Resourceful Women: Spotlight on gender diversity in the mining sector [blog]

The resources sector is no different than any other male dominated industry, where attracting and retaining women in non-traditional roles and developing women to senior leadership roles is a difficult challenge. But the need to increase female participation is even more compelling in this sector, where projected labour shortages could impact Australia’s future prosperity, Freehills' Kate Jenkins writes.

The resources sector is no different than any other male dominated industry, where attracting and retaining women in non-traditional roles and developing women to senior leadership roles is a difficult challenge.

But the need to increase female participation is even more compelling in this sector, where projected labour shortages could impact Australia’s future prosperity.

While the sector employs a wide variety of roles, contrary to perception in many areas mining is a highly skilled high tech industry.

Government projections are that Australia will require 70,000 additional skilled workers for major resources projects over the next five years.

The Government has accepted the recommendations of the National Resources Sector Employment Taskforce, including the need for a strategy for attracting and retaining women in the resources and construction sectors.

So what now?

Cath Pattenden of the University of Queensland is currently reviewing progress for women in the resources sector.

Her statistics are telling. Currently the sector employs 17% women compared to the 45% women in the broader workforce, with only 3% in site-based roles.

Men earn more than women at almost every level. EOWA 2010 Census data shows that materials companies represent over one quarter of the ASX 200 index, yet only 4.3% of executive key management and 5% of board members are women.

The good news is that this is a marked improvement from the late 80s when less than 10% of workers in the resources sector were women.

However, these statistics show there is lots of scope for improvement.

While the solutions to the challenge of increasing female participation are many and varied, retention of female talent will no doubt be improved with better management of workers through pregnancy and early years of parenthood.

This is a time that the resources sector loses or under-values the contribution of its female workforce, which has long term implications for the industry.

To help resources sector employers, the Minerals Council of Australia commissioned Freehills to develop a comprehensive parental leave and flexible work toolkit.

The toolkit aims to inform and educate employees, supervisors and managers of their rights and responsibilities around parental leave and flexible working arrangements.

It spells out the current legal requirements for both men and women that apply to Australian employers, written in a clear and practical way.

It is one step to address a complex problem.

The challenges in the resources sector are well known: low enrolment of women in relevant tertiary courses; lack of women applicants for non-traditional roles; 12 hour rosters which are inconsistent with most childcare arrangements; remote locations, which in some cases lack facilities for families; the fly-in/fly-out schedules used at some remote locations; the lack of female mentors and role models; perception that the tough work cultures do not embrace diversity; concerns about safe jobs during pregnancy.

The less obvious challenges involve: the social conditioning that still subtly directs our children from birth towards traditional gendered roles (trucks vs dolls); the unconscious bias that affects most of us to more readily associate women with family and men with work; the unequal share of domestic responsibilities, which shows that working women still bear the majority of domestic and caring responsibilities; the operation of homophily, which is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others (eg. men with men).

There is no question that improving gender diversity in the resources sector is difficult. At the same time, there is recognition that change will help overcome projected labour shortages in the future and result in better workplaces and more profitable businesses.

And the experience in this sector can benefit many industries that are facing the same challenge.

This week, the Minerals Council of Australia hosted a Women in Mining workshop in Canberra as part of the Minerals Week conference.

This conference showed there is a strong momentum for change among industry bodies, employers and women’s networking groups.

Their request is for the companies to show leadership with real actions that support the goal of increasing female participation and leadership.

The new Australian Stock Exchange reporting requirements on diversity policies with measurable gender targets is an important starting point.

Dissemination of the parental leave toolkit and active support for successful flexible working arrangements will also make a difference for the future of the sector.

There is a great opportunity for change with the support of all industry participants, however those highly committed women in mining need lots more support to achieve that change in the next 5 years.

Kate Jenkins is an Employee Relations partner at national law firm Freehills which drafted the Minerals Council of Australia’s parental leave and flexible work toolkit. The toolkit is available on its website – www.minerals.org.au.

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