As the mining industry evolves, issues of diversity and inclusion are constants on the agendas of executives, governments and the wider workforce. Australian Mining speaks with those holding the torch for women and Indigenous people in mining.
Across the sectors of mining, manufacturing, construction, supply chain and similar male-dominated industries, women represent around a quarter of the workforce.
And while the pace of change in female representation has been slow to date, there is an urgent movement to push that figure closer towards equal territory.
The need for gender diversity in the workforce comes not only from pillars of social and moral justice, but from a desire for improved business metrics and enhanced operations, according to Louise Weine, the chief executive officer of NAWO (the National Association for Women in Operations).
NAWO is a 10-year-old not-for-profit organisation which works to see gender diversity valued and balanced at every level of operations.
Weine explains her personal experiences in realising the need for organisations like NAWO.
“I came to NAWO through my background working in male-dominated environments for my entire career,” Weine says.
“For quite some time I didn’t feel as though there was any issue with that. As I was managing quite well, but then suddenly things changed and I realised that the playing field was not equal.
“When I found out about NAWO, I was thinking, ‘I wish I’d known about them when I was in operations.’ I know exactly what it’s like to be there, on reflection I now understand what’s going wrong, and I want to do something to change it.”
NAWO today includes around 60 large corporate companies across multiple industries. The organisation has three focus areas, Weine says, the first being women who are in careers.
“We know that some systems are broken. Some things that were designed a long time ago for the workplace don’t work very well for women,” she says.
“To keep women in careers, we need to support them while they try to navigate that.”
The second area focuses on the leaders of NAWO’s members and how they can work to include people by building a culture which welcomes every individual. NAWO’s third focus area reflects why the organisation came to be – unity.
“We have a great opportunity to leverage the energy of all of these companies who are committed to doing things differently and move further, faster,” Weine says.
“Rather than trying to solve all of these issues in our individual company ‘silos’ – which will take us decades alone – if we can band together and have a united front to solve these issues by sharing what works, we can reach our goals more quickly.”
In June, NAWO welcomed one of Australia’s fastest growing mining companies, Mineral Resources, as a Gold Corporate Member.
This level of membership gives every Mineral Resources employee access to any of NAWO’s in-person events, as well as all of its webinars – an important consideration at a time when COVID-19 has restricted the moment of remote and fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers.
Mineral Resources general manager for human resources and industrial relations, Layla Mehravari, says the benefits of diversity and inclusion stretch far beyond moral obligation.
“For us, it’s about improving our access to talent, particularly in a labour market like this,” Mehravari says.
“It improves financial performance and innovation, and there’s a lot of information and anecdotal evidence that it improves our risk strategies and safety stats.
“We have seen – particularly in our work actively recruiting operators – less equipment damage when we have women driving our gear.”
Mineral Resources recruits plenty of entry-level workers. In June, the company welcomed its second all-female intake to its entry-level operator program.
Mehravari says Mineral Resources didn’t set out to hold all-female intakes, but found it was just the push some participants needed to get a start in the mining industry.
“These are broad programs in that we bring anybody who’s new to the industry through the door,” she says.
“But we were having a lot of successful female applicants come through, so we went through the process of aligning intakes with whole female groups to create a nice cohort and community.
“This was important because a big challenge is getting that critical mass of women on remote sites with a sense of community among themselves.”
While the focus at times can fall on the ratio of women in a company, Mineral Resources’ overall goal is much bigger than this.
Mehravari says the company achieved its aim to lift its female employment above the industry average of 16.1 per cent, but a culture of inclusion is the higher purpose.
“We try to ensure we have an environment which appeals to all types of people in terms of the way we work on site, the way we lead and develop people, and the way we manage our rosters to include them,” she says.
“If you just use percentage of females in your workforce as your measure, you lose a lot of the richness of what you’re actually doing to improve the experience for women.”
Indigenous Women in Mining and Resources Australia (IWIMRA) is an organisation which looks to improve that “richness” for women in industry.
IWIMRA chief executive officer Florence Drummond started the now not-for-profit in 2017 when she found a gap in the support network for Indigenous women in mining.
