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Use tech jobs to attract women to industry, Future Minerals forum panel says

Panelists at the Women in Mining session during the Future Minerals Forum in Saudi Arabia said technology jobs and mentorships were key for attracting women to the industry. Credit: Future Minerals Forum

The industry needs to encourage mentors, adjust mindsets and offer technology jobs to boost the level of women from just 8% of the global mining workforce, according to a panel at the Future Minerals Forum in Saudi Arabia.  

New technologies allow women to sidestep the image of a soot-covered coal miner headed underground with a pickaxe and choose careers such as geo-chemistry, finance and artificial intelligence, Emily King, chief innovation officer of Mexico-focused Analog Gold, told the conference in Riyadh on Jan. 12. 

“The more we can integrate technology into all the different ways the sector works,” King said, “the more attractive it will be to young people in general and women specifically.”   

Companies are facing increasing pressure to increase the number of women as the industry and its watchdogs push environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.  

The second edition of the two-day conference focused on the oil superpower’s efforts to continue as an energy leader — in battery metals — after the world transitions away from fossil fuels. But it also allowed state-owned miner Ma’aden to declare women hold 20% of its positions, and Saudi energy minister Prince Adulaziz bin Salman Al Saud to say the majority of his team is female. They’re following reforms led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that has also allowed women drivers and reined in the religious police.   

Remote work

It’s important for the industry’s ESG goals to engage women in remote jobs so they can work without disrupting the traditional roles they hold as caregivers, Sheila Khama, former chief executive officer of De Beers Botswana, told the forum.

“We should consider how can we use remote and digital technologies to enable women to work without having to make a choice as to whether they contribute to mining or leave children unattended,” Khama said. “The problem that happens to women is not a women’s problem, it is society’s issue and it’s one we should tackle collectively.”  

Christine Gibbs-Stewart, CEO of Sydney-based Austmine, a mining equipment association, said Australia’s relatively well-developed industry needs more leaders and mentors to raise female participation from just 16%.  

“We need the best and brightest to join the mining industry,” Gibbs-Stewart said. “Leaders need to make sure people are treated fairly, to call out bad behaviour, to encourage and promote women and most importantly they need to listen for what is needed to really foster and grow women into the mining industry.”  

Systemic biases

 Mashael Al-Omair, a metallurgical engineer at Ma’aden, said the industry needs to address systemic biases that creep into areas such as personal protective equipment (PPE) that isn’t suitable for women, or awkward on-site rapport between the sexes.  

“It’s a bit of a challenge to get your work done or get your point across but in the end they’re mostly well-intentioned,” Al-Omair said. “It’s just getting over that barrier providing PPE for women, having the sensitivity training, amenities on site that are fit for women. Being in Saudi, which has started having women in mining, it’s not a question of if, it’s when and how much.”   

Amanda Van Dyke, a fund manager at Africa-focused private equity firm Arch Emerging Partners, said she was impressed with the Saudi energy minister’s staffing and cited Barrick Gold (TSX: ABX; NYSE: GOLD) CEO Mark Bristow as another industry leader promoting women.  

“He was hiring junior geologists and engineers 30 years ago and those women are now senior in his organization,” Van Dyke said. “It is from that leadership that recognizes talent and encourages women to come to the top that you will get there.”  

Small business support

Wendy Tyrrell, executive director of the Chicago-based Development Partner Institute, an ESG consultancy, said inclusive-minded education from grade school onwards and support for small businesses would help more women enter the industry. 

“This opportunity for education must go all the way to senior executives and board level,” Tyrrell said. “There are fantastic opportunities to broaden the space for women through education, mentorship and sponsorship.” 

Panel moderator Dina Alnahdy, a member of the Saudi National Mining Board, conducted an informal raise-your-hands poll and found only about half of the audience of maybe 100 mostly men would hire a woman even to a junior-level post.  

“How can we adjust this mindset?” she asked. 

Al-Omair replied leaders must become aware of unconscious biases while King said men must get beyond fearing to say the wrong thing in front of women, perhaps by learning from diversification mentors.  

Khama, who has also worked for the World Bank and AngloGold Ashanti (JSE: ANG), said she benefited from the confidence gained by being raised like a boy in her Botswana village because she was an only child.  

“It isn’t that I’m more intelligent than anyone, it’s that I had an attitude and a belief that I was as good as a man,” she said. “I worked so hard that if I wasn’t in the room the men knew something was missing. There’s no substitute for that.”