June 2016

Gender diversity – great success, but how do we continue on the same trajectory?

  • By Sara Prendergast MAusIMM, Financial Controller – Reporting, Downer

Mentoring, competitive advantage and eliminating unconscious bias are key

While recently hosting an office morning tea in honour of International Women’s Day, I reflected on the gender balance progress in the Australian male-dominated industries in which I have worked over the course of my career. Acknowledgement of this progress is not always given the time or recognition that it deserves, as the tendency can be to focus on existing disparity rather than on the successes or the solutions to take us forward.

It is necessary to provide context to my discussion. I grew up in country Victoria with a very strong and resilient role model in my mother, who was on a number of boards and was involved with many associations. In the 1980s, day care was less of an issue, and there was simply none available after hours. As a result, I was dragged along to meetings and sat at the end of the table to do colouring in or homework or I would simply sit, observe and listen. I have little recollection of many, if any, other females at these meetings. My mother would never contemplate or even accept that she would be treated differently because she was a female – she focused on the task. That is not to say that she did not experience inappropriate comments, even in the presence of her daughter. She just refused to let these incidents take the focus away from the objective of her role. I recall many conversations as a young adult on the matter of equity for women in the workplace being met with the advice ‘you might have to work harder and faster than your male counterparts to get to the same place’. This was presented to me by my mother as the preferable option to forever considering myself as a victim. Some may say that this point of view goes against a female’s right to be treated equally, but even today this notion would be lost on my mother. She would suggest developing skills and attributes that I could acquire to enable me, as a woman, to be competitive in the workplace. We now live in a different world. What was tolerable to my mother is no longer acceptable or even legal in the workplace. Nonetheless, it has left me with a fairly strong and measured resolve on equity issues for women.

It is important to note that I am not an equity or diversity specialist, nor a human resources professional. I am a finance professional who has spent many years in a male-dominated industry, predominately on remote mine sites. I also acknowledge the advancements that have been achieved over the last ten years, which are confirmed by data as well as observations by myself and my peers.

Although female participation in the workforce has grown by 3.16 per cent over the past 20 years (Australian Women in Resources Alliance, 2015), female participation in male-dominated industries, such as construction, has fallen by 0.8 per cent. However, the real gain has been in the attitude towards women and the recognition of the value created by women in industry. It is now commonly recognised that women ‘go easy on the equipment’ and that the presence of women in a crew or crib room has a positive influence on culture and behaviour, which translates to better overall work satisfaction and increased productivity.

In 2013, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia reported:

‘…when women are part of the workforce at mine sites, better care is taken of the equipment; there are improved workplace relations through the moderating impact of soft skills such as negotiation… [and] the overall safety record has…(improved)’ (Minerals Council of Australia, 2013).

The benefits of having women in the workforce and in leadership positions are well reported, ranging from opening up flexible work options to cultural benefits to the statistical correlation between companies that have high percentages of women in executive levels and their bottom line performance.

From early in my career, I have been invited to participate in conversations about women and the work environment in mining. This has ranged from the appropriateness of publications that appear in crib rooms and shops within camps to policy creation. I have personally experienced less than desirable behaviour and assumptions as well as exceptional care and support. A great example of this care and support was the Minara Resources senior management team consistently ringing to check on my welfare during my weekly drive back and forth from home, a journey of over 200 km between Murrin Murrin and Leinster, while I was pregnant with my first child. Other examples include being consulted at Glencore as to the colour of recently refurbished female change rooms to ensure that the female workforce would be ‘comfortable’ and the very progressive attitude of BHP Billiton when I was recruited and employed while pregnant with my second child.

It has predominantly been men in the industry that have taken me under their wing, assisted my development, shared knowledge, involved me and given me opportunities. Although it would have been ideal to have had female role models within the industry, I have never found a shortage of male leaders willing to mentor and sponsor my career. This does not mean that I have not met with adversity as a woman in the mining industry, including inappropriate comments as a junior or the damaging impacts of unconscious bias and discriminatory behaviour as a leader. However, these experiences, both direct and observed within my female peer group, have been far outweighed by very encouraging and supportive male peers.

Attracting and retaining women

Despite the gains made over the past 20 years, which are demonstrated by statistics and support the recognition of the contribution made by women, there has been a 2.7 per cent decline in female participation in the mining industry in the last five years (Australian Women in Resources Alliance, 2015). Is it time for a new approach to attracting women? Has the industry plateaued? Does the industry’s strategy need to change to move to a new level in the acceptance of women? Have women’s expectations changed in the contemporary world and, if so, does the strategy for attracting and retaining women also need to change?

