WiMSA shines a light on the future of women in mining

SPONSORED

As Women in Mining South Africa (WiMSA) marks a decade in existence, the organisation continues to grow its role as a free platform providing support and guidance to women in the industry — all through sponsorship and time volunteered by industry professionals with skills and experience to share. 

WiMSA chairperson Thabile Makgala. (Photo: Impala Platinum)

WiMSA chairperson Thabile Makgala joined WiMSA as a volunteer before being appointed to her role leading the organisation over the last year and a half. “I wanted to join a network of women in the mining industry, who support, inspire and mentor other women,” she says. Her view of the organisation’s value was shaped in those early days: “WiMSA creates a space for women’s voices to be heard and that was important for me.” 

WiMSA’s emphasis on mentorship and support for women in the industry has extended to creating opportunities for women to meet industry colleagues, providing a presence at educational institutions to further public knowledge about careers for women in mining, and ensuring that legislation provides a clear framework for the creation of workplaces in which female mining professionals can thrive. 

Dr Thuthula Balfour, Head of Health at the Minerals Council South Africa, heads up the WiM task team to oversee the implementation, oversight and evaluation of the White Paper on Women in Mining published earlier this year. Balfour notes that the lack of female representation is a global business problem across industries, but also that it is of particular concern in the South African mining industry, which lags behind other sectors in the country and other mining jurisdictions, which makes WiMSA’s role essential. 

“Mining companies have both a business and moral imperative of enhancing the representation of women across all levels,” says Balfour, “and are trying to increase the female representation in the workplace through various initiatives. While there has been much improvement in business in general, the mining industry still struggles to attract and retain women at all levels of employment. It is also the case that, once employed, on-the-job challenges at mining operations lead to women leaving mining roles.” 

With this observation, it becomes clear that transforming the mining industry is not only about attracting women to its exciting possibilities, but also achieving retention through genuine support for professional women — which, one might hope, will eventually lead back to an all-round more attractive reputation for the industry as a field in which women can thrive. To achieve this holistic change, attitudes need to be shifted, but there need to be structural and administrative changes, too. 

WiMSA’s diverse team has made great strides in advancing women’s personal growth, leadership and career development in the past decade, and has even been able to continue with the implementation of new projects in the face of Covid-19 and all of its attendant challenges. 

Taking a moment for reflection and to look to the future, Makgala imagines a world in which many of WiMSA’s goals have been reached. “I sincerely hope that 10 years from now the fundamental elements such as empowering, caring, showing respect, connecting and growing our female talent would have been achieved,” she says. While the need for WiMSA will persist, if its current efforts are effective, its role in the next decade will change: “I hope that the conversations about women, parity, diversity, inclusion would have advanced and that the industry would have made concerted efforts to transform without the need to impose legislative requirements. Change would be happening organically within the industry.” — Cayleigh Bright

The rule book must be rewritten

Rules and legislation can’t be understood entirely as cold, hard facts: in any industry, regulations affect the daily lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours occupied with that field’s pursuits. The mining industry has a particular history of gender-based exclusions enforced by the law: women have only been legally allowed to work underground in South African mines since 1996. Redressing this kind of institutional exclusion requires a multi-layered approach of the kind that WiMSA is in the process of taking: understanding workers’ needs on a human level, then enshrining their rights in legislation that, when effectively implemented, will enable them to thrive. 

Coach and consultant Briony Liber is the mentoring lead on the WiMSA committee, and since beginning her work with the organisation in 2017 has gained extensive insights into the ways in which the mining industry can be transformed at a structural and individual level. “Legislation and policy set the framework, but when we apply that mechanistically we approach it from a ticking boxes compliance perspective,” says Liber. The implementation and measurement of industry standards have a complex role to play in helping us to understand what makes a thriving, equal industry. 

Liber explains: “Structurally, we can set the legislation and guidelines and metrics by which we measure success. But we so often set metrics that are about how many women are in the industry, how many women are at board level, but we lose the granularity and the quality of those numbers by not looking at metrics that assess risk and opportunity.” 

