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Re-designing workplaces for successful female inclusion in mining

Kristy Christensen MAusIMM Female Inclusion Expert and Director, Shesfreetobe Ltd
ยท 1100 words, 4 min read

This article explores the next steps for female inclusion in the resources sector, and what the industry needs to do now to welcome, value and consider women in onsite roles. A key factor is ensuring leaders and colleagues at the coal face are not excluded.

I am sitting 520 metres underground, deep breathing, absolutely exhausted and nauseous.

I have ridden a rollercoaster of emotions this morning. I sway between the excitement that after two years this is finally happening, to being terrified of how my situation works in this workplace environment.

I have no idea what to do and for the first time in my mining career, I made the rookie mistake of forgetting to grab a self-rescuer. I am grateful one of my friends on night shift was kind enough to hand me his on his way out of the mine.

I found out I was pregnant two weeks ago while I was on holiday. I work for a large multi-national mining company and before I returned, I interrogated our policies for guidance on my next steps and found nothing other than a mention of ‘suitable duties’. No one has been pregnant while working underground here and I am anxious. When do I tell my supervisor? What if I have a miscarriage underground? ‘What if’s’ swirl around my head and inside I’m panicking. I love my role as a geotechnical engineer: its challenging, dynamic and no day is ever the same. But today, I have no playbook for this and apparently, neither does my employer.

“Trust isn't built in grand gestures, but in the small moments that people treat what is important to you, with care.” Brene Brown

As women in mining, we are being squashed into, and try to fit ourselves into a workplace that was made by men, for men. That workplace needs to be re-designed to work for women.

If we asked ‘why’ we are struggling to create a truly inclusive workplace, one could well find the ‘root cause’ to be a lack of belonging, which as a human race, is one of our biggest fears.

A woman’s experience of a workplace is like a soundtrack; when she moves through that space, bumping into numerous and accumulating barriers, the song isn’t uplifting. She raises these barriers with leadership but nothing happens to fix it, so she concludes that she must be the problem. These barriers are normalised as ‘what I have to do to work here’ and she silently gets on with it.

But some workplaces do not welcome women, value them or consider how women move through that space in the same way that a truly well-designed – and inclusive – workspace can.

Women are functionally different; they have unique needs and experiences that workplaces must consider. An example is pregnancy. The resources industry has a lack of research and action around addressing how working in hazardous spaces affects mothers and unborn children. In 2020, I surveyed women in mining across Australia and New Zealand and 78 per cent of women that had been pregnant at work were still not provided with maternity wear, even when it exists in the marketplace.

The central values of my consulting company, Shesfreetobe, are curiosity, courage and care. We are a walking playbook detailing stories of success and failure, and how we can achieve better female inclusion in the resources sector.

But we are missing a large part of our understanding, because the largest proportion of people who create the culture at the ‘coal face’ are frustrated and struggling to be on this inclusion journey with us. The importance of inclusive workplaces has become clear to boards and management, but frontline leaders and operators may still be grappling with it – you need only to jump on a social media page to see this.

Many men in our mining workplaces feel excluded. There is fear and resistance around what they consider the inclusion of women to be, and they feel that if women win, they lose. This makes them feel less secure in their roles where they have traditionally been the breadwinner and there is fear around a changing workplace landscape. Their own working environment is shifting, they are not sure how to behave and the change is uncomfortable.

The focus on mentoring, sponsoring and coaching women is wonderful, it builds healthy resilience, provides a sense of community and provides many tools to manage what can be a tough workplace; but women don’t need fixing.

A massive blind spot to unlocking the value of inclusion is in engaging and educating operators and frontline leaders. As employers, we need to meet them where they are at and help them build an understanding of how to lead and support women, providing them with the tools for success.

To build understanding, compassion and empathy, we need to have courage to listen to authentic and vulnerable stories from within organisations, or seek help from others (organisations or individuals) who deeply understand the resources workplace. Sharing these stories, and seeking help, opens the door and shines a light on a different perspective. This openness allows leaders and colleagues to feel, see and be involved in the transformation to a more inclusive workplace. There are incredible men out there who took the time to teach me much of what I know about mining, and we can create more of those people who are pillars of shining light. Discomfort is where the most significant progress can be made.

Underground can feel like the last frontier for female inclusion. I created Shesfreetobe to help organisations understand how to break down all those small barriers through workplace design assessments, better policy and education, so their workplace can successfully retain women. This was echoed by the recent AusIMM Women in Mining Survey, with facilities and childcare being front and centre (the 2021 summary report noted that ‘amenities and travel support are improving, but there is room for improvement on health services and childcare.’)

But the linchpin is the power of words and stories for leaders and colleagues on the ground who create the feel of a place, face-to-face with women working in mining every day. To gift them with these tools achieves success from all those small moments that matter.

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