Role models

The need for female role models is regularly cited as an issue. However, as the participation of women in senior roles is very low, particularly in mining, this becomes a catch-22. Does this role model conundrum need creative thinking to be resolved?

The instigation of unique and focused mentoring programs where female mentees are paired with appropriate senior male mentors requires consideration. Such programs could incorporate tools and training to overcome gender issues that may prevent the mentoring process from achieving the best professional outcomes for the participants. These programs could also include extensive awareness and unconscious bias training to equip mentors with improved understanding of the gender dynamics that may impact on the female mentees. Additionally, a referral process could provide female mentees with the opportunity to receive professional mentoring from a senior male mentor, but when workplace gender challenges arise, a referral could be made to a suitable senior female. Partnering with other industries is an option to open up a pool of senior female mentors.

More prominent and open promotion of mentoring programs during performance discussions with female employees in organisations where mentoring programs already exist would give a greater level of confidence in engagement.

Strategy – competitive advantage

Gender and cultural diversity in the workplace are often not considered to be strategic issues. Attracting and retaining talented individuals is the lifeblood of a business, yet we still approach this from a very traditional paradigm. Attracting the best talent means designing strategy and policy to create work environments that appeal to the best candidates, regardless of whether they are female or male. Attracting and retaining the best human capital over competitors requires a presence of strategy and policy and a competitive advantage embedded into the strategy and the resulting policy, including the embodiment of performance indicators to measure outcomes and determine success.

One of the pillars of strategy is to form a competitive advantage over market rivals. In the workplace, this would manifest itself by offering employees greater value through higher total remuneration packages or providing greater benefits in workplace culture and physical environment that justify potentially lower remuneration. In recent years, companies such as MMG, Rio Tinto and St Barbara’s have demonstrated a real and meaningful understanding of this principle, which is evident in their social and traditional media campaigns; policies and industry awards around recruitment, learning and development; employee success; and gender parity strategy and outcomes.

Competitive advantage through policy can be used to attract and retain talent. However, it requires leaders to fully embrace the policy by demonstrating real and tangible support. An example currently seen in many organisations is the adoption of flexible work arrangements, such as BP’s ‘every role is flexible unless proven it cannot be’. Often, employees do not feel comfortable utilising flexible work conditions because managers adhere to the traditional notion of contact hours spent in the office, based on the premise ‘you need to be seen to confirm output’, rather than an outcome-based approach. Therefore, an unconscious bias favours those who continue in the ‘9 to 5’ culture, making others reluctant to take advantage of flexible working arrangements. Leaders overlook the need to demonstrate their active support for these types of benefits by utilising flexible arrangements themselves or suggesting it as an option to their teams. Flexibility for both parents is fundamental in enabling women to engage in the workforce.

Other examples of competitive advantage include the benefits that residential mining towns can offer to certain demographics. Young families and other household structures may find a residential town to be significantly preferable than a ‘fly-in, fly-out’ site, except for the lack of family-focused services within the town. As residential offerings are rarely identified as a competitive advantage, they are not considered when mining companies assess community and sustainability donation strategy or included in marketing strategies to attract and retain high-value staff. While companies do ‘invest’ in the towns, has this spending been approached from a strategic standpoint? Family-friendly environments support women to engage in careers in the mining industry.

Strategies to attract the best talent need to focus on overcoming barriers that companies and their own staff put in the way. It is essential to address external and internal issues affecting women’s ability to succeed. The establishment of infrastructure and the tangible demonstration of company values will provide women with the opportunity to advance their careers into leadership roles.

Mandates and quotas alone will not retain women, meaning that the difference in value that they can create for an organisation will be lost. The overarching strategy should focus on finding the best person for the job, regardless of whether they are female or male. If this does not occur, the impact of unconscious bias and discrimination may change, but not for the better, and a company’s success will be impacted if it is not solely focused on hiring the best people. Infrastructure and benefits are key to attracting women and retaining them, not quotas alone. Quotas are a mechanism to measure the success of a strategy, but are not a strategy in their own right. By themselves, quotas do not challenge a company’s thinking or provoke real embedded change as they can undermine the contribution of women and result in an increase in unconscious bias.

Equal employment opportunity training – has it evolved with society or is it time we changed the focus?

