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Women in mining: Perception shift needed to attract talent

It’s no surprise that women are underrepresented in the mining industry, accounting for less than one-fifth of the sector's workforce, which makes it one of the lowest levels of female participation across all sectors. Many of those jobs are in lower-paying support positions, and very few women can be found in leadership roles.

A big part of the problem is that many women aren’t attracted to an industry characterized by hard hats and haul trucks. It’s a stereotype experts say needs to be changed if the industry wants to attract more women to help address a skilled-labour shortage that is expected to worsen in the years to come.

“The old, traditional idea of people just digging underground doesn’t represent what the mining sector is today,” said Clare Beckton, executive director of Carleton University's Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, which has done a comprehensive study on women in the mining industry.

“The industry needs to sell itself better not just to women, but also to men.”

Beckton said many women just aren't aware of the different types of careers available in mining, citing positions in engineering, geology, technology, finance, administration and human resources.

Change needs to start within the mining sector, with C-suite executives continuously working to develop strategies to recruit, retain and promote women, she said. If the labour shortage isn't enough of an incentive, higher profits should be.

"Many studies have shown that greater gender diversity in corporate leadership results in higher profits for corporation and brings in new ideas, talents and approaches," Beckton said.

This is particularly important in a country like Canada, where mining activities represented 4.5 per cent of GDP in 2011, and 23 per cent of Canadian exports.

Women accounted for about 18.6 per cent of the mining industry workforce in 2011, according to Beckton’s report released late last year. That’s below industries such as manufacturing (21.7 per cent), energy (24.6 per cent) and the financial sector (61.5 per cent).

Less than 5 per cent of women are working in trades and production, scientific and management positions in the industry, according to a recent report from the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR). MiHR said about 95 per cent of women are employed in clerical and support roles in the industry, and about 60 per cent can be found in corporate services positions.

In a separate report, MiHR cited barriers for women such as limited flexibility in work practices, schedules and career paths, as well as difficulties integrating into a male-dominated workforce.

"The image of the mining and exploration sector as unfriendly to women may be influencing the educational and career choices of young women as much today, as in the past," the MiHR report states, adding that the perception of mining as a "noisy, dirty and harmful environment" could also be deterring women.

That said, women are making strides in the industry, said Ryan Montpellier, executive director at MiHR. "The culture in mining is evolving and women are becoming increasingly engaged in the sector."

Part of the responsibility to increase the number of women in the industry also rests with women themselves, said Beckton.

“Women can do a number of things, including putting themselves forward for roles … and for promotions,” said Beckton, who will moderate a Women in Mining (WIM) forum at the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM) conference in Toronto on Tuesday. "It's time to make these changes."