.
  • Processes and systems should be designed and implemented to collect relevant data to measure effectiveness and performance of initiatives and businesses.
  • Labour hire companies should be contractually motivated through performance and service agreements to provide diverse applicants.
  • Stories about women in operational roles and men supporting a diverse work environment should be communicated to management to inform what conditions women are comfortable with rather than making assumptions.

Advertising roles

  • All roles should be advertised (internally and externally) to ensure they are widely communicated, which will allow applicant diversity, and all advertisements and job descriptions should be reviewed for bias (eg ensure the descriptions use gender neutral language).
  • Stage gates should be created to ensure diverse applicants are considered throughout the recruitment process, and to drive personal accountability to attract women to operational roles.
  • ‘Sales pitch’ briefs should be designed for the organisation and for roles targeting women (using language and topics that research has proven to appeal to women) to be used by the company recruitment team as well as labour hire agencies.
  • Role brief templates should be used to ensure that the capability, characteristics and cultural fit criteria are understood and recruited accordingly to mitigate bias.
  • Job advertisements should specifically and prominently state when no previous experience or training is required, and where training will be provided.
  • Contemporary practices for advertising roles should be used (eg not by role titles).
  • The company should work with clients and unions to include flexible conditions within enterprise bargaining agreements to encourage diversity.
  • Key roles should be targeted that are more widely understood and are naturally ‘appealing’ to women to use as feeders into other operational roles that are less understood.


  • Access to training should be provided for applicants that meet cultural and capability role needs but not qualification needs.
  • Metrics and training should be established for the recruitment team and hiring managers to drive the sourcing of women to operational roles.
  • A ‘scholarship’ program should be established for women entering into operational roles (covering trades, tickets and licences).
  • Partnerships should be formed with schools, training providers, job agencies and TAFEs to use as intakes for women into operational roles.
  • Inclusive management and unconscious bias training should be provided.

As McKinsey reported recently, to change the diversity playbook from gender rhetoric to tangible change, uncompromising execution, fresh bold thinking and courageous leadership is required of organisations.

The research on attracting women to operational roles provides both the construction and resources industries practical assistance with tangible change, uncompromising execution, fresh bold thinking and steps to demonstrate courageous leadership. Achieving diversity in our workforce starts with a simple commitment and a simple conscious effort to be aware of our bias when it comes to diversity

The full research paper can be found online at https://www.nawic.com.au/NAWIC/Documents/NAWIC_2017_IWD_Scholarship_Sara_Prendergast.pdf

Feature Image: Mark Agnor/Shutterstock.com.

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