Ana Laura Muñoz
Director General
Rama Mantenimiento Industrial Total
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Expert Contributor

Dedication, Passion Drive Success for Women Miners

By Ana Laura Muñoz | Mon, 06/14/2021 - 09:05

We cannot deny that more women are entering workforce sectors that were once thought to be the exclusive domain of men, such as mining. Although the number of women working in the industry has increased, participation is still a minority. In 2020, only 16 percent of the total staff working in the sector were women.

The difficulty for women entering this sector lies in the fact that, from the outset, the physical requirements and risks involved in mining activities meant that women were exempt from participating. They were also faced with the emergence of myths and legends such as the well-known "jealous mine” legend, which referred to the loss of productivity and increased accidents when women worked in mines. These legends persist today in some Latin American countries.

Despite these factors, the growth of women's participation has been achieved thanks to the dedication and commitment of women who like this sector and have a passion for the activities involved. From the administrative and human resources areas, to those of operations and engineering, women have had to face various challenges to make ourselves heard and recognized as an important part of the companies involved with mining activity.

Nevertheless, the inherent skills of women have been of great help in some of the improvements in the sector, such as industrial safety and equipment maintenance. For example, men used to place little importance on safety practices. Because of their maternal instinct for care, women had an important influence on all of us placing greater emphasis on healthcare and accident prevention. Another example of the benefits of women in mining operations is the care that women operators take with equipment and the workplace, as well as their high sense of responsibility and dedication. Thanks to this, new standards have been imposed in the industry, improving operational and maintenance processes.

Among the challenges that women have had to face during the history of mining is the limitation in physical strength to perform some specific jobs, such as extraction or maintenance activities in mechanical areas.  However, the participation of women has been favored by technological changes, by the greater automation of processes in the mines and by the degree of training required of personnel to operate specialized machinery. The development of technology has been key, lessening the need for physical strength in some activities and allowing women of different physical constitutions to integrate into the sector.

An additional challenge we have had to face originates in the facilities and the work environment. Like any change in culture, it has not been easy, but in many places working conditions in the mines (surface and underground) continue to be improved to facilitate the different facilities needed. Even uniforms and Personal Protective Equipment are already being changed to take into account the inclusion of women in mining work. Before, it was not easy to find smaller sized work shoes or masks that fit correctly. Fortunately, manufacturers are now considering the ergonomics of women in mining and there is a greater supply available.

One challenge we still face is the traditional division of labor. Women employed in mining are more prevalent in the areas of services and in administrative positions. In the case of the operational and maintenance areas, barriers have started coming down, but conditions such as infrastructure and the preparation or knowledge among women in these areas have delayed their progress. At managerial levels, the power relations historically established between women and men are hierarchical and asymmetrical, so we cannot yet say that access to decision-making and the exercise of power is egalitarian. Making ourselves heard at these levels is still difficult, but the companies that have done so have seen the advantages, recognizing the growth that can be achieved with our contributions.

If you ask me how can we reduce this sexual division of labor? My answer is: Training ourselves, being present at the decision-making tables, and insisting until our voice is heard. Previously, women had limited access to education, information and training. Today, we have the freedom and opportunity to access the information, training and knowledge that determine people's abilities and opportunities. Women, who were not previously considered for engineering, metallurgy, research, operations, or maintenance, have prepared themselves and must continue to break down mental barriers. With more information and knowledge, we will have the opportunity to choose what we want to do, make better decisions and take on greater responsibilities without fear of the risks involved.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge facing women in the mining sector are the working hours, because sometimes there is a lack of policies that consider the specific conditions of women, such as family care and domestic work. Coupled with this, the location of some mines do not favor women. It is not easy to reach a work-life balance while working shifts of 4x3, or 14x7 as some mining projects require. Women, usually maintain their role as household managers, preparing food, coordinating household chores, taking care of children, the sick and the elderly. These tasks must be delegated to other women, either through the recruitment of domestic workers or through the unpaid work of relatives (mothers, sisters, older daughters). Women often used their days off to cover these tasks. 

In terms of laws, progress has been made regarding women's right to exercise their maternity without jeopardizing their employment, protecting health during pregnancy and encouraging breastfeeding. But as women, we also have a lot of responsibility in how we face the challenge of dual working-family life. We must be able to remove our feelings of guilt. To be able to develop this, it is necessary to share responsibilities in the home and be able to create a help network. 

Work-life balance is a major concern for women. Working for a company or running a business, taking care of your family and having free time to dedicate yourself is a mission that may seem impossible at times. However, there are several examples of success stories of women who have established the necessary support networks to achieve this balance, and thus avoid the feelings of guilt that sometimes invade us regarding our families. I invite all the women in mining to learn these stories of women who, no matter the difficulties, fulfilled their goals and dreams in this sector. Their stories are inspiring. Knowing and respecting ourselves, gives us the ability to find our strengths and weaknesses. Thus, we will be able to work on our weak points and improve as people and as professionals. The mining industry requires knowledge and skills but above all a great ability to adapt to working conditions different from those of jobs in cities that have all the services, amenities and entertainment options. Working in mining is a challenge for all, men and women, but if you are passionate, you will find the way to achieve all your goals.

Photo by:   Ana Muñoz