Women in mining: roadblocks, opportunities, inspiration

December 4, 2023
Automation maven Peta Chirgwin discusses the changing face of mining operations

After 20 years working in mining operations, Peta Chirgwin has many invaluable insights into, and suggestions for improving, this global industry.

Recent articles have addressed mining’s bad reputation, and what can be done about it; the Toronto DMNA 2022 where we met Chirgwin also tackled this issue, which includes
both attracting and retaining female talent. And while women in mining were well
represented at this conference, and organizations supporting women in mining
proliferate, mining continues to have a culture problem to contend with.

We spoke with Chirgwin about her experiences as a woman in mining operations, how it’s changing and where it can go, and how her metaverse project can change the game for everyone.

How mining operations looked for women 2 decades ago

Chirgwin’s career began in hospitality and tourism, not mining. By her early 20s, she was managing 2 hotels and was widely respected by everyone she worked with. She detoured into mining by default after moving to a remote mining town, not knowing anyone else but her then partner.

Deciding to get into mining herself, she was only able to break into the industry by taking on a role as a cleaner and casual safety administrator; this was very “far away from managing a hotel and doing day-to-day things like cost control and staff management.”

Moving to an isolated rural mining town where she only knew one other person was difficult, but Chirgwin also had to deal with mining’s hyper-masculine culture. By the time Chirgwin was offered a role driving rear dump trucks, she was 1 of only 2 women on her first team.

She was repeatedly asked how she got her job—by knowing someone or by sleeping with someone? And she was regularly told she was not wanted there and had taken a “man’s” job.

At age 24, she was added to an all-male team to sort out their disruptive, rowdy, and often crude behavior: “They thought it was my job, not the supervisor’s job, to straighten them out."

She originally intended to, but Chirgwin never returned to tourism, instead spending 9 years as a mine truck driver. There were no clear paths for women to move up the proverbial ladder from driving, and she was often told she couldn’t receive any other machinery tickets and therefore could not become a supervisor.

Fortunately, she eventually met a supervisor who brought her into the control room, where he taught her all about mine fleet management and the complex work that occurs there.

This mentor “was one of a handful of people who stood up from the crowd and said, ‘I'll show you something new, I'll cut you a break.’” But despite this invaluable control room experience, she was “never offered the job permanently; when it came up, it was always offered to a man who had no experience in it.”

Beginning to gain some confidence in her unique skills, she later moved to another mine for a permanent controller’s/supervisor’s job; here too, Chirgwin felt like she was being held back. By this time, she’d earned a Bachelor’s in Business and a graduate diploma in health and safety, and was working on a Master’s in Business (Occupational Health and Safety).

However, when applying for safety positions in mining, she was told she was either too qualified or not qualified enough. At the same time, she noted male coworkers being moved into senior safety positions despite having no leadership or safety qualifications and only minimal time on site. But she’d chosen to stay in mining, in spite of ongoing discouragement and harassment: “I’ll decide when I’m ready to leave mining, not you.”

This pattern—being recognized as highly talented, given greater responsibilities but no formal job security or recognition, interacting daily with male colleagues and management who didn’t respect or support her—continued, and was not isolated to Chirgwin; this experience was felt by many women in mining at the time.

Against these odds, Chirgwin continued developing her mining operations expertise to create her career own path. This path soon turned towards automation.

Bigger and brighter things

Chirgwin witnessed new technology being adopted in mining operations at an incredible rate—especially in the control room—whether or not it made sense. This scattershot approach involved the mine spending incredible amounts of money on technology without considering the people involved; this contributed to high turnover and compromised workers’ mental health and well-being. Control room staff had to keep sharp eyes on all these proliferating systems and the already very intense workload just increased.

Seeing this trend, Chirgwin decided to do a Ph.D. focusing on human factors in technology. She told her senior site executive she wanted to do this because she was sure automation would become pervasive in mining; he scoffed: “That’s never going to happen here,” but, of course, it did.

He suggested she instead become an engineer, because it would “‘help you get work.’ He
wasn’t wrong,” Chirgwin acknowledged, “but we need diversity of thought” in
this complex industry. We fully agree.

How mining works for—and doesn’t—women now

Chirgwin has experienced issues besides direct sexism and limited advancement opportunities; for example: “I couldn’t get safety shoes that fit me. They only had men’s sized shoes, so I had to special order them in and wait a few weeks before I could start work.” (PPE for women in “male” jobs remains a problem, which startup Covergalls is helping to address.) Chirgwin was also, of course, asked/told any number of times to
make someone coffee and take notes during meetings.

It’s been a long, hard road with many roadblocks and few people to help her. The kind of harassment, including sexual harassment, that she’s faced remains a major issue for women in mining operations roles.

Obvious sexual harassment is less tolerated now than it used to be, though, and “the Australian government is committed to providing resources to deal with gender issues” in mining; this includes a government-mandated 50/50 gender-based hiring. Things are changing but “We’ve still got a long way to go. If we don’t talk about it, it’s just the same story.”

For example, while leading a team in a large organization, all Chirgwin's staff filled engineering roles and reflected the 50/50 split. Only 1 male staff member had an undergraduate engineering degree; the rest were less qualified, while all the women had post-graduate degrees but were paid less than their male teammates, regardless of experience.

Such an environment harms women, obviously, but it’s also bad for male staff: “It’s hard for a man to stand up as an individual in a group, just as it is for a woman” to do, “because they’re the ones that get victimized and ostracized. They leave or join the pack.” No company benefits from losing staff members who care about other staff, nor from the toxic morale that results from such workplace dynamics.

Working towards change

Changing traditionally male-dominated mining operations culture recalls “that old adage about trying to turn a big ship around,” Chirgwin said. It takes a long time and requires widespread, sustained buy-in and support, especially from decision-makers.

