Women in mining have come a long way, writes Shivani Poovalingam from Halo Media.

Last year in South Africa, the mining sector employed 453 543 people. This in turn contributed R22-billion in taxes and R127.4-billion in employee earnings. Of the 453 543 people employed, 16% were women in top management, 17% were women in senior management, 24% were women who were professionally qualified employees and 18% were women who were employed in the skilled and technical areas. Without context, these numbers may seem insignificant. However, look into the past, and a different picture emerges.

Source: Minerals Coucil South Africa

In the past, women were barred from entering the mining industry at an underground level. Legislative restrictions, gender restrictions, and even superstition stood in the way of them proving what a valuable resource they would be to the industry. Women have come a long way in breaking down legal and social barriers to cement their place in the mining sector.

Mandlakazi Semani, the first black plant manager at Kumba Iron Ore’s Kolomela mine in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Image credit: Leon Louw

Mandlakazi Semani, the first black plant manager at Kumba Iron Ore’s Kolomela mine in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Image credit: Leon Louw

Barred from mining

The South African Minerals Act of 1991 legally prohibited women from working underground. However, there were no laws that prevented them from working in mines above ground, so a few women chose to do so.

Working underground is dangerous and requires extensive physical training. As a result, mining has always been a male-dominated sector. Women were considered physically incapable of working in the mining industry as they were seen as weaker than men. It was believed that certain mining methods could only be carried out by males. Add to that the high temperature in a mine, and women were ruled out completely.

As bizarre as it sounds, women were labelled as bad luck if they stepped foot in a coal mine.

Prianka Padayachee is a face-boss at Anglo American Coal’s Zibulo Colliery in South Africa. Image credit: Anglo American Coal

Prianka Padayachee is a face-boss at Anglo American Coal’s Zibulo Colliery in South Africa. Image credit: Anglo American Coal

Defying the odds

Before women were allowed to work underground, one brave woman challenged legal, physical and social norms when she left her home in search of a better life. Pili Hussein grew up in Tanzania in a large family. Her father, who was a livestock keeper, owned many farms. He often treated Pili like a boy, leaving her in charge of some of the livestock. “I didn’t like that life at all,” says Pili.
At the age of 31, she ran away from an abusive marriage in search of work. She found herself in Mererani, a small town in Tanzania, in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. She soon found out that this was the only place in the world where tanzanite was mined. Pili dressed up like a man, changed her name and entered the mine. She worked 10–12 hours a day in the heat, hundreds of metres below the ground, proving that she was physically capable and had no issues with the temperature. She was known by her co-workers as Uncle Hussein.

“I could go 600m under, into the mine. I would do this more bravely than many other men. I was very strong, and I was able to deliver what men would expect another man could do.”

Pili dug her way to riches when she uncovered two massive clusters of tanzanite stones and used her fortune to build houses for her father, mother and twin sister. She then purchased the tools and resources she would need to start her own company and employed miners to work for her.

Today, Pili owns her own mining company and has 70 employees working for her – paving the way for women in mining and marketing.

Pushing legal boundaries

In 2002, the South African Mining Charter was introduced to begin balancing out the playing field with regards to women in mining. The Charter was introduced to ensure that mining companies included 10% of women in their total workforce by 2009.

Why is it so important for women to be a part of the mining sector? By including women in the mining sector, it not only promotes diversity, but can also improve economic performance and lead to better decision-making processes.

For women, life is a constant balancing game. They juggle careers, children, households, and more, finding solutions to everyday challenges. It’s the reason multitasking comes so naturally to them; making them the ideal problem-solvers in the working world. They also have high emotional intelligence – the ability to recognise one’s own and other people’s emotions and be able to relate. This is the key to both personal and professional success.

Furthermore, the odds are against women to lead. They face constant challenges in what is to some extent still seen as a ‘man’s world’. This gives them more reason to prove themselves and fight for their place at the top.

Women have come a long way in breaking down legal and social barriers to cement their place in the mining sector. Image credit: Freepik

Women have come a long way in breaking down legal and social barriers to cement their place in the mining sector. Image credit: Freepik

Is the number of women in mining growing?

In South Africa and around the world, the demand for women in mining is becoming greater. As a result, more women are beginning to carve out careers in mining, not just underground, but above ground, providing support to those working underground within management, processing plants, smelters, construction, logistics, and so on. Despite many women expressing an interest in the mining sector, we still have a long way to go before we balance out the playing feel in terms of gender.

Furthermore, there are still many factors that prevent women from pursuing a career in mining at an underground level. The reason is that the industry began as a male-only environment, and as a result, it has been adapted to the working needs of men. The Minerals Council is taking active steps towards ensuring that women working underground are more comfortable in their surroundings, by making sure that they have better access to toilets, changing facilities and custom-made PPE. The female body is a lot different to the male body, which is why it is so important to customise PPE according to different shapes and sizes. Something as simple as tailoring the length of the PPE pants could make a huge difference.

What does the industry say?

We did a little digging of our own, and have come across stories, quotes and testimonials from women working in the varying sectors of mining. Wilheminia Manaso, who is the mine manager at BHP Billiton, believes that although mining is not a glamorous career, it can be a fantastic one. She feels that mines were not created with women in mind, which makes sense given the fact that women were barred from underground work in the past. However, she says that this should not prevent them from getting ahead in the industry.

