In this special series of articles, we asked some of our AusIMM professional societies and networks for their industry insights.
The following is a collection of thoughts from our professionals on how practices have developed over the past 125 years.
Cast your mind back to the year 2000. It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?
In Australia, John Howard was Prime Minister, everyone was feeling relieved that the world had survived the non-existent Y2K bug, and probably a few less people were looking forward to the introduction of the GST. There were plenty of notable
events that year: a quarter of a million people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Sydney Olympics were proclaimed to have been ‘the best ever’ and Anthony Mundine retired from rugby to take
up a boxing career.
In 2000, the mining world was experiencing some ups with the establishment of projects such as the Beverley uranium mine and the Century zinc mine; however, there were also indications of a downturn. It was around this time that a submission by the AusIMM to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations talked of falling employment, especially due to lower levels of exploration and rationalisation of degree-qualified roles. With 7887 professional members, the AusIMM was keen to increase employment options for skilled mining workers. Part of this was advocating for greater flexible work to allow for more part-time roles, a situation that no doubt contributed to the fledgling AusIMM Women in Mining Network (WIMnet) being able to develop its voice in an industry that had failed to encourage female participation for many years.
With women making up only three per cent of AusIMM members at this time, WIMnet was a small voice. This was no doubt a reflection of statistics such as there having been only fifteen female Australian mining engineering graduates prior to 1987 and the AusIMM electing their first female member, successful geologist Florence Armstrong, 67 years after the Institute was established and 33 years into Florence’s own career. Although only a small number of members of the AusIMM were women, the Australian mining industry was already made up of 14 per cent women – so there was certainly a case for improvement.
The turn of the century provided some conditions that, looking back now, were conducive to a greater level of support for professional women in the industry. Health and safety became a major focus with the Minerals Council of Australia naming it top priority. The term ‘licence to operate’ was beginning to be used extensively with large numbers of environment, community and public relations staff hired to manage company relationships with external stakeholders. A spotlight on mining holding the top spot in terms of longest average working hours also resulted in companies beginning to look for ways to bring some balance to their workforce. With the downturn across the industry and a focus on productivity and cost improvements, women were also starting to be seen as a valuable workforce addition; in the Kalgoorlie Super Pit, the number of female dump
truck drivers reached 40 per cent.
At the beginning of the 21st century there were a number of influential women in the industry. Maureen Muggeridge, the geologist who led the team that discovered Argyle deposit in 1979, started Paramount Mining Company a few short years after 2000. Erica Smyth was in her prime after a very successful career working with companies including BHP, Woodside and Toro. Former CSIRO head, Megan Clark, was very much in the thick of things, as were women such as Sandra Bailey, Principal Mining Engineer at CSA; Fran Burgess, the first female metallurgical graduate and first female general manager of an underground metalliferous mine; Tina Markovic, Queensland’s first female mine manager; Sabina Shugg, WA’s first female underground manager; the first female mine inspectors Julie Dryden (Qld) and Alex Atkins (WA); as well as well-known industry contributor Kate Sommerville.
As the AusIMM entered the 21st century, WIMnet continued to grow and provide a support network for women, one that offered professional development; conducted research into reducing the gender pay gap; and advocated for family-friendly policies such as maternity leave, childcare, part-time work and flexible rosters. WIMnet also provided a much-needed forum for female ‘success stories’ who had often been ignored over the years; such recognition further helped to legitimise the idea of women in mining. For most in the industry at this time, diversity was only considered a way of securing a licence to operate and to achieve better employment outcomes for families and indigenous groups but had a limited focus on gender equality in the workplace. As an indicator, with hundreds of industry awards having been given already, in the early 2000s we were still some time away from a dedicated women in mining and resources award, a concept that has since become widespread in the broader industry.
Fast forward to now. Over the last twelve months, the trends in the mining industry have included a drive to improve the health, well-being and inclusiveness of its workforce; a focus on IT systems and cyber security; and discussions surrounding productivity and trying to envisage what the workforce of the future will look like. We saw the first majority-female mining operation executive team established at BHP’s Olympic Dam, a majority-female mining board and a female CEO hired to lead Fortescue Metals Group, as well as announcements made by key industry players that they were aiming to achieve a gender balanced workforce within the foreseeable future. Women such as Jacqui McGill, Vanessa Guthrie, Gina Rhinehart, Stefanie Loader, Julie Shuttleworth, Anna Wiley and Elizabeth Gaines are becoming household names… and the industry is much less surprised by it, even if there is a long way to go yet.
The number of people employed in the mining industry has almost doubled since 2000, a trend also reflected in the AusIMM membership level of approximately 13 000 professionals. Of that, around 1800 or 14 per cent are women, a far cry from that woeful three per cent of only 18 years earlier but still below the industry average of 16 per cent.
Just think what has been in the news over the last year: Susan Kiefel sworn in as 13th Chief Justice of Australia, the census showing 30 per cent of Australians associate with no religion and 26 per cent were born overseas, Australians being free to marry who they wish, the AFLW continuing to draw record crowds, and the Australian women’s rugby sevens team winning yet another title with strong support from crowds and sponsors alike.
The AusIMM Women in Mining Network itself is on a journey of transformation. WIMnet is one of the largest and most active communities within the AusIMM and has groups all around the country. WIMnet runs highly successful mentoring programs, professional development and networking events; supports conferences; influences and supports change among senior leaders; provides guidance to thousands of women and men experiencing difficulties in the workplace; and has built a strong network with many organisations who are dedicated to diversity working across all sectors.
Involved in the exciting and much broader AusIMM transformation, WIMnet is currently in the process of implementing changes to enable much greater progress in workforce diversity and inclusion. This is essential to build on the foundation that has been laid over the last two decades and effectively work with the changing agenda around gender equality.
Things are changing. Diversity is beginning to be considered a must-do by most companies, although many still don’t know how they can improve it to the level they need to. Women and diverse minorities are seeing themselves represented at the top of major companies. Individuals are much more willing to speak up about inappropriate behaviour through campaigns like #metoo, and there is generally greater support for those who wish to succeed, no matter their gender or background.
Although this is the case, the mining industry and the AusIMM is still a long way from where it needs to be. Think about where we should be when we celebrate the AusIMM’s 150th birthday. The mining workforce of the future will have a much higher percentage of women to take advantage of the human capital that’s out there. AusIMM event attendees will be reflective of the broader population with a wide variety of individuals present. WIMnet and other communities set up to support diversity will no longer be needed – relevant support will be easily accessible elsewhere via branches. And the words ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ will no longer fill significant airtime, as diversity and equality will be normal, not the exception.