One of the most interesting conference streams that I attended at the annual SME meeting in Phoenix in February was not on tailings management, or preconcentration or anything technology based…
In fact, it was billed as ‘Women in Mining’ but, in reality, it covered much more.
The programme brought together entrepreneurs, executives and researchers for a practical look at diversity and inclusion and what does and doesn’t work, both from a personal and enterprise perspective.
So often when I sit in on these types of sessions the audience is mainly female. However, this time the room was packed with men and women from all walks of life, and all eyes were on the stage; not a furtive WhatsApp conversation or below- the-chair-line email in sight.
Clearly the theme struck a chord, and so I asked Resa Furey and Victoria Gosteva who co-organised the session if they would like to explore the topic further with me.
“I’m glad that you liked the broader focus, because next year the session is going to be called ‘international diversity in mining’,” Furey told me.
Rise of the millennials
This transition is a timely one given the wider recognition that women are just one underrepresented group within the global mining workforce and that, as an industry, we need to shift away from focusing purely on diversity targets and work harder to make those members of the community who are in a minority feel like they belong.
“The momentum has been growing over the past year or two,” said Gosteva. “I think it’s due to a broad range of things, but the main one is that the global workforce is going to change. By 2025, it will be made up of around 75% millennials. So naturally businesses are looking to change, to become more attractive and compete for the best talent. It’s happening in every industry. The workforce is changing, so businesses have to adapt.”
Furey agreed: “The millennial workforce is going to demand different things from employers. The industry in general has talked a lot about diversity, and now they’re getting diverse candidates into their companies, they need to figure out how to include them better. Otherwise they have a revolving door.
“Inclusion really is the hardest part. What can you do to make a diverse co-worker or colleague feel like they fit in, like they belong, and that they’re included? Those are concepts that the industry is grappling with right now.
“I think women in mining happen to be the most prominent piece of that equation, but now we want to think beyond just gender diversity. We want to think about racial diversity, cultural diversity, about disability diversity… That’s where the industry wants and needs to go now.”
Technology also instigates change
The interesting thing is that it’s not just the changing workforce that is driving this shift. The mining process itself and the way that digital technologies are influencing and enabling the way we work also require different skill sets and experiences of workers. This is opening the industry to a fresh and diverse pool of talent.
For example, equipment vendor Sandvik recently published an article explaining why it is looking outside of the traditional pool of talent to industries including computer gaming to help advance its R&D efforts in mining.
The rise of autonomous technologies and remote operations are also increasing the number of opportunities for flexible working arrangements that are not constrained by physical geographies; something that will appeal to many different demographics.
Gosteva pointed out that while we still have a long way to go when it comes to promoting and empowering women as part of the mining workforce, that is really just the start of the industry’s journey into diversity.
“Women in mining… in the beginning it was necessary for women to have that space to get together and support each other, but it also has another side,” she mused. “The name itself implies exclusivity as opposed to inclusivity.
“One of my team members told me recently that he wasn’t going to sign up for an event because he assumed it was just for women. That’s exactly the opposite of what women in mining organisations would like to see. They would like to attract more male allies to help them move the cause along.
“So, it’s good to see that the whole narrative is changing from women in mining to diversity and inclusion.”
Furey founded the SME International Women in Mining conference session four years ago along with Fortescue Metals Group’s deputy CEO, Julie Shuttleworth.
“Julie was my co-conspirator when we put together the session,” Furey explained. “We both had the same ideas and we played off of each other’s strengths to solidify what the session would be about; it’s designed to inspire women and other diverse populations to create their future in the mining industry.”
Furey and Gosteva met several years later, purely by chance, whilst waiting in line for a flight. The two work for competing engineering firms (Stantec and Black & Veatch respectively) but their passion for the diversity and inclusion cause united them.
They are both now members of the Women in Mining Denver chapter and worked together to build and chair this year’s SME International Women in Mining conference stream.
“When we put the programme together this year, we wanted to make it more broadly about diversity and inclusion, because that benefits women in mining too,” Gosteva explained. “Then the whole story changes, from ‘we need to help the poor, suppressed women’ to a much stronger case of ‘let’s look at everyone through the same lens; gender, race, religion, sexual orientation’, it doesn’t matter, everyone has an equal opportunity.
“Secondly, we wanted to make it practical. I think most people understand why diversity is important. We wanted to be useful to our audience and focus on practical steps and what can one do to get ahead in their career. We designed our session to help people get answers to some of those questions.”
Leading by example
Three of my favourite speakers were Emily King, CEO and founder of Global Venture Consulting, former Newmont CEO and now BHP non-exec director, Gary Goldberg, and former Vedanta Resources and Rio Tinto CEO, Tom Albanese.
It’s rare to see C-suite executives debating an issue like this, and it sends a very powerful message.
“What I liked about what Gary had to say was the approach that they’re taking at Newmont, it really is all about allies,” said Furey. “Instead of just having a women in mining group, Newmont has a ‘Women and Allies’ group. By adding allies, the company builds a supporting structure around the group so the individuals within it can be successful. That’s a real example of inclusion.”