Maybe it is easier to focus equal employment opportunity (EEO) training on abolishing sexual innuendo and intimidation as it is now understood that there is no room for such inappropriate and demeaning behaviour in the workplace. However, EEO training does need to evolve and expand beyond traditional content to include unconscious bias, leading and developing women and raising awareness of benefits and talents that both genders bring to the workplace. McKinsey & Company recently stated, ‘Middle management is key – where women get stuck. Unlocking the full potential of women at work is key’ (Barsh and Yee, 2012). The focus of EEO needs to move beyond obvious and intimidating sexual harassment to the structural and organisational discrimination that takes place in the form of unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is a passive form of discrimination that is more likely to be an issue for women in administrative and leadership roles. In the mining industry, examples of unconscious bias include:

  • men in leadership positions preferring to network with fellow male colleagues
  • rewarding teams with masculine gifts and gestures
  • socialising in after-work activities that are perceived as ‘men’s activities’
  • widely addressed emails referring to ‘Gents…’
  • the upgrading of male amenities because the males in management are making the decisions on what they see, while female amenities remain inadequate because women don’t have adequate representation at the decision-making level.

While none of these things are necessarily done with bad intent, they give out a signal as to what it takes to be successful. It is not about advocating that these activities should stop or change, but about being conscious of the impacts and imbalance that this behaviour creates and taking it into consideration when making decisions.

Unconscious bias has built a glass ceiling that has a tint to it. A lot of women feel like they are meeting opposition, but it is difficult to articulate or identify. While the effects can be vaguely seen, raising the issue often causes women to feel inadequate or afraid that they will be judged as not resilient enough for leadership. We have all read the data and heard discussions about how women are less inclined than their male counterparts to volunteer ideas and thoughts unless asked to do so, with the theory informing this behaviour coming from girls being groomed from a young age not to call out or be bold or boisterous. These traits are not only tolerated but are encouraged behaviours for young boys. Therefore, they are groomed from a young age to speak their minds in a workplace setting. Have we challenged our unconscious bias on our perception of such behaviour when we see it manifest before our eyes? Are we accepting the norm rather than challenging women’s behaviour? Are we telling women that how society has groomed them may not be ideal? It is not wrong, it is just different. This reticence can be managed by asking women to contribute their opinions during a meeting and ensuring that their opinions are freely heard without interruption.

I am not an advocate for women and men having to change their typical masculine and feminine traits. But we should have an awareness and tolerance of the difference between women and men and nurture it. I bring diversity to my team and the board room with my typical feminine views and genetic traits of wanting to nurture (developing the workforce) and engage with colleagues (motivating the workforce to perform). This does not diminish my ability to contribute to the strategy of the business or to the success of an organisation; it is just different from the way that a man may go about the task.

The traits of women and men have been evolving for thousands of years and have ensured the success and continual evolution of the human race. We cannot now tell women that those traits need to be adjusted abruptly to ensure their success in the modern-day workplace.

Raising awareness of unconscious bias is the next step in continuing the evolution of the industry towards attracting and retaining women. As a matter of survival, humans tend to like people that are like themselves, look like them and come from similar backgrounds. While this bias has evolutionary benefits for survival, it comes with significant costs in business and management. We have all seen a manager hiring people with similar personalities and skillsets to themselves because that is what feels familiar and comfortable to them. Moving beyond the safety net and the familiar towards building teams where individuals’ strengths complement other team members’ weaknesses results in an optimal team. Because women and men naturally have different evolutionary traits, gender diversity will create a stronger team.

Providing training on unconscious bias with mechanisms for self-evaluation and the provision of tools to identify unconscious bias in the recruitment, managing and developing of staff will take our workforces to the next level of gender diversity. This type of training in the mining industry would further unlock the value that women bring to the bottom line.

In summary

We should stop thinking about establishing and measuring female participation in the workforce, particularly in leadership, in isolation of the strategy. It is merely a quantitative measurement for a qualitative issue. I am not saying that key performance indicators do not hold value, but they need to be incorporated with strategy that addresses today’s gender-diversity issues with contemporary creative solutions. This will establish positive change for gender equality in the workplace.

Reporting the percentages of women engaged in leadership positions demonstrates the success of programs integrating women into the industry. However, minimum quotas of women in leadership and executive positions demean the contribution that women make. The economy, the industry and women need companies to focus on hiring the best person for the job. Modernising our approach to gender equality will ensure that women present themselves for opportunities and organisations identify women as the ‘best’ candidate when appropriate. This will lead us to the continued success we have seen over the last ten years for gender equality in the workplace.   


Australian Women in Resources Alliance, 2015. AWRA statistical collection [online]. Available from www.awra.org.au/programs/awra-statistical-collection> [Accessed: 4 April 2016].

Barsh J and Yee L, 2012. ‘Unlocking the full potential of women at work’ [online] Available from www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/unlocking-the-full-potential-of-women-at-work [Accessed 04 April 16]

Minerals Council of Australia, 2013. MCA Workforce gender diversity review, white paper [online]. Available from: <www.minerals.org.au/file_upload/files/resources/education_training/Gender_Diversity_Review_White_Paper(2).PDF> [Accessed: 4 April 2016].

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