The changing face of mining

With the gap between men and women working in the mining industry is closing, one woman in South Australia is working towards making it smaller, Vicky Validakis reports.

When most people think about what an underground offsider looks like, a petite and beautiful brunette of nineteen probably wouldn’t be the first face which comes to mind. Ashlee Thompson who works across three mine sites for underground contactor Ausmining, is the only woman working underground in her company and believes more women should get in to the industry.

 “I think more women should do it. It’s good money, the people are awesome and it’s just different to anywhere else. It’s pretty amazing,” she told Australian Mining.

Ausmining have contracts at three hard rock mines located in Strathalbyn, South Australia, and in New South Wales.

Mining for lead, silver, zinc and gold, the company moves the rigs to different mines, depending on the task. This means a relatively quick turnaround and when the rigs move to a different site so does Thompson, staying in one place for no more than two weeks at a time.

With the time sensitive nature of the work, delivering on time and on budget is crucial. For Thompson, this often means working twelve hours straight, sometimes for two weeks in row or until the job is complete.  Ashlee says that work is physically intensive but rewarding.

“I just love at the end of the day coming up and knowing I’ve done something productive.”

Born in Mt Isa, Queensland, and spending her childhood on a mine site, Thompson is no stranger to the mining industry. Her father is a foreman and owns Ausmining, and until she was ten, her mother worked as a shift boss in an underground mine site; so growing up, it was normal for Ashlee to see a woman in a position of power within the mining industry despite its rarity across the sector.

“Mum’s pretty proud of me because she used to do it; she knows what it’s like. It would have been harder for her back then as a woman working underground.”

Thompson says that while most people are supportive of her work, some are still surprised to learn that she works underground. At an induction to underground mining recently some men were shocked to hear that she was planning to work underground, “They asked me: Are you going underground? Oh, we thought you were a secretary or something”.

With women representing less than 15 per cent of the mining industry’s workforce, mining companies are showing more initiative than ever before when it comes to attracting and retaining women into mining roles. This is apparent when looking at the influx of advertising targeted at women over the last few months. From Rio Tinto to Xstrata, mining companies are actively trying to attract and retain women in the industry.

Alison Morley, the chairwoman of WIMnet which is an online initiative that aims to support women in the mining industry, and the CEO of Brumby Resources said there are great networking groups around the country which aim to support, train, and push for policy changes in favour of women in mining.

“These passionate women are providing networking opportunities and training for women – it’s all positive,” Morley said.

While WINnet is the online hub for women looking for support in the mining industry, sub groups in mining communities take over to organise events, mentoring programs, and awards which bring women together. 

From regional centres like Dampier, WA to right across South Australia, getting women in the sector to meet, discuss any issues and push for changes is high in the agenda for these groups of volunteers.

The success of these events, like the Rio Tinto sponsored Steelcaps and Stilletos site visit and networking dinner organised by the WIMWA Pilbara Networking Committee, shows the strength in numbers approach these women have when it comes to pushing for change.

Morley said it’s about getting women together to make changes which benefit both the companies and the women working for them.

“We are in a position to actively target CEOs of major companies and ask for flexible work opportunities.”

With changes in major companies taking place all over the country, like new school hours rosters and job sharing opportunities for women,  these groups of women are making companies sit up and take notice.

“These committees exist so women have a great network and are able to sell themselves into higher roles.”

One such program which aims to help women take the next step in their careers, Make Me A Leader, has been developed to give young women in the industry the skills and support they need to take on management roles. It aims to help young women ‘skill-up’ and gives them the resources they need to do so, creating decision and policy makers which diversifies the changes made.

Morley says that it’s programs like this and many others which will help change the culture of the industry and how it thinks about and treats women. She goes on to add that it’s up to people in the industry, men and women, to work towards changing the perception women working in any capacity in the industry.

“It’s about giving women the opportunity to sell themselves more, to put themselves up for promotion. To skill up and go for it.”

Thompson agrees that the best way to deal with negative attitudes is to laugh it off and prove to the sceptics you can do your job, and do it well.

“You just have to show them you can do it.

“You have to be thick-skinned, have a lot of common sense and you just have to put up with guys being guys.”

Although Thompson has a distinct advantage with her father being the owner of the company, she’s looking to expand her skill set by learning how to drive trucks underground, with her ultimate goal to become a mine manager.

“There’s endless oppor­tunities when you work underground, there’s just so much to learn.”

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