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By Virginia Heffernan

BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, is aiming to have a 50-50 gender split in its workforce by 2025.

The goal is admirable and precedent setting, but is it realistic? Not without a massive shift in workplace culture.

In Canada, women represent just 17 per cent of the mining workforce compared to an average of 48 per cent for all occupations, according to The Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR). That’s a three per cent improvement from a decade ago, but at this rate, it will take another century (!) before women reach parity in mining.

BHP hopes to accelerate the process by questioning unconscious biases, challenging dated stereotypes and introducing more flexibility in the workplace.

"The path to create a more inclusive and diverse workplace will be challenging as significant change often is," CEO Andrew Mackenzie told the company’s 65,000 employees before BHP Billiton’s latest AGM. "It will require us to make inclusion and diversity a greater priority."

That’s an understatement. Part of the problem is that, in many cases (especially in mines and field offices) companies are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to their inclusion of female employees. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, after all, that women were even allowed to work underground in Canada and the 1990s before South Africa debunked the notion of women ferrying bad luck with them down the mine shaft. Bias and superstition linger.

Some would argue that women are simply not interested in the types of jobs the mining industry offers, but MiHR’s research suggests the problem lies more with the sector itself. Compared to other industries, women are underrepresented in occupations that have low female participation, such as STEM-related professions (see graph below), but also in occupational categories that are more traditionally associated with women (e.g. human resources).

An equal gender split is a lofty goal, but MiHR has some ideas about how to get there based on a survey of employees in the Canadian sector documented in a recent report entitled Strengthening Mining’s Talent Alloy: Exploring Gender Inclusion. Of 281 respondents, 59 per cent were male and 41 per cent were female (one identified as "other".).

Among the female respondents, one third said they had experienced harassment, bullying or violence in their workplace (to see a personal story, click here to read my previous column on a female miner in Timmins), compared to just 16 per cent of men. That differential is way too high.

There are three ways companies could improve workplace culture to make it more attractive to women, according to the MiHR:

  • equip managers and employees with the skills required to create inclusive workplaces.
  • design industry-specific strategies to support work-life integration.
  • accelerate the momentum toward greater gender inclusion by changing the industry narrative.

The direction seems vague, but at least the conversation is underway.

Let’s keep a critical but optimistic eye on BHP to see what concrete strategies they put in place to attract the thousands of women they will require to reach the 50 per cent level.

If the mining industry succeeds in creating a welcoming culture where gender is inconsequential, women are much more likely to consider a career in mining.

The industry will be better for it. 


More gems from Virginia:

Virginia Heffernan is a former exploration geologist who met her Welsh husband when they were both working on a gold project in Namibia. They live in Toronto with their teenage son. Virginia mostly stays put these days (she's now a freelance writer and member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada), but Roger continues on his global quest for the next big ore deposit. To check out Virginia's work, visit www.geopen.com.