The Real Housewives of Mining

THIS week Vikki Lauritsen joins Allan Trench to look at some of the challenges to increasing female participation in the mining sector workforce.
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Staff Reporter

TV series have introduced us to the Real Housewives of Orange County, of New York, Atlanta, Washington DC, New Jersey, Beverley Hills and Miami across the US. The real housewives concept also reached Australia in 2014 with the release of the Real Housewives of Melbourne. As yet however, the “Real Housewives of Mining” has not appeared on our screens, although the experiences of women in the minerals sector are no doubt worthy of such focus.

When compared with an all industry average, female participation in the mining industry remains very low, at around 15% compared to 46% across all industries. Why? Here are a few ongoing challenges to increasing female participation in the mining sector:

  • Men’s work: The mining industry has a long history of male dominance and as a result has gained a reputation, perhaps outdated but still relevant, as a ‘masculine’ industry not suitable for women. The sex segregation of many roles in the industry as ‘men’s’ work has discouraged women participating in the sector. Many traditionally male-dominated roles continue to be so. Managerial, technical and trades, frontline labour and machine operator positions continue to be male dominated in the mining sector statistics.

  • Employment type: Although more women are participating in the Australian workforce, a large proportion of female workers across all industries are employed on a part-time basis. That is, recent statistics show nearly an even number of women working part-time as working full-time. Furthermore, the part-time employment status of females is much higher than that of their male counterparts. Contrast this general situation with that in mining: herein most mining workers are full-time employees (more than 96%). Part-time work in mining is only around one-tenth that of the all industry average (3% compared to 30%).

  • Age distribution and family status: Workforce participation and employment status for women varies according to age and parental status. The age distribution of the 2014 female workforce shows a distinct fall in the full-time status of female workers between the ages of 35-44 years, coinciding with an increasing maternal age in recent years. Such an age distribution for female workforce participation aligns poorly with the current mining sector age demographic. That is, the mining industry workforce has a median age of 40 years compared to an all industries average of 37 years. As such, the mining industry employs a higher proportion of workers aged 25 to 44 years with 58% of workers falling into this age group, compared with only 45% for all industries. Consequently, the proportion of workers aged 15 to 19 years is lower in mining than across all industries, reflecting the industry’s preference for mature, qualified and experienced workers.

  • Education and skills: Younger women in the workforce today are the most highly educated, with more women having university degrees than men. However, most women are enrolled in fields of study such as health, education, commerce, society and culture rather than mathematics and physical science. This could reflect the ‘traditional’ nurturing character of the female stereotype. Recent figures from Graduate Careers Australia show that women make up only around 18% of Bachelor of Mining Engineering graduates. Furthermore, only a small percentage of women are involved in apprenticeship or trainee programs when compared to males, reflecting that trade occupations are conventionally male dominated, physically labour-intensive roles. Statistics show that women are still inclined to undertake training and seek employment in ‘traditionally’ female roles such as administration, finance, education and health.

  • Concentration in regional areas: Close to 88% of mining industry employment is concentrated in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales with 59% of the workforce being located outside of state capital cities. The fly-in, fly-out nature of employment in many mining operations inhibits the industry’s ability to offer flexibility in employment and thus creates a further barrier for women entering or remaining in the industry.

Overall – it’s tough out there with the many factors above all conspiring to make change difficult and slow. How can we speed up the process of normalising the mining workforce? Perhaps reality TV beckons after all for the “Real Housewives of Mining?”

Good hunting.

Vikki Lauriitsen is completing the Mineral Economics Masters’ program at the Department of Mineral Economics; Curtin Graduate School of Business including a capstone research project titled “Gender diversity in the Australian minerals sector – a labour force review”

Allan Trench is professor (value and risk) at the Centre for Exploration Targeting, University of Western Australia, professor of energy and mineral economics at Curtin University Graduate School of Business, a non-executive director to several resources sector companies – and the Perth representative for CRU Strategies, a division of independent metals and mining advisory CRU Group (