Dr Thuthula Balfour, Head of Health at Minerals Council South Africa

In order to ensure that this deeper level of insight is achieved, says Liber, it’s necessary to ask questions that explore various areas and aspects of the workplace. For example, “Are there areas in organisations where women are at risk? Or is the organisation at risk by having an imbalance in female representation and institutionalising another one-dimensional perspective? Are there areas in organisations where there are opportunities that can be leveraged if there were more women in those areas of the organisation?” 

Key metrics, then, should measure both risks posed to women and opportunities available to them. In addition, the numbers gathered should be examined carefully to avoid the easy conflations and misinterpretations that can cloud our understanding of just how transformed the industry is: “Are our metrics tracking the progression of women and representation across the organisation rather than in the typical areas of human resources, for instance? When we only look at gender representation we obscure the dynamics of where women are in the mining industry — or any organization for that matter — and we reinforce structural issues.”

Much of the work of assessing intricate workplace issues has been done in the White Paper on Women in Mining. Dr Thuthula Balfour, Head of Health at Minerals Council South Africa, heads up the Women in Mining task team comprising member companies’ representatives to oversee the implementation, oversight and evaluation of the White Paper on Women in Mining. In this capacity, she’s been able to ensure that the paper’s clear, comprehensive recommendations are used to their best potential. 

“The White Paper on Women in Mining is focused on streamlining industry strategies to advance women in mining and make the workplace conducive to women’s success. It aims to do this by encouraging female representation in the industry and to drive decisions that are in the best interest of women,” says Balfour. 

This objective, and the more granular goals defined in the white paper, are to be reached through the implementation of a number of initiatives also outlined in the paper. Among them are diversity and inclusion programmes that include men, the development of industry guidelines for women in mining, the inclusion of women in mining KPIs in senior management performance plans, the review and adaptation of workplaces to ensure that the needs of women are met and the review of physical work capacity requirements in line with the capabilities of women and collaborations with relevant partners that advance the cause of women in mining. The interventions and recommendations also include the individual growth and support structures urgently needed in a rapidly transforming industry: job shadowing, training, recruitment, retention, talent pools and succession planning.

Liber points out that it’s necessary to understand the personal, or lifestyle, aspects of an employee’s success, and that addressing these needs for the individual can eventually enable a societal shift. “The lifestyle issues around flexibility, maternity leave, childcare etcetera, are crucial for both women and men to share the role of caregiving,” she says. “If organisations afforded men the same amount of paternity leave that women have, perhaps the pressure on women to be the caregiver may be alleviated, and the opportunity may be afforded to men to take on a more equitable role in the home, thereby enabling women to take on more equitable roles in the workplace.” — Cayleigh Bright

The future of mining is female

Mining is one of South Africa’s most important industries and it only looks to become more so in the years just ahead. Future-looking technology depends on it: five of the 16 materials used to make such solar panels are mined in South Africa, as are metals and minerals such as cerium, lanthanum, and neodymium, which are used in the creation of batteries and fuel cells. These are just some of the materials within the immediate purview of the rapidly expanding technology industry. 

As the importance of mining is further entrenched, more sustainable technologies and practices are implemented, and the very structure of the industry is likely to be irrevocably altered, with the archaic need for manpower soon to be overshadowed by the spectres of automation and robotics. Much has been made of the employment crisis these technologies will create, but there’s another way to look at this shift; a silver lining of sorts. As mining becomes less reliant on physical labour and more on intellectual rigours, gender is likely to become less of a relevant factor in the makeup of its workforce. 

As the process of mining becomes increasingly automated, different skill sets will be needed to contribute. As the industry adopts technologies such as drones and data science, it will become far more appealing to ICT and STEM graduates.

Despite the fact that the majority of university graduates are women, comparatively few enter into technical careers such as those in mining, with many citing the toxic corporate culture as an aspect of what’s off-putting about entering the industry. This is only exacerbated by what the Harvard Business Review calls “The Athena Factor”: a phenomenon that causes women’s careers to stall around the point where men’s careers accelerate, usually at the early management level. 

