We invited four of our female colleagues to have a conversation about what it's like to be a woman in mining. We very quickly discovered that they prefer to avoid the term 'women in mining' although they are aware women are in the minority and would like to see that change. Women account for just over one in 10 engineers, according to Engineers Australia 2019 Statistical Report(1).
The report shows the proportion of qualified female engineers in 2018 was 12.4 per cent, down from 13.4 per cent in 2017 and 14.3 per cent in 2013. It is clear the annual proportion of women engineers is variable but is still not trending upwards. Below we discuss why they prefer not to be singled out as women, how upbringing can shape career choices and how the industry could be doing more to encourage women to study STEM.
Contributing to this month's discussion is:
Genevieve New – Senior Associate Engineer (Melbourne) specialising in tailings and water management
Lis Boczek – Principal Engineer (Brisbane) specialising in tailings and mine water storage
Nicola Logan – Principal Hydrologist specialising in mine water management and tropical hydrology
Rachael Carolan – Associate Engineer (Melbourne) specialising in civil and geotechnical engineering
do you feel about the term 'women in mining'?
Lis — I enjoy working in engineering, but I don't feel comfortable with being singled out as a woman in engineering. I don't want to be special or get privileges just because I am a woman. I think the targets to see fifty per cent women in management can be unrealistic when you consider the ratio of women to men graduating within the industry. One could question – am I here because I'm female or am I here because I have the ability and I'm good at what I do?
Nicola — I agree, but then I'm thinking about how there are often real structural issues in place that stop women from getting into management. There can be a lot of hidden obstacles for women advancing their careers. Obviously, I want to be judged purely on my merit, but sometimes we don't see why women aren't getting ahead. It's great that a conversation like this can help to shine a spotlight on those issues.
Rachael — I'm not really a fan of using the term 'women in mining'. I don't see any difference myself, but again I have not had any issues or situations that have stopped me with where I want to go with my career. Maybe it is a personality thing or just a mindset. If you work very hard to get where you want to be, it's not because you're a woman or you're a man – it's because you are driven. If I wanted to be on a board or a manager, I'm sure I could get there if I wanted too, it depends on where I want to go.
Genevieve — I can see both sides. In early 2019 I joined the AusIMM Women in Mining network (WIMnet) Victoria, partly because it was encouraged within our business, but also from a networking perspective. I do question the role that being female does play, and I certainly understand the different perspectives that people have. I am aligned with the thinking that you earn your place in an organisation, and as such, you expect to have the same opportunities as anyone else.
WIMnet is about providing networking opportunities for women and men, showcasing what women do in mining, and providing mentoring opportunities. It is about supporting education in school age children. There are potential biases in what is 'acceptable work' for female children from their parents. We are talking about shifting the perception of women working in mining with parents and their children. It is often the parents who influence the decisions their children make, whether to do certain things or not. My children think it's very normal for me to work in the mining industry and wear a hard hat and an orange shirt, but this is not the case for many children and their parents.
Do you think Universities are to doing enough to encourage women in STEM?
Lis — There is definitely a push in schools for more STEM. It's something that society as a whole is trying to promote, and there are plenty of opportunities to be exposed to STEM these days. I think your life is shaped throughout your schooling years, and there are many great initiatives, but as Genevieve pointed out, it also comes down to families and what they encourage.
Genevieve — AusIMM WIMnet Victoria is collaborating with the CSIRO to run a STEM in schools program. CSIRO has been offering the program for a while, and WIMnet is encouraging industry professionals to participate in STEM presentations for schools. The aim is to increase female participation. We would like parents to come along, to help change perceptions and promote the opportunities that exist for women in science or engineering-based careers. I believe children can have their perceptions somewhat set on what they might do from a young age and that early engagement is important.
What would you say to women and men who want to work in mining?
Nicola — I came to mining from an environmental background. I really love the scale of mining projects and that you can make a positive impact in an operational sense. In previous consulting, I found you could do an amazing study, but it would then be left as a report on a shelf, so I prefer the immediacy of the projects that we work on in mining. I like the idea that you can make changes when you're inside the tent, and it's much easier to do it working alongside the client than being an environmental advocate on the outside of the industry. I think if you care about issues such as the environment, clean water, and clean air, then that's a very attractive thing about our careers.
Rachael — I would say be assertive, communicate clearly and ask for what you want. Don't rely on others to drive the direction of your career, or you could end up being unsatisfied.
Genevieve — There are lots of opportunities for women in mining in multiple engineering and science disciplines. It is a very exciting career with lots of rewards taking projects through from concept to construction.
How did you all get started as engineers?
Lis — When I finished school, I was lucky to obtain a cadetship with the local Council in civil engineering. In that role, I got to experience construction, maintenance, roads, drainage, and a couple of years with the geotechnical engineering group. Out of all those things, geotech was where I had the most fun, and it was a launchpad for what I do now.
Rachael — In school, I enjoyed science and maths and initially started a Medical degree but after two years, I decided that being a doctor wasn’t for me. At the time, I was living with two (female) civil engineering students, and I took an interest in their projects, after some time I decided to make the switch from Medicine to Civil Engineering.
Once I graduated, the next five years were mostly in infrastructure on rail and roads projects before moving to Australia in 2017 to pursue mining. We have limited mining opportunities in the UK, so I thought it would be interesting and I wanted a new challenge. I've had the chance to visit remote places, and I really enjoy being at ATC Williams.
Nicola — Hydrology is actually my second career – my first career was as a chef in Sydney. I wanted to switch careers to something I felt strongly about, and because I care about environmental issues, I chose an environmental science degree. I tried lots of subjects to keep my options open, but when I did a hydrology course, I thought it was amazing, so that is where I specialised.
After Uni, I worked for the Queensland government in their catchment modelling group and then worked in consulting until I found mining and tropical hydrology. After working for a mining company for a couple of years, I joined ATC Williams in April.
Genevieve — I gained an interest in rocks at a young age from one of my mum's friends who is a Geologist, and at the time was working at the Benambra mine (East Gippsland, Vic). Our family used to go camping regularly, and I love the outdoors. I started collecting rocks and eventually decided to study Geology. I completed a Geological Engineering degree at RMIT University based in Melbourne.
My first job was with MPA Williams, which is now ATC Williams. While many of my fellow students went out to mines and undertook underground mapping, with others working on roads and other civil projects, I went straight into looking after tailings and associated water dams. I have stayed in tailings since and have worked for several consulting and mining companies before coming back to ATC Williams in 2015. Over my career, I have gained broad experience which has shaped who I am today.
A special thank you to Genevieve, Lis, Nicola, and Rachael for candidly sharing their stories and experiences with us. Look out for the next Women Choosing Mining topic: Let's talk leadership