Drummond, like Weine, began her career in the mining industry. Working for seven years as a Rio Tinto machine operator at Weipa in Queensland, she came to realise that no Indigenous person was succeeding into senior roles.
“It made me think, ‘how is this even possible?’ The companies had been there for around 30 years and still there was no Indigenous people in leadership roles,” Drummond says.
“My aim was to shift that generational challenge and that was through financial empowerment – making money and trying to build something.
“In my heart I wanted to lead something around Indigenous people and women, because I was a product of that.”
NAWO and IWMIRA partnered in mid 2021 to allow both organisations and the workforces they served to grow as one.
Drummond says IWIMRA, being a smaller, younger organisation is embracing its growth phase, continuing to expand its network to inspire as many females as possible to have conversations about improving diversity.
“One of the biggest reasons we were excited to partner with NAWO is that we can demonstrate that we’re now collaborating as these big powerhouse networks,” Drummond says.
“We’re breaking down these barriers, sitting down and having a yarn about how we can figure things out together.”
It’s a promising partnership for all involved, as the industry does as NAWO aims in uniting to achieve a common goal.
But discussing the issue is just step one and achieving Mehravari’s “richness” is a tough metric when combatting years of systematic disadvantage.
The beast becomes especially difficult to slay when issues of sexual harassment are thrown into the mix, as has been made increasingly clear in the Respect at Work report by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
The report found that sexual harassment is widespread and pervasive across all Australian workplaces, with 39 per of women and 26 per cent of men experiencing sexual harassment in their workplace.
“There are very clear guidelines that came from the Respect at Work report about what needs to be done,” Weine says.
“And this is where commitment from the leadership of business just has to get on with it.
“Progress requires a whole society approach – from business, government and individuals.”
BHP set a shining target for diversity by setting a goal of achieving gender balance globally by 2025.
The company put several measures in place to increase employee confidence in reporting sexual harassment cases – one of which involved abolishing non-disclosure agreements as a quick fix for sexual harassment allegations.
It also improved the knowledge of those responsible for investigating reports, increased awareness of appropriate workplace behaviour, drove cultural change through better leadership, and mobilised bystanders.
While there have been reports of sexual harassment in the industry, Weine sees these alleged incidents as a positive.
“I think (the reports are) to be expected and it’s exactly what needs to happen. What has happened over however many years is that these issues have been swept under the carpet. The Respect at Work report clearly states that,” Weine says.
“What we’re going to see, as ugly and as horrible as it is, is more and more cases being reported. And it’s all got to come out before it gets better.
“I take my hat off to everyone in the industry who are stepping up and taking action. Unfortunately, it’s going to be painful in the short to medium term, but hopefully it means in the long term we see amazing change.”
More positively, a report from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and the BankWest Curtin Economics Centre states the mining industry has seen the biggest improvement in women in board positions over the seven years to 2020.
The industry doubled its women in board positions to 20 per cent in that time and now has the lowest managerial gender pay gap at only 5.9 per cent.
While these are still considerable deficits for women, organisations like NAWO, IWIMRA and Mineral Resources continue to fly the flag for minorities in Australian mining.
Weine describes her proudest achievement at NAWO as being the constant presence of the organisation in people’s lives.
“In our recent executive forum we saw 85 executive leaders coming together to discuss what they can do differently around sexual harassment in the workplace,” she says.
“The fact we can just keep these issues on the active agenda of busy executives with hectic schedules might sound like a small win.
“But for me it’s the fact we can amplify these issues with that audience consistently and keep it on the agenda and not let it drop away as soon as a crisis like COVID-19 appears.”
Mehravari says Mineral Resources aims to keep the momentum going through its entry-level programs and use them to push female employees right up the leadership ladder.
“Bringing them in the door is one thing but we really want to help understand those pathways through the business into different areas of Mineral Resources and how we can use their skills and talents to give them that career progression,” she says.
“The most important thing is continuing cultural improvement and making sure the workplace is accessible to women as possible so that they’re given the opportunity to thrive and move into leadership roles.”
This article appears in the September issue of Australian Mining.