Without a mentor or a clear path forward, this is a disheartening prospect for many professional women and when combined with a corporate culture that makes it easier for men to “misbehave”, to put it euphemistically, it leads to 41% of women leaving roles in technical careers because of a hostile work environment. If gender parity is to be achieved, this must be addressed on a fundamental level. 

Raksha Naidoo, Managing Director at African Mineral Standards, is hopeful. “I think that the change is coming,” she tells us. “It’s probably coming at a rate that’s a lot slower than most of us would like, but it’s moving in the right direction. I think, for me, a lot of people are saying the right things, and whether it translates into reality, time will tell.” 

Mentorship programme

Naidoo’s advocacy for women in the workplace has led to her involvement with Women in Mining South Africa (WiMSA), which in turn has resulted in AMIS recently becoming the first platinum sponsor of WiMSA’s mentorship programme. Women in leadership positions, including Naidoo and the mentors at WiMSA, are incredibly important inside of the industry, as they are able to lay the foundation for future generations to flourish, and Naidoo feels positive about the potential of the entrepreneurship programme to harness technology’s potential to reach women working in remote regions, who may not previously have had access to mentorship and connections that a more central location might offer. Today, role models and providers of good advice are no more than a video call away. 

WiMSA champions the development of women in the mining industry, serving as a platform and network that has allowed women within the industry to find and support one another. Thanks to organisations like these, women are able to find mentors within the industry and can collectively push the envelope in terms of their representation and treatment within the industry. Their accessible digital presence also allows young women interested in the industry to easily gain insight into the obstacles they will face as well as the support that is available to them. 

Bonds between women

“I initially joined WiMSA for the networking events,” says Petro du Pisani, Head of Business Improvement Projects at Anglo American and now Deputy Chair of WiMSA. “After I’d attended a couple of events I noticed how great bonds were being made between the women. It was a safe place to meet, share stories and support each other’s businesses. I wanted to be a part of creating this environment for women to collaborate. 

“I think WiMSA’s work is incredibly important because it creates awareness about the issues we face as women in the industry and it provides a platform to meet women from all over the industry.” When asked about how the fourth industrial revolution might impact gender parity in the industry, it became clear Du Pisani finds the future an exciting prospect. “Technology is probably the most exciting prospect for shifting gender dynamics in the mining industry,” she says. “Technology like the exoskeletons used by Ford means that everyone can operate heavy equipment. As we move to increased automation, more job opportunities should open up for women. Anyone can operate an automated drill rig, truck, shovel or drone.” 

She has a word of caution, too: “We need to find ways to balance the disruptions that will be caused by 4IR with the need for jobs and human dignity — being able to protect livelihoods. Jobs will change, and there needs to be a collaborative effort to ensure that we are providing education and skills-transition programmes that will enable people to earn a living in the 4IR.” 

No matter how much the industry changes in the years ahead, it’s clear the mining world is beginning to grasp that it needs to become appealing to everyone, regardless of gender, in order to remain relevant in increasingly technologically-driven times. With a combination of tech-powered intervention and the very human qualities of communication and collaboration, a more equal future may well be in sight. — James Nash

Correcting the gender imbalance

Due to legislation such as the Mining Charter, many industries are shifting to more gender inclusivity. (Photo: Anglo American)

Men remain the gatekeepers of many industries, and mining is one of them. Undoubtedly, there are powerful women in mining but across the broader picture, it remains a male-dominated industry. Organisations such as Women in Mining South Africa (WiMSA) offer representation, networking and support but are unable to manifest real and meaningful change without the support of men in positions of power throughout the industry. In order for gender parity to be achieved, everyone has to be on board.

“Reducing gender inequality is not only in the best interest of women, but it has been proven that societies and workplaces that are more inclusive are also more productive and competitive,” says Dr Thuthula Balfour, who in addition to her role as Head of Health at the Minerals Council South Africa, heads up Women in Mining task team comprising member companies’ representatives to oversee the implementation, oversight and evaluation of the White Paper on Women in Mining. “In an equal environment, free of discrimination, everyone wins.” 

