Last but certainly not least in this interview series, I caught up with one of the most high-profile women in mining tech, Michelle Ash.
Admired by many, Michelle has played an important role in helping the industry to think differently about the way it builds and operates mines. She is unafraid of change, and of tackling the important questions surrounding the impact of technology on individuals, mining companies and communities.
Who better to talk to about women in mining leadership?
CL: Tell us about your background and training. It looks like you’ve always worked in and around the mining sector
MA: Yes, I’ve always worked in heavy industry. While most of my experience has been in the mining industry, I spent five years running a petrochemical business and also three years working in pulp and paper.
I was always good at maths and science. I like building and creating things, so I studied civil engineering. But when I graduated there was a downturn in the construction industry in Australia.
I did my honours thesis in methane extraction from coal beds which is all about fractural mechanics. Out of sheer coincidence, I went to a Rio Tinto careers day. I put in my CV and because they were doing a lot of research into different explosives they offered me a job.
I think once you see your work literally move mountains and meet some of the people, your heart stays in the industry. And that’s where I’ve been for the last 27 years.
I did do further studies including a psychology degree because I started getting leadership roles and I felt ill prepared to lead large groups of people. I focused on the behaviour of people in groups and in companies. I did some of my thesis on how depression and anxiety manifest in the workplace and specifically at remote mine sites. And then later on I did some economics and an MBA.
It’s been a really interesting journey for me. I’m now learning about robotics, blockchain and AI and how that comes together in the mining industry.
It’s almost like lifelong learning.
CL: That’s something I love about this sector. You learn something new every day, don’t you?
MA: Absolutely. Especially when I lived in Tanzania and I was COO of Acacia Mining. You learn so much about what it is to be human, to interact in different societies, with the government, the politics. It’s been really interesting.
People don’t always recognise that mining is at the forefront in developing countries, bringing people out of poverty. Helping people build a better life for themselves.
We do a lot of good and I don’t think we talk about that enough.
CL: What do you like most about working in mining? Are there any aspects that you dislike?
MA: I love the people. 99.9% of the people that I have worked with are wonderful, salt of the earth, really nice people. And I love working with communities and governments.
Most recently I have worked with the Canadian government on natural resources and I have been lucky enough to be on their economic and innovation forums. How do you help even a developed country, leverage the natural resources they’ve got to put back into communities? Develop that social infrastructure? That I love.
I used to love just seeing the results of my work; you can see that bench cleaned up or material moved, all the practical aspects to it…
CL: It’s a very tangible job isn’t it?
MA: Yes, it is. Mining really does help us have the society that we want. It supports construction, production of cars, phones and all the other things that we want… maybe too much. I think there is a whole issue around the circular economy and how much we consume. We need to consider what’s right for a developed country and what is right for a developing country.
Things that I think are more challenging or I don’t like about the industry so much… we are still challenged with managing diversity. There are some great examples, like BHP’s IROC remote control centre in Perth and at Rio Tinto centres where they have actually got a 50/50 gender balance, which is fantastic.
But once you get into the CEO bracket, worldwide there are less than ten female CEOs. There is a real challenge getting women into top positions. Boards are getting better. I think it’s about 3% women on boards.
And that is just one diversity metric.
Diversity is something we have to work very hard on for the next 5-10 years. One of our biggest responsibilities as leaders is to not just nod about diversity and employ a few different people, but actually build a team that we know is going to challenge us every day.
We need different people with different ideas who can make us feel uncomfortable. That’s okay, because that’s actually what diversity is for, what it looks like. We still have challenges in the management of diversity and really embracing it and bringing that diversity out.
CL: Ok. We touched on leadership and some of the stats around that. Have you noticed, from your own experience, an increase in the number of female executives and directors in recent years?
MA: When I joined the industry in 1992, I was 19, and I was one of the first women on site. There are more women entering operator and maintenance roles now which is amazing. There are certainly more female engineers and geologists.
And further up… I think what’s important is that over the past ten years, women who have had experience on the ground, they’ve gone into supervisor positions.
There is now a surprising increase at manager level. Fifteen years ago, I was one of the only female general managers in Africa. Now there are lots more women at the senior manager level which is great.
Again, 27 years ago if there was a woman on the board, typically she might have been the secretary. But now we are starting to see women in a number of board positions, and often they’re technical roles like head of exploration or technology.
