My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

“The Lady Who Drives the Great Big Truck”!

Throughout my travels across Canada – purposed to interview veterans of the mining, metallurgy and petroleum sectors, one of the questions I asked was: How present (or absent) were women in the workplace? To which I would get the recurring answer: essentially none. Most rather seasoned interviewees would tell me that at the time, there were simply no women in engineering schools. Howbeit, many women found administration jobs within the natural resources world.

“… when I go to schools to talk to the kids, they don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to the lady who drives the great big truck!”

In recent history, several companies have made efforts to increase the number of women in skilled labour positions. Eric Newell, former CEO of Syncrude, explains how the company implemented the Bridges program in the mid-90s, a program that encouraged female employees to transition from their administrative roles to the male dominated workplace. “They had two weeks to learn about the technical trades, then they would job shadow and finally, they would work a 28 day work cycle. […] None ever asked to go back. In the end, 25% of our 400 tonne truck drivers were women (as opposed to 4-5% before). And we won employer of the year award (Maclean’s) […] Now, when I go to schools to talk to the kids, they don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to the lady who drives the great big truck!”

 

Ground-level perspective of a heavy hauler and a shovel at Syncrude. Courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Today, women comprise 25% of the heavy truck driver workforce at Syncrude. Courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Nowadays, women represent the majority of young university graduates, and although engineering programs are still renowned for seldom having women, registration has considerably risen. That said, women remain less likely to choose or find employment in any STEM areas. This stands in contrast to nearly all other fields of study, where women now make up the majority of graduates. What explains this phenomenon? Why are women more reluctant and less likely to find a job in natural resources?

Parents, teachers, mentors all play very important roles for a young woman.

“Somehow in the mining world, we haven’t succeeded… women have not found it very appealing,” says Dr. Samuel Marcuson, former Vice President at Vale. “When I started working in the 1970s and 1980s, in the work place you would find lots of pinup girls, naked women, pictures on the wall. And the women who joined the workforce at that time, clearly had to put up with that.” Although these kinds of actions have virtually been banned from the workplace, Marcuson explains that it took several decades for most companies to condemn it.

 

My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

Today the workplace makes an effort to be much more inviting, but issues can still arise. Dr. Mary Wells, Associate Dean and Professor of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, explains that women can be subject to micro-aggressions. The latter are short, verbal or behavioral indignities, at times unintentional, that translate into slights. For instance, “a subtle example could be of a woman always getting a surprised reaction from others when she tells people in her field that she is an engineer,” explains Wells. “It can have a negative, eroding impact over time.” The work schedule of many jobs in the natural resources industry can also make it very difficult for any women to spend time with her family. In fact, “the drop off rate of women is much higher midway through their career […] as the work schedule is less flexible,” says Wells. On the brighter side, there are companies who offer mentorships and have become more flexible to the needs of families. “C E Zinc for example, has a company policy that all meetings must end by 4:30pm,” explains Wells. She has high hopes for the future as it has become much more common for men to be as involved as women in raising the family. As a result, responsibilities such as paternity leave or finishing work earlier to pick up the kids, have educated employers of the difficulties traditionally encountered by women.

Time will tell, but positive influence starts much earlier, says Wells. “Parents, teachers, mentors all play very important roles for a young woman.”

 

Photo courtesy of MiHR.

Photo courtesy of MiHR.

Acknowledgement:

Many thanks to Eric Newell, Sam Marcuson, Mary Wells and all other interviewees for your thoroughness and candor. A special mention to my dear friend Cloé, who is an exemplar in the field.

