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Opinion People

“Attracting more female talent doesn’t mean painting things pink. It means respecting people and investing in training to foster talent”

Canaria Technologies boss, Alex Moss, talks to Carly Leonida about her experience of breaking into the mining industry, strong role models and why sometimes it's important to just 'roll up your sleeves and have a crack' when it comes to new ventures

From fashion to the mining industry, Alex Moss, CEO of Canaria Technologies, does business her way. She is smart, bold and unapologetic, and I respect that.

I wanted to find out more about Alex’s experience of the mining tech space and her thoughts on bolstering female talent in STEM roles, so I sent her a few interview questions…

Tell us a bit about your background and training. How did you come to work in mining?

My background was in design and business; with formal education in art history with a specialisation in design psychology (I was interested in how architecture and design changed human behaviour).

I found my way into mining via aerospace. More specifically, via a project for NASA with my [Canaria] co-founder Dr Robert Finean. We created a prototype for advanced remote vital signs monitoring of astronauts aboard the International Space Station and went on to win the NASA Global Space Apps Award for Best Use of Hardware in 2016.

We discovered that the engineering challenges for manned space exploration and underground mining were extremely similar: hostile environments, poor connectivity, intricate specifications required for the development and implementation of new hardware.

Fast forward a year and we had established that in order to commercialise our invention – the Canaria Earpiece – we had to break into the mining sector.

After being brought over to Australia by mining technology specialist investors, Unearthed, we’re now specialising our new equipment for the real-time, medical-grade prediction of heat exhaustion and cognitive fatigue.

These are the two biggest causes of accidents in the mining sector: two miners die every month in Australia from them, and each incident directly costs companies A$15M-$25M, not including the months of productivity losses afterwards.

We’re the first company to bring in standardisation to our equipment to ensure high accuracy and low false alerts, building all of our equipment to CE and FDA standards.

One of our missions is to define what the regulations will be for the emerging predictive biometrics sector, which is currently completely unregulated (meaning that there can be a wild variation in the accuracy of equipment that puts people’s lives at risk).

Alex onsite at Telfer mine in Australia. Image: Alex Moss
Alex onsite at Telfer mine in Australia. Image: Alex Moss

You joked at the Unearthed Australia event in Sydney earlier this year that the mining industry is not as hostile as the fashion world. How do the two compare, and how did you find the jump between these sectors?

Honestly, the leap between the two wasn’t nearly as tough as it was made out to be.

I’ve found that the best way to break into both sectors is to gate crash a lot of parties to kick start an understanding of the industry in a relaxed environment, then just keep working hard at interesting projects for long enough until the industry accepts you.

Frankly, the fashion industry was harder to break into and was more snobbish. There’s a ‘roll up your sleeves and have a crack’ mentality in mining that I really relate to.

What do you love most about working in mining? Likewise, which aspects do you dislike?

I love the feel of doing something tangible: the extraction of minerals that our entire modern society relies upon for existence. I get the sense of the interconnection of infrastructure and manufacturing for civilisations that I didn’t experience in other sectors.

My most disliked aspects are the long contract cycles that really stagnate progress. That said, a lot of industry leaders are speaking out about the need for shorted contract negotiation processes and at least it’s widely recognised as an industry issue that needs fixing ASAP.

Do you feel that digitalisation and increased use of technology is opening up new opportunities for greater diversity within the industry?

Absolutely. There are two main parts to this: firstly, the increase ability to work remotely allows a whole new type of worker to play active and meaningful roles in mining.

This decade, the biggest wage gap for women didn’t come directly from being paid a lower salary for the same roles as their male peers; it came from having to switch to part-time work or change industries after the birth of a first child. Remote working allows more flexible hours, which means happier, more productive employees and women fitting in more seamlessly into the day-to-day.

In addition to remote working, increasingly accurate sensing technologies such as ours in the case of humans, or, say, Movus’ in the case of machine maintenance, is allowing real-time objective data sets to compare assumptions against.

This is having huge implications for diversity. Until recently it was assumed that men were better at driving haul trucks on site, but a new wave of objective data sets about vehicle monitoring has revealed that women out-perform their male peers in this task.

We’re only at the beginning of being able to truly quantify the ethics of inclusivity, and the results are that more diversity in a workforce raises baseline profits.

Which other women in mining do you look up to and why?

I really look up to Leigh Staines – a Rio Tinto Executive who has recently become one of my company’s investors. She exudes a confidence that is well founded on extremely high levels of organisation, problem solving, and engineering expertise.

She’s the definition of talking big because you can back it up and has a proven track record of consistently delivering on promises. She’s tough but also creative.

She really pushes herself to go out of her comfort zone and discover new approaches to business and engineering from other sectors and brings them back to her projects. This can be seen in her involvement in the Australian and Silicon Valley technology ecosystems as well as mining.

On the flipside, although Gina Rhinehart has done some truly innovative things with FMG and I deeply respect her work ethic, I think that she represents an outdated leadership style which is anti-diversity and anti-creativity.

This is counter-productive in the wake of the problems that are coming to define the 21st Century, such as climate change, the rise of AI, and the prevalence of xenophobia.

Going forward, what do you think the mining industry could do to help attract more female talent into STEM roles?

Short-term, more men in power have to step forward publicly as allies. Speak about how good women are, both in engineering roles and in-field truck driving.

Install harsher penalties for sexual assault in the workplace, and more education in the first place into what sexual assault is and how to not do it. On a small level, deal head-on with situations that are making women feel unsafe: speak up when you see something inappropriate happening.

Childcare is the real issue that provokes wage inequality; not just the mining industry, but work culture as a whole needs to take childcare more seriously for all employees. Maybe someone doesn’t want a promotion, they really want a day off a week to care for their children, or a slice of company profits to subsidise childcare.

Most importantly, do not put quotas in place for executive roles unless they’re paired with a minimum half-year long training programme to get those women ready for their new positions.

Putting quotas into place without training programmes simply sets people up for failure and re-enforces assumptions that women cannot handle serious roles.

Attracting more female talent doesn’t mean painting things pink. It means respecting people and investing in tough training programmes to foster talent.

If someone isn’t up to scratch, don’t hire them for the sake of looking more diverse.

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