Isabelle Ramdoo
Deputy Director
Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF)
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Expert Contributor

New Tech and Mining’s Future: Will Prospects Improve for Women?

By Isabelle Ramdoo | Fri, 06/25/2021 - 09:08

Mining is traditionally associated with heavy and manual-intensive labor. Accordingly, the mining sector is one of the most male-dominated sectors, with women making up only 5 to 10 percent of the large-scale mining workforce. In Mexico, women represented 14.9 percent of mining jobs in 2018. New technologies are introducing sweeping changes to the mining landscape as they redesign the work environments and organization of the workplace, altogether.

Although these changes will impact both men and women in different ways, it is tempting to assume that new ways of working will automatically improve the gender balance in the large-scale mining sector.

But will that really be the case?

Emerging technologies surely bring potential for progress but nothing is guaranteed. And indeed, without the right laws, policies, and practices, backed by good data and a concerted effort, new challenges on the horizon may continue to impede or further erode gender equality in mining.

To better understand this issue, it is necessary to look at how new technologies will affect women’s participation in the mining workforce.

Opportunities for Improving Gender Equality

New working conditions will reshuffle the established gender pattern in the workplace, removing certain physical and technical barriers for women. For example, machines will increasingly do the heavy lifting associated with mining’s more laborious work.

And new technologies will improve occupational health and safety conditions. For instance, workers can digitally visualize underground operations from remote-control rooms, significantly reducing their exposure to risks and hazards. This could also mean less gender-based violence risk, particularly sexual harassment, that is often associated with isolated and remote working spaces.

Furthermore, new technologies are moving workers away from the rock face. Machine operators can now work remotely, from the safety of control rooms on the surface. This improves access to jobs for women who are banned from working underground in some countries.

Work is also shifting away from remote and isolated locations, reducing the need for fly-in-fly-out or drive-in-drive-out work schemes. This may bode well for work-life balance and retention for women in the sector.

Despite the positives, there are, nonetheless, potential drawbacks, which may in fact further entrench inequality.

Risks to Greater Inequality

First, there is a major issue stemming from the digital gender divide. New mining jobs will require new skills that mostly rely on digital literacy and internet access. But according to a worldwide study from Equals Global Partnerships, 200 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone, 250 million fewer women than men use the internet, and only 6 percent of women develop apps. This divide is even greater in developing and less-developed countries. Research by Women’s Rights Online shows that across urban poor areas in 10 cities, women are 50 percent less likely than men to be online, and 30-50 percent less likely than men in the same communities to use the internet for economic and political empowerment. This raises an important question: Are women sufficiently equipped to capitalize on opportunities arising from new technologies? Or will one traditionally masculine mining sector, associated with physical strength, simply be replaced by another masculinity of digital literacy, skills, and resources?

Similarly, women have a much lower representation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and related jobs, compared to administrative jobs, which are expected to become mostly obsolete as new technologies replace routine and repetitive jobs. Women, therefore, are likely to be more impacted by job losses.

The most significant challenges will be for women in local communities. While new technologies may provide better working conditions for highly-skilled women, local community women, including those who participate in mining supply chains, are expected to lose out if new and better paid jobs can be delivered virtually and thus are more easily outsourced. This would have ripple effects for local women who may be unable to follow the jobs for family reasons or may lose business opportunities related to mine employment.

Closing the Data Gap: A Critical First Step

If we want the mining sector to evolve and provide more opportunities for women, it is important for policymakers to prepare for these changing workplace dynamics. However, prior to taking bold policy steps, there is a critical factor to be addressed: getting the numbers right about women in mining.

There is a glaring lack of granular and gender-disaggregated employment data for the mining sector. Without first knowing where we stand, we can’t anticipate the future and prepare women to manage job transitions and seize new opportunities.

As such, the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining (IGF) is launching a new project to close this data gap, in partnership with International Labor Organization (ILO), International Women in Mining (IWiM) and Environmental Governance Program of UNDP and SEPA. This project will unfold in three phases, starting now, with developing a baseline of detailed data about the level of employment, occupation types, skill levels, and educational attainment in large-scale mining, segregated for men and women. The second phase will investigate future job profiles and skill requirements. Finally, we will look at gendered impacts of new technologies on mining supply chains. The objective is to provide evidence to allow better policy design to address systemic and contextual challenges women are likely to face, with the fourth industrial revolution in the large-scale mining sector.

With this data in hand, decision-makers in government and industry will be better equipped to craft laws, policies, and practices to combat gender biases as new technologies are introduced to the mining sector. This will be no easy task, as gender inequality is deeply rooted in the industry and manifests in many ways in mining communities.

Entrenched Challenges

Gender stereotypes that favor men over women need to be addressed with gender sensitive policies, practices, and campaigns. As employers, mining companies have an important role here. They can provide protective personal equipment, such as uniforms and helmets, designed for women’s safety and comfort. But perhaps most importantly, gender equality needs to be mainstreamed by governments in mining policy frameworks and regulatory instruments. For instance, decent work regulations must correct gender specific biases around pay, workplace facilities and accommodations, and parental leave.

Skills development and training for women cannot be overlooked as a solution to avoid replicating the historic occupational gender imbalance in mining. Initiatives that encourage girls to choose digital and STEM education and pursue technical and tertiary-level studies in more scientific subjects can have a big impact on their future career choices.

What Does the Future Hold?

There is no guarantee that emerging technology trends will resolve gender imbalances in mining. Without concerted effort from governments and the industry – informed by detailed gender-disaggregated data – the next generation of work in mining may very well repeat historic patterns of gender inequality in mining.

Photo by:   Isabelle Ramdoo