One of the steps outlined in the Minerals Council White Paper on Women in Mining includes diversity and inclusion programmes that include men. “Women must be empowered to understand and exercise their right to work in an environment that is free of discrimination and abuse,” says Balfour, “while men should be educated on acceptable behaviour and to be aware of consequences for failures in this regard. They also need to know not to remain silent should they witness a violation. Men have a very important role to play in ensuring that all workplaces are equitable environments where people of both genders can flourish and reach their full potential. Men need to make a conscious effort to let go of subconscious biases and should instead view women as allies and equals in the workplace. By learning and understanding the issues surrounding gender equality, men can actively make a difference and support women.” 

Deshnee Naidoo is a Mining Industry Advisor driving the Women in Mining project at the Minerals Council of South Africa and her unique career path has allowed her to glean many keen insights.  “I started my career in Anglo American Platinum as a Learner Official Metallurgist in 1998,” she tells us. “I had an Anglo American bursary to study Chemical Engineering, which was my introduction to the industry, and I stayed in the industry because it became my passion and purpose.” 

Deshnee Naidoo is a Mining Industry Advisor driving the Women in Mining project at the Minerals Council of South Africa

Over the course of her career, Naidoo held positions such as CFO for Anglo American Thermal Coal in 2011 and in 2014 she joined Vedanta Resources, where she was appointed CEO of Vedanta Zinc International and Copper Mines Tasmania. Her time spent interacting at the highest levels of the industry has made it evident what must change. 

“Gender discrimination is everyone’s problem,” she says. “The industry needs an integrated, multiple stakeholder approach including men and women across leadership, management, labour, government and communities to be successful. Predominantly, men are in decision-making roles today and if they are not taken along in the understanding of bias, constraints and injustices inhibiting the representation and advancement of women in the industry, the industry will not make the required progress.” 

The gender imbalance is only made worse by misconceptions that plague women in the industry: that they cannot occupy a technical role, that they can’t maintain a career and a family, or that they’re simply not suited to an industry as traditionally masculine as mining. These false notions can make the workplace unbearable for women and seep further into the collective consciousness so that women are far less likely to pursue a career in a technical industry. A study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that at 15 years old, on average, only 0.5% of girls wished to become ICT professionals, compared to 5% of boys.

Although the study refers to ICT, there are clear parallels between that industry and mining and as the tech industry continues to expand and disrupt other markets, there’s little doubt that ICT professionals will become some of the most valued members of mining companies. What’s clear is that the mining industry must undergo some kind of metamorphosis; instead of fighting the inevitable change it must embrace it and become stronger. This acceptance of change must extend to the outdated notion of mining as a man’s industry and those in decision-making roles should be active in their attempt to reform and refurbish the industry. 

Petro du Pisani, Head of Business Improvement Projects at Anglo American, and the incoming Chairperson of Women in Mining South Africa, says: “The landscape is shifting. We already have some inspiring role models in the South African mining industry where women are on boards and leading mining companies. There is definitive research that shows that increased diversity leads to improved financial results. Through legislation (such as the Mining Charter) and common sense, many industries are shifting to more inclusivity, and mining is no different.” 

Progress can be slow and hard to quantify. “We are not there yet,” Du Pisani says. “According to the latest Minerals Council white paper, women make up only 12% of the workforce in the South African mining industry, so industry programmes like HeForShe are still important to create awareness.” HeForShe, a global solidarity movement initiated by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, has gained commitment from some of the most prominent forces in mining. 

De Beers, a leader in the sector, partnered with UN Women to become a HeForShe Thematic Champion and pledged $3-million in programmes to support women in southern Africa and Canada. They promise to be a positive force in their marketing, and aim to more than double the rate of women appointed into senior leadership roles, while striving to attract young women who might be interested in the industry towards careers with them. With more women in leadership positions, female role models for young professionals in mining will be more plentiful, and the impact of this positive cycle cannot be understated. 