Thuthula Balfour, a qualified doctor who serves as a health adviser at the Minerals Council South Africa, has stayed in the industry due to the dynamic nature of the work. Chairman of Women in Mining South Africa (WiMSA) Lindiwe Nakedi says, “I believe it is imperative to have more young women encouraged to study mining courses, be given scholarships and bursaries, as well as being mentored and sponsored throughout the process for better success rates in the career path, particularly in the technical roles as well as in leadership.”

We also spoke to Ellie Moshoane, manager and director at Hillside Aluminium, who has worked in the mining and metal industry for 17 years. Ellie grew up in a mining town and practically everyone in her town worked on a mine; it’s part of the reason she chose mining as a career. Her high school was regularly visited by mining representatives, who would give students insight into the industry. When they mentioned that the industry paid well, Ellie made up her mind that this was the ideal career choice. Over the years, she has seen an increase in women in mining, particularly in the artisan field.

Like many women in the industry, Ellie faced a lot of challenges when she began her career in mining, specifically with regards to male colleagues. They undermined her capabilities, especially when it came to physical work, and were reluctant to train her, as they assumed that she was weak. Ellie overcame this challenge by completing physical challenges by herself. She also began expanding her knowledge of the equipment and machinery she worked with by reading manuals. She took it one step further by challenging her male colleagues with technical-related questions based on what she had read, which surprised them greatly. Ellie has always enjoyed proving herself by keeping her technical knowledge up to date – it equips her with the skills to lead.

We asked Ellie about the advantages of including women in the mining sector. She says, “Women are strong on emotional intelligence. The mining sector has evolved since the time when swearing and not caring for others was the norm. Companies are building organisational cultures that encourage leaders to talk to the mind and heart of the employee in order to hold them accountable for their deliverables. Many male employees lack this skill and are not comfortable with this culture. Women are able to implement this kind of culture in the workplace, allowing organisations to transform. Women work safer than men as they stick to the rules. Technically, women are excellent at solving problems and they are patient. Being patient allows you to take more time to explain things to others. When a woman is dedicated and passionate about her work, she can do more than what is expected.”

Ellie believes that more women are pursuing an education in mining. However, there are still organisations that are not equipped to employ women. She says that South Africa is ahead of other countries, as there are SA companies with close to 20% female representation, whereas other countries still do not allow women to work in mining.

We asked Ellie if she would ever leave the mining industry. She says no without hesitation. Ellie loves the industry and cannot wait for the day when she is the CEO of a mining company, where she can make a difference to the lives of female employees.

Ellie left us with some great words of wisdom. “It is worth mentioning that how one performs in the mining industry should not be looked at from the point-of-view of whether one is male or female. Growing your career is about how seriously you take yourself and how determined you are to reach for your goals without being derailed by any challenge that you may face. Having courage and perseverance is very important.”

Fhulufhelo Muthelo is an ore reserve manager at Harmony Gold’s Masimong mine in the Free State. Image credit: Harmony

Fhulufhelo Muthelo is an ore reserve manager at Harmony Gold’s Masimong mine in the Free State. Image credit: Harmony

Levelling the playing field

We also spoke to Louise Cunningham, Director of Halo Media. Louise provides marketing and design directly to mines and mining support services. She’s worked with Rio Tinto and South32, from simple communication design like emailers and newsletters; to creating and designing full health and awareness campaigns; and production of videos for sustainable development reports.

Louise brings a wealth of international experience to the mining table and believes that women are well-represented at an administrative level in the mining industry, but on the whole, she says that there seems to be more men than women in the industry.

On her thoughts about why women should become more involved in mining, she says, “It’s traditionally been male territory. However, traditions and times have changed. Gone are the days when there were male-only roles (such as doctors) and female-only roles (such as nurses). Now, with very few exceptions, the playing field is levelled. I think that women bring a different approach to thinking and problem-solving, which pairs well with existing ‘masculine’ roles.”

Louise strongly believes that mining is a good career choice for women. “Considering that South Africa is estimated to have the world’s fifth largest mining sector in terms of GDP value, it should be in the crosshairs of all South African career prospectors, men or women! There are huge possibilities for growth, and international networking, and women may just bring in some solutions to problems that have plagued the sector with solutions not yet considered,” she says. Louise feels that the mining industry is equipped to employ women from a support services position. There are so many industries that support the mining industry, which means that there is a wide variety of employment opportunities.

“I think if the mining sector were to engage more with smaller businesses, then even more women would be positively impacted. For example, our company, Halo Media is a small business, with an 80% female staff contingent and is 100% female owned. When mines and support industries choose to work with us, they are positively impacting the roles of women (and their families),” says Louise.

Breaking down barriers

Although women have come a long way in the industry, they still have a long way to go before they are equally represented. August marks 63 years since women fought for the rights of the people in South Africa. It’s time we fought for them to segment their position in mining.

As a woman, you’re not alone if you seek a career in mining. There are many support structures and women’s organisations like WIM and WIMSA who are active advocates for women in mining. They support, encourage and honour women in the mining industry, and provide great networking opportunities.