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Diversity in mining: A gender, role and vision Issue

Anna Saghabalyan and Nara Ghazaryan
ยท 2000 words, 8 min read

Discussion on gender diversity in the mining industry is increasing as research project after research project show that companies that embrace gender and broader diversity perform better on almost all performance dimensions.

Yet, multiple studies continue to show that the industry struggles to attract women. Mining lags behind almost all other industries, including oil and gas, in gender parity (PWC, 2013). Industry has responded by genuinely trying to fill the gap, mostly by filling vacancies.

Just as the industry seemed to be progressing on diversity and inclusion targets, Rio Tinto’s ‘Everyday Respect’ report highlighting bullying, sexual assault and racism in the workplace brought the keywords 'hostile to women' and 'boys club' back into industry discussions. The report presents a shocking compilation of evidence of harassment and abuse and is quite a blow to an industry that has been struggling to get rid of such labels.

The issue though is deeper than labels. It is a multi-layered issue of what it will take for industry to ensure tangible, qualitative diversity. What is the mining industry still getting wrong on its quest for gender balance and representation? While research indicates benefits from embracing diversity, turning quantitative targets into qualitative inclusion remains a challenge. 

John Harker, a former chief negotiator in a number of mining and extractive related conflicts in places such as Sudan and Colombia, warns against a ‘tick-a-box’ approach: ‘This whole fascination nowadays with environmental, social and governance (ESG) seems to me to offer an opportunity. However, we should also be conscious that hiring women must not be seen as a tick-box exercise to comply with those ESG requirements. In a way, that can be a retrograde step that will not help in ensuring that women are not being sidelined from positions of power.’

Gillian Davidson, a board of directors member at International Women in Mining and a number of mining companies argues: ‘One woman on the board does not create a revolution, even having many women in boards or management is not using all potential. There’s a real role of influencing the other board members, and the senior management team, so that everybody sees that as an important aspect of the business and core to business success. The more we can get senior men speaking to this agenda, that’s when this will change. Women would not make the breakthroughs, it is men that will make the breakthroughs, they still hold the power.’

The discipline diversity issue

Liz Wall, a non-executive director and an experienced social performance expert in the resources sector, believes that the industry is striving to employ more women, with a variety of initiatives to increase diversity (beyond just gender diversity), such as quotas, mentoring, preferential hiring and networking. But there is both a supply and demand side to this equation. Demand has certainly increased, as has supply, but not always at the same rate. For an industry in which ‘years of experience’ was long afforded significant weight in hiring decisions, there is a need to better open the door for more diverse experiences, backgrounds and expertise.  

Mining schools have traditionally enrolled more men than women and even in the most advanced mining economies, despite real effort, greater parity hasn’t emerged. As of 2020, the gender ratio in the Colorado School of Mines was 31 per cent women vs 69 per cent men. This leads to an objective issue of lack of trained women professionals. Moreover, do the women who do end up in the industry, with a mining specific degree or not, get a seat at the decision-making table?

According to McKinsey research, the drop-off from entry level to executive for females in mining is among the most dramatic across all industries. The study highlights three factors driving women out of mining: the work ceases to be interesting, the culture is non-inclusive, and there is a perceived lack of advancement.

The issue of a seat at the table and meaningful contributions to decision-making may not always be solely a gender issue, but rather an issue of role, the mandate that the role carries and professional discipline. Luc Zandvliet, a leading industry social performance expert, states ‘I don’t think that gender is the only reason why some women may feel their ideas are less acknowledged within an organisation. Some disciplines in an organisation simply have less clout than others. Social Performance is a classic one. We’re all struggling to be heard, whether we are female or male. In some organisations, that would make it doubly challenging for women.’  

The issue of role rather than gender as a possible reason for limited participation in decision-making processes seems clear. While pressing ESG issues have increasingly determined the fate of mining enterprises, the professional discipline profile in executive boardrooms hasn’t changed to keep abreast of the issues.

Multiple studies indicate that it is ESG-related risks, not technical risks, that become a hurdle in getting a mining project into production stage. For example, a sample of 308 undeveloped copper deposits indicates that 96 per cent of projected future supply involves multiple forms of concurrent ESG-related risk that are largely price insensitive. Better copper prices won’t guarantee a path to project success, because ESG-related issues may be the real hurdle. 

KPMG’s annual survey of the industry regularly identifies community relations, political instability and permitting among the top risks the industry faces. This presents a challenge to companies with less discipline diversity in their senior management and board roles.

John Harker reflects on the ‘experience pride’ in the industry. ‘I have often had to at least imply, if not say directly – “you have 30 years of experience, so you may have been making the same mistakes over those 30 years. Having diverse opinions at the table could identify something that no one has ever thought of, and that could be a way forward.”