Constructive measures have been put in place by many of the Mineral Council’s member companies, says Balfour. They’ve put measures in place to support women in the workplace by developing policies, instituting hotlines for reporting of abuse and systematically improving the working environment to promote safety for women. “In March this year, the Minerals Council launched the Stop Abuse campaign, modelled on our approach to the Khumbul’Ekhaya safety campaign.” Balfour says, “This was designed to complement our members’ work and to provide new capacity and impetus throughout the industry regarding the critical issue of sexism, sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.”

As part of this initiative, Balfour explains, the Minerals Council called for member companies to commit to making their workplace safer for women — free from violence, intimidation and harassment — and to involve women in the development of policies to make them feel safe, to train men and women alike to understand what behaviour is not acceptable, to make it clear to men they will be called out on poor behaviour and face penalties including suspension, job loss or criminal prosecution, and to provide a trustworthy mechanism for reporting incidents and supporting the reporters. Many of the commitments are integral in their practicality: companies must include issues of violence and other harassment against women into company risk management, adapt infrastructure and how work is carried out to make the environment safer for women, and report honestly on the state of women’s safety, just as they do on safety and health.

The steps to transforming mining into a gender-balanced industry are clear, but the way is still barred. As Naidoo succinctly puts it: “We need men to be allies.” — James Nash

For future reference

African Mineral Standards (AMIS) holds itself to a high standard when it comes to making gender equality a norm in mining’s next tech-enabled chapter, and it aims to enable others in the minerals industry to do the same.

For nearly 16 years, AMIS has been offering a vital — and specialised — global service in the mining and minerals industry. The only of its kind on the continent, and one of just five global competitors, AMIS develops, produces and supplies certified reference material for mining and commercial laboratories to use for quality control, in an industry where quality is of the highest importance. Each product package, known as a certified reference material (CRM), features a different ore, made by milling down rocks taken from mines into a fine powder. It’s then homogenised and packaged, ready to be sent to laboratories all over the world. In simplest terms, CRM is the ruler with which laboratories are able to measure performance and check results in an auditable way, as the reference material is certified.

AMIS also aims to be at the forefront of change in an industry that has not only been male-dominated, but also historically slow to enact transformation. Gender disparity in the industry is a legacy issue stemming from superstitions — such as how it was considered bad luck to have a woman in a mine — continuing to unfounded stereotypes, and even making its way into the law: The South African Minerals Act of 1991 prohibited women from working underground. 

While black-owned mining businesses are becoming the norm, the under-representation of women in mining only recently became a talking point, as more women complete STEM qualifications, and through the concerted efforts of organisations such as Women in Mining South Africa (WiMSA), which offers personal, leadership and career development for women in the mining and minerals sector through events, networking, mentorship, workshops and more. WIth increasing numbers of women obtaining degrees in STEM subjects but the rate of attrition increasing as one examines positions higher up on the career ladder in STEM-related industries, it’s clear that comprehensive support for young female professionals could go a long way to close persistent, gendered gaps in income and status. 

Managing Director of AMIS, Raksha Naidoo, had been following the work of WiMSA with keen interest before attending a few of their events. “I liked the fact that they were a voice, and they were a voice for a lot of people,” she explains, pointing out the inherent need for an organisation to amplify the concerns of the minority. Empowering women has been a strong motivator for her, both personally and professionally: she founded the non-profit organisation The Girlfriends Group, which helps to educate, develop and protect young women. Helping others has been one of Naidoo’s great passions, and she hopes it can be passed on. “I don’t want to be a voice for others,” she says, “but rather to teach, support and encourage women to find their own voices.”

Raksha Naidoo, Managing Director of AMIS

Naidoo personally knows the importance of mentorship, and thus the value that a project like the WiMSA Mentorship Programme will have in cultivating opportunities and developing promising young women in the mining sector. “I was very fortunate in that in previous roles I had a mentor who helped me steer myself in a direction, and see potential in me that I didn’t necessarily see myself,” says Naidoo. Through this positive experience, Naidoo realised how effective a mentor was in helping her, and formed the seed of a desire to help and develop others in a similar position. “I think that that experience has without a doubt shown the importance of doing that for other people, and I’d very much like to see myself do that and help develop other people,” she says, explaining how her own career development has informed her leadership philosophies at AMIS. 