Look at Andrew Mackenzie [CEO of BHP], he hasn’t got a 50/50 split on his board yet, but he’s got four or five women out of 11. That’s a great start.
Having these types of role models helps break down some of the barriers or doubts that we have in our own minds. As I said before, the challenge is not employing more women just to boost averages. Looking at other industries, it should be more normative.
Another big challenge is how do we get more women into CEO positions?
There are good examples across industry that women in CEO positions do help businesses to grow and develop… as men do in CEO positions. But at different times in the business cycle, it’s really good to have women.
I wouldn’t want all mining companies to have female CEOs, but I think having a number of women CEOs would be a good thing over the next decade.
Interestingly, there are more women coming into the financial side of mining too. I’ve been in an investor facing role for 6-7 years now, and investors have been predominantly male and Caucasian. But now there are more young women moving into capital markets and taking up analyst roles too, which is really great.
CL: What do you think companies could do to open up these types of roles to more women in the future?
MA: Part of the challenge is making sure women get a diverse range of experiences. The broader the range of experiences we have the better, the more capable we will be at the CEO level.
Once you get to CEO level, it’s all about being able to work broadly across the different technologies and challenges that a business has. It’s important not only to have diverse people in your team but also to use their skill sets and talents. Put different people into different roles, not just the ones we’re comfortable with them doing.
We’re on the cusp of a lot of that happening, because there have been women in the industry for 15-25 years, who now have the right experience range to step up into those top roles.
CL: What role do you think technology can plan in helping to make the industry a more diverse and accepting place to work?
MA: It’s got huge potential. Again though, it’s all about how do we apply it?
One of the encouraging things about using more autonomous machinery, taking people away from the coal face, is not only the health and safety outcome, but it also means we can relocate people into towns or cities. Once we centralise some of these roles, we open up our industry to a much more diverse group of people.
We’ve seen examples of that at the remote operations centres that BHP and Rio have put into Perth and Brisbane. They’re very close to having a 50/50 gender balance. I think one is at 49/51, one’s at 61/49.
People of all different backgrounds and nationalities are coming together at those centres. They have people from medical sciences, paramedics, engineers, accountants and traffic controllers.
Yes, you need to have people with domain expertise, but where there is a lot of focus around analysis guidelines, thinking about what does that say? What is the most appropriate action? There is a lot of opportunity there to apply those diverse skill sets and experiences.
I was lucky enough to go to the Ford factory recently. They have created a digital twin of the factory and were using it to look at how people interacted with the machinery, and the muscular skeletal effect it was having. They were not only redesigning the work, but also developing exoskeletons with a partner company to help the operators.
One was like a vest and it helped support people lifting or holding their arms up when working underneath cars on the assembly line.
I was talking to some of the guys and gals who trialled them about the impact that had on their home life. One guy was saying that before he couldn’t go home and pick up his four-year-old child, but now he can. I think there are many opportunities to use technology to make quite dramatic changes for people.
The other thing we can do with technology now, as we bring communication systems and sensors into remote areas, is to share that and help benefit local industries. For example, agriculture could potentially be advantaged by some of the technology that we have detecting things like soil, rain and atmospheric conditions. It frees people up to work more inclusively with the mining industry.
CL: To round things off, which other women in mining do you look up to and why?
MA: There is a whole range of women I look up to, from the young, to those in GM roles, to those who are further into their careers.
When you look up to some people it’s not in all aspects necessarily. People like Gina Rinehart, she has done a great job in establishing herself in the mining industry. Making decisions, getting a couple of mines up and running. There are other aspects around her that are challenging, but you have got to admire her for what she has done.
Cynthia Carroll for being one of the first female CEOs in mining and taking on that challenge. I think she’s quite admirable.
The CEO of FMG, Elizabeth Gaines, she had done a great job of leading the company. And the deputy CEO, Julie Shuttleworth, she will go far too.
Then there are some great young millennials. I had a young lady in my team who is now working for Mining3 who is a mechatronics engineer. She is smart and savvy, hardworking. And she was prepared to put her ideas on the table.
Janine Herzig from AusIMM [president and chair of the board]; she gets out there and opens a lot of the technical briefings. Her personality and energy really bring a lot to the industry.
I met the lady who’s the head of diversity for Newcrest recently and she is really talented as well. She spoke so well about some of the challenges we have in communities and how we can manage diversity issues.
There are just so many great women in mining right now.