Nellie Mutemeri, an independent consultant and Associate Professor with long industry experience, identifies that women are often encouraged into the ‘soft’, non-technical side of the industry, such as ESG related roles, and the ‘soft’ side has less say. ‘At a mine operation, traditionally a mining engineer, processing manager or sometimes a geologist are the professionals whose opinions are taken into account or rated higher. So, if you represent the ‘soft’ areas, the specific chauvinism of industry is such that your opinion may be ignored.’ 

Whether or not being heard in the industry is a gender, cultural or role issue, research suggests that women tend to speak up with less confidence than their men peers. The authors of a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times ‘Speaking While Female’  refers to a number of research studies that male executives who speak more often than their peers are perceived to be more competent, while female executives who speak up are deemed less competent. Women are also quite commonly interrupted by men during meetings and tend to hold back as a result. The term ‘manterrupting’ appeared several years ago to describe this issue. How much confidence does it take from a woman manager with non-technical background to push for an issue to be taken seriously, especially after regularly being ‘manterrupted’?

A recent Harvard Business Review study reflects upon company transformations, suggesting that only 22 per cent of the companies studied successfully transformed themselves. The study identifies six common attributes of companies that have undergone the most successful transformations. Three of those attributes deal with employee satisfaction, and three relate to diversity and inclusivity, including the number of women employees and that of women managers.

Mining is an industry built on phased transformation. From exploration to construction and operation, a project undergoes significant changes, and while a large mining corporation itself may not be transforming frequently, its operations all over the world constantly transform. Junior companies are in a constant state of transformation. Studies suggest that juniors skew heavily to filling leadership roles with geologists and mining engineers — fields where women are traditionally under-represented. Could this be at least one reason why so many undeveloped mining projects are stuck in or challenged with political and social issues?

What can be done? 

The authors of this article have worked for several years in the ‘soft’ side in a challenged project. While there may be a multitude of subjective political issues around ’challenging’ projects, there are also things any company can do to ensure diversity of thought to be better prepared for these challenges. Here are some suggestions. 

  • Make sure you have gender, experience and background diversity in management teams. Make sure the reports you get from site are not filtered by people having the same age, gender and professional background. Don’t wait for reports to come to your corporate office. Reach out to diverse groups of people on site and listen to them. 
  • Do not underestimate local capacity. A mine manager may have 30 years of mining experience, but will you necessarily benefit from ranking their opinion on a political or social issue in context higher than that of a local ‘soft side’ manager with no mining degree but with knowledge of socio-political realities on the ground? 
  • Open the door to executive committee and board meetings to a wider range of team members, let some fresh air and thinking in. Research continuously proves that engaging larger teams in decision making processes and ensuring diversity around the table frequently guarantees better results.
  • Look for talent, not just experience and training. By missing out women the industry misses out on at least half of the available talent in the market. You want to get ahead by attracting and keeping the best. Put extra effort into it. From hiring practices to promotion criteria and daily corporate culture - everything needs to be examined. It needs leadership beyond just setting hiring targets.

About the authors

Anna Saghabalyan was Director of Communications at “Lydian International”, a junior company with a flagship gold project in Armenia, from 2012-2020. Prior to that she has worked as the Director of Communications in one of the leading NGOs in Armenia, the Civilitas Foundation. Currently she holds advisory and consulting roles on communications and ESG related matters in private and public sectors.

Nara Ghazaryan served as Director of Social performance at “Lydian International” in 2011-2020, managing CSR and social performance. Before that she worked as an independent consultant in Afghanistan to evaluate a multi-million dollar program. Nara is currently a freelance consultant in areas of land acquisition, social impact assessment and stakeholder engagement in private sector. 

Editor's note: A version of this article appeared originally on


PWC, 2013. Mining for talent: A study of women on boards in the mining industry by WIM (UK) and PwC

US News, 2022, Best Colleges Rankings, Colorado School of Mines

McKinzey and Company, 2021, Why women are leaving the mining industry and what mining companies can do about it, by Hannah Ellix et al.

Journal of Cleaner Production, 2019, Re-thinking complex orebodies: Consequences for the future world supply of copper, by Rick Valenta et al.

KPMG, 2021, Global Mining Risk Survey, by KPMG

The New York Times, 2015, Speaking While Female, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Time, 2015, How Not to Be 'Manterrupted' in Meetings, by Jessica Bennett

Harvard Business Review, 2021, The Secrets Behind Successful Corporate Transformations, by Paul. A. Argenti et al.

Osler, 2021, Diversity among directors and executives in Canada’s mining industry, by Osler

Harvard Business School, 2020, Why managers should involve their team in the decision-making process, by Lauren Landry

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