“So I’m very pro-development, pro-opportunity. I’d like to say that I give people a bit of a safe space to try and fail, and if they fail, it’s about ‘how do we learn from the failure?’ as opposed to a destructive failure.” Historically, she believes, women have been somewhat less likely to have that safe space to build confidence through trying, failing and developing professionally, especially in male-dominated spaces — and it’s a valuable place for any young professional to develop their skill set and learn about their own abilities and aptitudes. Without this opportunity to fail, Naidoo and many other business leaders have noted, we’re often unable to build confidence, or to take the necessary next steps forward in a task, project or career.

True to her words about learning from mistakes, Naidoo has also gleaned valuable lessons from less positive experiences with mentorship: after seeking mentorship from an industry role model, she came to understand that not all mentorship relationships will work out, and that they require reciprocal effort. She notes that a great mentorship relationship requires mutual participation from both parties. An ideal mentor is trustful, ready to listen and willing to give to the relationship without expecting anything in return beyond the satisfaction of helping the right person. 

One snippet of advice to young professionals seeking a mentor in their industry is to spend time and effort “shopping around” and learning about those whom they admire before reaching out to them, whether that means online research or casual introductions at networking events. Having gotten personally involved and now incorporating AMIS into WiMSA’s mentorship initiative, Naidoo is prepared to take the next step to ensure that a new generation of women in mining can make the most of the experience of being a mentee, then pay it forward at a later stage in their own careers. 

More inclusive

Jumien Peceur, Business Development Manager at AMIS, believes that advances in technology are among the factors allowing the mining industry to develop past its dated misconceptions, and that more broadly shifting perceptions of gender roles mean that it was always just a matter of time before women broke into the sector. “A more inclusive environment should take hold, because mining is becoming less and less labour-intensive, and the more that happens, the more gender neutral it should become,” he says. 

He’s quick to caution that these benefits will depend on investment in the necessary infrastructure that makes tech tools widely and democratically available, but he has a strong hope in the power of 4IR to level the playing fields in terms of many perceived and actual disparities between genders. As requirements and conditions in the industry shift, attitudes will need to follow; with intentional attempts at transformation, the chance to remove barriers does exist.

Naidoo has observed that the industry has been slow in its transformation, but recognises that the women taking on senior positions are now the trailblazers, responsible for being the inspiration for a new generation to explore the mining sector as a career option. Many of the pressures that acted as barriers for women pursuing such a career are slowly being broken down, but are still apparent at higher levels. While it’s historically difficult for men to recognise certain types of non-verbal discrimination, the fact is that it’s still something that occurs daily in varying degrees of severity. “We go to these trade shows and these exhibitions, and people come to visit our stand, but still naturally gravitate to talk to the males, and still look at the female as the personal assistant,” Naidoo explains.

It’s also those experiences that have prompted the leadership of AMIS to make the organisation the first Platinum Sponsor of the WiMSA Mentorship Programme. As Naidoo explains: “It’s something that I believe in and I think it’s something that can definitely propel women to the next level: to become more empowered, to become more confident, so that they can then go on and mentor somebody else.” She knows her experience as a woman in the industry can add value, considering how important mentorship was to her in her career growth, and the passion to help is one that can never be quenched. 

The programme will make use of an online network to increase its availability and to reach women in more remote areas of the country. Naidoo believes that this is the most beneficial approach for everyone involved, as factors such as geography, telecommunications and time all act as obstacles for a mentorship relationship. “That regular engagement helps you build and foster the relationship as you move forward. I think now, especially in the times of Covid-19, it’s important, and it makes the world a smaller place.” There are other values to this virtual approach, according to Naidoo: “This new platform might give a lot of people the confidence to have conversations that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to have face-to-face. I know it shouldn’t be like that, but not everybody’s brave enough to stand up to it, either.”

