Many industries are shifting to more gender inclusivity, and the mining sector is no different, with the Mining Charter III requiring female workforce participation to be increased. This includes the number of women in leadership positions, closing gaps in wage and remuneration and encouraging women to build parity in emerging high-demand skills and jobs in mining.
Mining companies need to take note of these goals and regulations and address the gender equality gap within mining, which is currently extremely high.
A male-dominated industry
Mining is one of South Africa’s most important industries and it only looks to become more so in the years ahead, with many of the materials used in solar panels, batteries and fuel cells mined in South Africa.
It’s a critical industry that will continue to grow and with a focus on gender equality in South Africa, it’s a sector ripe for transformation.
According to Minerals Council South Africa, the International Labour Organization (ILO) implemented a convention in 1935 prohibiting the employment of women in underground mining work. Since then, many signatories initially ratifying the convention have denounced it, including South Africa in 1996.
This didn’t mean there were no women in mining prior to 1996 in South Africa, however, it was a heavily male-dominated industry and no women could work underground.
There has been some slow progress since then. The number of women working in the mining sector has increased from around 11,400 in 2002 to 56,691 in 2019. Women only represented 12% of South Africa’s total mining labour force of 454,861 people in 2019 – which means we still have a long way to go.
Gender equality and closing the gender gap is one of the mining sector’s priorities. As one of the most significant sectors in South Africa, mining companies have both a business and moral imperative to enhance the representation of women across all levels of the industry, increasing female representation both on the ground and in management and leadership roles.
Reducing gender inequality is not only in the best interest of women, but it has been proven that workplaces and societies that are more inclusive are also more competitive and productive.
According to global mining company, BHP, focusing on addressing the gender imbalance in their own business has seen significant results. In 2016, 17.6% of BHP’s employees were female, around one in six employees. By 2019, that figure had grown to one in four employees and the results were obvious: 67% lower Total Recordable Injury Frequency, 21% increase in pride of work and 11% more productive.
So, what can the mining sector do to attract and retain women at all levels of employment and ensure that on-the-job challenges at mining operations are addressed so that women don’t leave mining roles?
While more women graduate with degrees in South Africa than men, there are proportionally fewer women graduating with engineering degrees. Women are still not comfortable entering male-dominated sectors. Similarly, artisanal training in these sectors is also male-dominated. A focus on attracting women into these careers is critical to start shifting the balance.
South Africa has some of the deepest mines in the world, particularly in the gold and platinum sectors. These are historically labour-intensive mines. It’s physically arduous work under challenging conditions. In general terms, most women do not have the same levels of physical strength as most men, which does impact underground work. A lack of female toilet facilities (also a throwback to a traditionally male-only sector) means that women working underground won’t drink enough water, resulting in dehydration – a dangerous safety risk.
As a predominantly male-dominated industry that is operated largely underground, there are still safety issues for women in mining. Reported incidents of physical assault and verbal abuse are far too high and must be addressed by the sector as a whole.
A significant challenge to women in the industry is the fact that equipment, including personal protective equipment (PPE), overalls, boots and tools, has traditionally been designed and manufactured with men in mind. This means that overalls usually cannot be adjusted easily and women need to undress completely to use toilet facilities. Gloves are too loose, boots are too long and wide and tools are designed for larger hands and weight-lifting capabilities.
Making mining more attractive for women
There are many challenges facing the sector, but they are not insurmountable. In fact, with technology defining the future of mining, we will soon see an industry whose structure is irrevocably altered. The traditional need for manpower in particular will soon be overshadowed by automation and robotics. As mining becomes less reliant on physical labour and more on intellectual rigours, gender will become less of a relevant factor in workforces. However, this means that gender inequality must be addressed now to start making mining far more attractive for women. This diversity will be critical for the sector in the future.
So, let’s review the different solutions that can be implemented now.
Artisanal training is available to men and women and South Africa needs to start focusing on encouraging women to get their NQF levels across different disciplines. We have a serious skills crisis in this country, which is an excellent opportunity for women to find new and greater employment opportunities.
Women must be empowered to understand and exercise their right to work in an environment that is free of discrimination and abuse. Similarly, their male colleagues must be educated on acceptable behaviour and the consequences of failing to behave appropriately should be high. Men have a very important role to play in ensuring that all workplaces are equitable environments where people of both genders can flourish and reach their full potential, which is why they also need to know not to remain silent should they witness a violation.
Ensuring that PPE and work clothing fits properly, and is fit for purpose, is key to allowing female employees to be fully and safely active in their jobs. The Minerals Council, female employees, management, unions, and equipment manufacturers have invested considerable time and effort into identifying where and how equipment needs to change in order to be work-appropriate for women. These include the cut and sizing of overalls, the sizing and proportions of boots and gloves and the size and fit of helmets, goggles and earplugs.
Addressing physical limitations:
Women already hold positions across mine sites, from dump truck drivers to safety officers to continuous miner operators. The physical limitations of working underground can be addressed through training and employing women in different positions. As we’ve pointed out, however, as mining becomes more mechanised, physical strength and stamina will become less important than fine motor skills, dexterity and problem-solving abilities. This shift will create significant opportunities for women in the industry.
Recruitment and becoming an employer of choice:
Once these issues are addressed and a diverse culture is fostered and celebrated, mining houses will become employers of choice. Recruiting specifically for women to increase gender diversity is an important first step. Ongoing training and a focus on career mobility and advancement, as well as pay equality, will also go a long way towards shifting the dynamics of this very important sector.
The future of mining
No matter how much the industry changes in the years ahead, it’s clear the mining world is beginning to grasp that it needs to become appealing to everyone, regardless of gender, in order to remain relevant in increasingly technologically-driven times. With a combination of training, recruitment focused on women, tech-powered intervention and the very human qualities of communication and collaboration, a more equal future may well be in sight.
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