Gosteva worked with both Goldberg and Albanese at Rio Tinto. Albanese was CEO of the company and Goldberg was CEO of the Rio Tinto Minerals group in Denver at the time.
“They both have a great reputation in the industry. They’ve always supported the cause,” she explained. “That was why we thought it was valuable to hear their experiences and the advice that they had to share.”
“Yes, we need more people like the two of them,” Furey added. “And having them there on the panel, along with Emily… I love learning from example.
“Emily was a really strong role model for women in the audience. And then the two CEOs, they were good role models for the men. They all spoke about what they did in positions of power. And I think that was good for encouraging others to do the same.”
Furey is right, we need more visible role models like King, Albanese and Goldberg, because, as the old adage goes, you can’t be (or it’s very hard to become) what you can’t see.
So, what were the key takeaways from the event?
During her presentation, King raised an important point about addressing unconscious bias; something that is still very pervasive in this industry.
She described a situation where she was running an exploration programme in Afghanistan and was asked to approve some funding. The high-ranking official who had asked refused to believe she had the authority to sign for it, because she was a young female.
The topic was also a talking point at the Developing Diversity in Mining workshop which was held as part of the SME Arizona conference last December.
“Most of the challenges around gender equality are due to unconscious bias,” said Gosteva. “And you have to recognise it to start addressing it. It’s good to always have it in the back of your mind, that’s the answer, really.”
On the practical side, King, Albanese and Goldberg all mentioned that if you want to rise up the ranks, regardless of your gender, ethnicity… whatever, you will need a higher capacity for risk.
“If you’re not getting ahead, look at your risk appetite,” Gosteva summarised. “Be willing to take some of the more challenging roles that maybe not everyone is chasing. In mining that could mean a remote location or a really challenged part of the business that’s not performing well.
“Also get comfortable with failure, early and often. It’s okay. And remember that ultimately, we all own our own career. Speak up, set clear expectations of what you want. Build your allies network. And then if things are still not working out, it’s up to you. You have to own it. Don’t wait for someone to come and help you.”
You can go your own way
I have had, and read, many discussions about how we can boost the number of diverse leaders in this industry. For example, the number of female mining executives remains extremely low across the board.
But what many debates fail to recognise is that the power to change that could lie within our own hands.
The number of female entrepreneurs in mining is tiny but, as King pointed out, speaking from experience, if you don’t see the opportunity that you want, then why not create it for yourself?
And perhaps that is how we change the status quo?
There is a very good chance that the future of the mining sector lies with smaller, more nimble companies that can mobilise and de-mobilise their operations quickly to react to changes in the markets and manage their risk profiles.
The behemoths will always exist, but there is plenty of scope for competition and innovation. Those small businesses could be started by… well, anybody.
We have seen similar moves in the retail sector where a huge number of businesses and start-ups are owned by women or those from minority groups. Having seen a niche in the market and craving more autonomy or flexibility in their work life, those people went forth and created their own companies, shifting the balance of the industry.
“I agree completely,” Gosteva said. “I really liked how Emily made it a very valid option. For women or men. Anyone really. If you go down the entrepreneurial route, it doesn’t have to be for the rest of your life. It’s just the next phase, and it can be very beneficial because, as a business owner, you will learn every aspect of how to run a business.”
Gosteva added that she would like to see more discussion at SME next year on the work/life balance.
“As Emily said, you have to look at your career from a holistic perspective, because you have other things in life… family, whatever it is,” she said. “It’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. It’s not just your job that makes you happy.”
How to keep the conversation going?
I asked Furey and Gosteva what we can do to foster more open discussions like this, both at mining events and in the wider workplace.
“The more people who raise their hands to ask questions, and the more you get people speaking at the podium about diversity, the more the conversation will spread and resonate,” said Furey. “Participation is key. It’s about more than just filling the room. It’s about giving people an opportunity to hear themselves speak about these topics.”
The media has its role to play too. By creating thoughtful and engaging content and initiating discussions around that, we can increase awareness and normalise the discussion of such issues.
Buy-in from leadership is also vital.
Albanese and Goldberg were two good examples of this, and BHP’s former CEO, Andrew Mackenzie, was another. He wrote multiple articles for the company’s blog during his tenure documenting BHP’s progress towards its 50:50 workforce gender balance goal by 2025.
I always read them with interest, because alongside the successes he also included the statistics that weren’t so good and spoke frankly about how they could be improved.
BHP’s target is an ambitious one. The company may or may not achieve it, but it is better to try and fail than to not try at all. As the world’s biggest mining company, its efforts are very visible. And where big companies lead and set standards, others will follow.
Which leads us nicely to institutionalisation.
By formalising a company’s efforts, creating committees, implementing targets and metrics around that (because, as Goldberg said, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”) it elevates diversity and inclusion from being just a topic of discussion to part of a business plan.
And that, my friends, is how we move this transformation forward.
If diversity is actually a strength it will happen naturally through merit based hiring. This attempt to force it will only set the industry back.