That’s where the value of WiMSA lies, and the platform it creates can shift the status quo and the perception of women in mining. By being present at school career days, they’re able to reshape ideas about the industry as an option for women, starting with the girls who’ll one day become the industry’s young professionals, and then its leaders. By presenting at mining events, workshops and businesses in the sector, they’re able to ensure that more men are being exposed to the needs and benefits of transformation. And by building the networks and facilitating the mentorships that AMIS is enabling, they’re taking a hands-on approach to ensuring that the future of mining is more representative of South Africa’s population, while opening doors for women throughout the country that were once locked. Best of all, partnerships between such organisations, and between individuals as mentees and mentors, are creating dialogue that reaches the ears of those who need to hear it most. — Cayleigh Bright

Women can do every job that men can

Women having to negotiate their value to employers by highlighting how they can be beneficial to the bottom line is an additional dehumanising difficulty propelled by the patriarchal agenda inherent in the capitalist system.  

“The workplace should be physically and psychologically safe for a woman to achieve success, without fearing for her safety or having to diminish herself at work,” says Petro du Pisani, Head of Business Improvement Projects at Anglo American, and the incoming Chairperson of Women in Mining South Africa. 

Petro du Pisani, Head of Business Improvement Projects at Anglo American, and the incoming Chairperson of Women in Mining South Africa

The South African mining industry lags behind its international counterparts in providing employment to a diversity of genders. The Mineral Council’s White Paper Report on Women in Mining reported that women only account for 12% of the workforce. In a country in which women make up 51.1% of the population, as recorded in Statistics South Africa’s mid-year report for 2020, this suggests that the mining industry is not doing enough to attract, retain or upskill women. 

“There shouldn’t be a single factor hindering a woman from entering the mining industry,” explains Du Pisani. “My work has enabled me to have conversations with women in all parts of the industry: artisans, operators, boilermakers, loco-drivers, occupational hygienists, geologists, mining managers; there isn’t a single job a woman can’t do. Additionally, if women can do the job, they should be treated the same as men and be paid the same. The day-to-day support systems labelled as ‘female support systems’ are actually family support systems and should enable the childcare options available to women to be available to men too.”

Child-rearing is often cited as one of the main reasons for the apprehension around including women in personnel across many industries. This comes across with a tinge of irony when you consider that women form the larger percentage of primary breadwinners in South African households. On the other side of the coin of archaic gender roles, surely corporate systems should position men as active co-parents, and enable them as much time as required by women to bond with and care for their children? The history of migrant labour gets much mention in the conversation of how absent fathers became a prevalent reality in South Africa; creating systems that encourage men to participate in parenthood in the same way women are expected to not only gives women the opportunity to pursue better professional prospects; it contributes to social redress. 

Increasing collaboration and generating effective dialogue around 4IR in the mining industry is another way to reconcile disparities, adds Du Pisani. It is possible to find ways to balance the disruptions that 4IR will cause with the need for jobs and human dignity: technology is already proving to be something of an equaliser in other industries where physical strength was once a significant factor, and the nature of the workplace is likely to shift considerably — hopefully, for the better. “Jobs will change, and there needs to be a collaborative effort to ensure that we are providing education and skills-transition programmes that will enable people to earn a living in the not so distant future,” Du Pisani continues. 

And in the same breath, more can be done to provide a nurturing environment to the women who are in the industry already; helping them ascend to their full potential and diminishing the gender pay gap. Strong policies that combat the scourge of gender-based violence and workplace adaptations that create a safe space for expectant moms are adjustments that result in growth and make room for women busying themselves with professional relationships that inspire success. 

“Mentoring has played a pivotal role in my career. My mentors have provided me with the space to solve my own problems and have uncovered issues I believed about myself, which were holding me back from reaching my full potential. The role of a mentor is to listen, enable their mentee to solve their own issues. Sometimes my mentors have provided just the right piece of advice at the right time for me to move forward,” says Du Pisani.

Changing structures in a way that centres human dignity and development can create significantly more mentorship success stories. One can get stuck on a definition of mentoring that emphasises a teacher-and-student relationship, but mentorship often organically takes place where there is mutual admiration and a common interest in self-improvement that breeds valuable exchanges between co-workers who uplift each other: a reality that’s not easy to achieve in cut-throat professional environments that promote a culture with a pecking order. 