Chirgwin offered these suggestions for moving things forward:

  • “Recruiting for talent and behavior rather than for gender” will help prevent “ostracizing any group.” The 50/50 gender split won’t help anyone if too few women are available while qualified men aren’t hired.
  • Make sure you create the right resources and infrastructure, because “it doesn’t help to bring a bunch of women in if there isn’t support in place to help them succeed.”
  • “Think about work design and what that looks like” and “the biases that can inadvertently” be included. Everything from wording to imagery can reflect and perpetuate unconscious bias, so it’s crucial to get this right.
  • “Consider children and future generations and start young; bias doesn’t just show up when you turn up to work. Make sure there’s representation at home and at school” of women taking on and exceling in all fields of study and work, but particularly those many still erroneously consider to be “man’s work.”
Work-life balance

In that first job, Chirgwin’s mental health suffered despite being what some would call “successful.” She thought, “I’m just being a whinger and I need to get over it.” But having a life outside work was impossible—and if nothing else, the global Covid-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear just how much we all need community, joy, and activities outside work, for sanity’s sake.

Working 12-13-hour days, waking at 5 a.m. and getting home after 7 p.m., not going out afterwards, and not having time to join community activities, left Chirgwin extremely isolated. “I didn’t want a relationship with any of the men on site, so where do you meet someone?”

She moved a lot as well, usually from one small mining town to another, further reducing options for a full life. “I’ve never married or had children and I think that has a lot to do with my roster and my experiences in mining.”

Operations vs. corporate

Chirgwin is not the only one to experience these choices and limitations; mining operations is difficult for most: “There are really high rates of divorce in mining and affairs are prevalent, especially in remote fly-in/fly-out situations,” which may include 2-week on, 2-week off shifts.

Corporate mining, conversely, can offer more predictable, 9-5 working hours, from an office or from home (especially during the pandemic). For operations, “You have to be there on the mine site; if you want to go on leave, you have to ask in advance; if your kids are sick, you have to get someone else to look after them.”

The profound differences between corporate and operations mining can obscure the realities of work experiences like Chirgwin’s: “You’ve got a lot of people at conferences who say, ‘My company is fantastic, and mining is fantastic; it’s flexible, you can choose your pathway.’ It is, but you need to get to those roles, which can be challenging”—particularly for women, even now.

Connecting and growing in the metaverse

Social costs, limited career opportunities, isolation, and accelerating automation technology adoption in mining operations all helped Chirgwin decide to start her own business, Cameleon Mettle Group. The company’s name is “all about change, transformation, and resilience” and “being able to help people.”

Chameleon Mettle provides human-system integration and implements healthy workplace infrastructure services; part of this is PETEC, Chirgwin’s subscription-based metaverse, which enables exploring, mentoring, collaboration, learning, and career development for staff in often geographically dispersed mining companies.

The PETEC metaverse is being designed to ease the difficulties of automation for mining industry professionals: In spite of mining’s continued investment in technology to streamline operations, workers often still “don’t know automation is coming; their supervisors or their leadership team haven’t told them.”

And they don’t know what their career options are; as Chirgwin noted, “People don’t know what’s going on at other mines. They can’t really access mentors. Generally, on their days off, they don’t want to attend conferences, mentoring events, or networking events” which might involve driving long distances; “they want to spend time with their families.” With the metaverse, mining staff of all kinds can engage in these activities either at work or home, where it takes an hour instead of a day.

Chirgwin sees incredible opportunity here and we think her metaverse initiative makes both fantastic human and business sense: “How great would it be if we could empower our employees, so that they know that in 1- or 5- or 10-years’ time, our plan is for our mine to go autonomous? Or to know about any other major, disruptive change that is about to occur in the workplace?” Such commitment and communication could lead to much happier and more effective workers.

The metaverse will enable management to speak to staff directly about both current and future roles at all their sites. Employees would could then advance or shift their career goals, being in a position to say, “‘Wow, I really like the idea of that, I’ve been over to that other site every day this week through the metaverse; they’re doing some really cool things and I want to go there.’” In other words, the PETEC metaverse can help realize the
culture shift mining so desperately needs.

Advice for young professionals

When we asked what she might say to those either just starting out or considering working in the mining industry, Chirgwin admitted, “A decade ago, I really would have been hesitant” to encourage women to pursue a mining career.

Now, however, she would say, “Mining is good, there are lots of opportunities. Just because I struggled, it doesn’t mean everyone’s going to struggle.” But, she urged, “If you’re going into an operations role, the key is understanding what your career path is going to look like,” even if that means “driving a truck” for the foreseeable future.

Further, “Study, figure out what courses, training, and education you need; figure out a plan to get there, get a mentor.” A good mentor can help younger workers avoid some of
the speed bumps Chirgwin and her female peers have experienced.

She also wisely suggested considering how mining work fits into one’s life plans: “What are you going to do with your money? Have a plan for your life. How are you going to manage commitments to family and friends?”

This kind of thoughtful preparation will make mining operations much more satisfying but “there will still be roadblocks and challenges,” Chirgwin said. So, most of all, go in with your eyes open.

Leading the charge

Industry leaders like Chirgwin have, and continue to make, major contributions in mining operations—while also advocating for much-needed changes in culture and communication. The changes she promotes reflect shifting social values, better meet business requirements in a tech-connected world than “the way we’ve always done it” ever could, and support employee well-being and success.

The future of mining is a connected one, a human one, one built by and for people. Yes, mining is all about moving rocks around. But for trailblazers like Peta Chirgwin, it’s also about moving mountains so more people enjoy equitable access to all the benefits available in this essential, global industry.


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