Du Pisani recognises that although more is possible, the situation is far from all doom and gloom: “The landscape is already shifting; we do have inspiring role models in the South African mining industry where women are on Boards and leading companies. There is definitive research that shows that increased diversity leads to improved financial results. But I’d like to see more partnerships between women’s mining organisations across Africa and the rest of the world. Our community needs to expand and have a positive impact on women who work in the mining industry globally.” — Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha 

Start early for the best results

When it comes to the future of the mining industry, starting change sooner is better: so, in order to inspire and cultivate STEM talent, WiMSA takes an active approach to communicating with girls of school-going age. 

“WiMSA has always wanted to promote STEM subjects to high school students to create an awareness of the different types of work available within the sector,” says Lindy Scott, a creative director and consultant in business strategy and innovation services, whose committee role at WiMSA has involved expanding and promoting the perception of women in the mining industry. “Careers for women in mining are not often promoted in popular culture.” 

Lindy Scott, a creative director and consultant in business strategy and innovation services for WiMSA

Briony Liber, a career coach and consultant, and WiMSA’s head of mentorship, confirms that these biases have a far-reaching effect: “At an institutional mind-set level, we need to be looking at the unconscious biases that our organisations sit with,” says Liber. “The language that is used that most people aren’t even aware of but that subtly impacts on how women perceive themselves, how they are perceived within the organisation and how they are treated, unconsciously.”

This is a pivotal moment in time for women in tech: rapid advances in technology and increasing automation could work to narrow the gender gap in many industries — mining being a good example in that physical strength can no longer be used as a proxy for capability — or, if women’s education opportunities are not advanced, it could cause it to widen. “When looking at the skills required for 4IR, and the skills that will be required in mining in the future, WiMSA is now looking to start working with early childhood development and promoting STEM at grassroot levels,” says Scott. “This is a new area for WiMSA, and one that will become a long term project for the organisation. WiMSA wants careers in mining to be a choice for girls within our country.”

The desirability of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based fields is something that needs to be actively promoted. As has been noted in many STEM-powered fields, the problem of causing girls to de-select from studies and careers in the sciences is more complex and pervasive than explicit admonitions to stick to “softer” pursuits. Even when girls are not actively discouraged from participating in STEM subjects, social attitudes around “what boys and girls like” stifle young girls’ interest in science and technology as purposeful careers. 

“In my experience, your career choices are shaped by your parents and popular culture,” says Scott. “When I was young, the idea of an artist or photographer was one that I had seen in movies and romanticised. I believed that creativity was my biggest skill. I convinced myself early on that maths and science were not for me: this was a limitation I had put on myself. If we can change the narrative and show girls that careers in engineering are creative and that problem solving is a skill that anyone can do, the future of work for girls should look different.”

Executive coach and consultant Briony Liber is the mentoring lead on the WiMSA committee

To this end, WiMSA shares stories about women in engineering, and works to spotlight diverse ideas and thought leaders. “The speakers we expose members to are positive role models with grit and ambition,” says Scott.

Along with cultivating a desire to participate in the industry, of course, learners need an aptitude, and that needs to be developed, too. Scott explains that, “The skills required for STEM careers are found to start in early childhood; skills like problem solving, creativity and the foundations of maths. We can’t expect our youth to succeed in the careers of the future without giving them a strong foundation.”

Keeping in mind that childcare responsibilities still tend to fall to women in today’s society, WiMSA realises that education of its communities’ children is a matter well within their purview. The organisation is constructing a response to the urgent needs for early childhood development (ECD) interventions that will take a weight off of the minds of these female mining professionals, as well as helping to shape the minds of those who could become the next generation of industry innovators. 

Scott notes that WiMSA is welcoming ideas and suggestions that could make the new project more effective. “Our ambition is to create awareness and provide mining communities with solutions and resources to empower mothers and educators within the communities,” she says. “We are looking to sponsor ECD teachers as a response to the Covid-19 crisis. Childhood education is a concern for our members and many fear that their children will be left behind because of the Covid-19 pandemic. WiMSA wants to take action and provide solutions for this through partnerships and dialogue.” — Cayleigh Bright

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