Header photo courtesy of the Mining Industry Human Resources Council

Sources:

Catalyst. Catalyst Quick Take: Women in Male-Dominated Industries and Occupations in U.S. and Canada. New York: Catalyst, 2013. http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-male-dominated-industries-and-occupations-us-and-canada

Hango, Darcy. Gender differences in STEM programs at university, Statistics Canada, December 18, 2013. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-006-x/2013001/article/11874-eng.htm

Marcuson, Sam. Interview with Sam Marcuson, Mining and Metallurgy Project, July 23, 2015. Toronto, Ontario, in person (William McRae)

Natural Resources Canada. 10 Key Facts on Canada’s Natural Resources, August 2014. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/sites/www.nrcan.gc.ca/files/files/pdf/10_key_facts_nrcan_e.pdf

Newell, Eric. Interview with Eric Newell, Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project. April 22, 2015. Edmonton, Alberta, in person (William McRae)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 5. Iron works in the Georg Fischer Iron Library

“Get thee to a Nunnery” : Finding the History of Metallurgy in a Monastery

Although the history of Canadian metallurgy is of national significance, our collection in this area is rather small. Before, I could decide what to collect, I needed to gain a better understanding of the subject. Therefore in June 2015, I travelled to the Georg Fischer Iron Library in the small town of Schlatt, Switzerland where I spent three weeks as a Scholar-in-Residence. I researched the history of metallurgy, and the technology transfer between Europe and Canada.

Figure 1. The Klostergut Paradies nunnery

Figure 1. The Klostergut Paradies nunnery near the town of Schlatt, Switzerland.

The Iron Library holds the world’s largest collection of books on mining and metallurgy. It is located in Klostergut Paradies, an old nunnery, established by Poor Clares in 1253 (Figures 1). In 1918 Georg Fischer AG (GF), a large manufacturer of iron, steel, and plastics purchased the monastery with its agricultural lands to grow food for the company’s workers. Inside, Fischer discovered a large library of books related to mining and metallurgy, and rather than dismount it, the company decided to invest in the collection. Today, the Iron Library’s holdings are unmatched by any others in the world (Figure 2). Surrounded by towns with rich metallurgical history, the Iron Library provides a perfect environment to study the field.

Figure 2. The Iron Library Rare Books Collection

Figure 2. The Iron Library Rare Books Collection

I had an ambitious research plan for my three-week stay. I started by consulting monographs related to the history of metallurgy in general, and the European history of metallurgy. This allowed me to place developments in Canada in a broader cultural and technological context. Next, I reviewed Georg Fischer’s archival resources to identify links with Canadian companies. Indeed the archival collection proved very interesting. It contained files on Fischer turbines supplied for Alcan’s Kitimat-Kemano projects (Figure 3), Hydro-Quebec’s Bersimis stations, and Ontario Hydro’s Sir Adam Beck No. 2. I was surprised to discover that in 1956, Professor Gerard Letendre, who according to Canadian scholarship advised Premier Duplessis against investing in steel industry in Quebec, solicited GF’s capital for a metallurgical research centre in Canada. The documents also show that, when in 1956 Gordon MacMillan, Vice-President of the Canadian Car Company asked for a tour of GF’s plants, the head of GF bluntly refused suggesting in a less than polite manner that he felt: “inclined to consider the contemplated visit devoid of the benefit (…) and think it better for [MacMillan] to cancel your coming to Schaffhausen.”

 

Figure 3. A Pelton turbine for Alcan’s Kitimat-Kemano project in British Columbia

Figure 3. A Pelton turbine for Alcan’s Kitimat-Kemano project in British Columbia

Lastly, I consulted unique manuscripts and publications dating from the fifteenth to the eighteen century containing drawings, engravings, and woodcuts, such as Jean François Morand’s L’art d’exploiter les mines and Jacob Leupold’s Theatrum Machinarum. Images that I found challenged my assumptions on the roles of women in mining and metallurgy (Figure 4), a subject that I now need to study in more detail.

Figure 4. (A) Women working in a coal mine, 1700s (B) An ivory miniature showing women forging Damascus steel

Figure 4. (A) Women working in a coal mine, 1700s (B) An ivory miniature showing women forging Damascus steel

 

I toured a GF’s iron plant in Singen, Germany and a plastics plant in Schaffhausen, Switzerland; met with GF staff and visiting scholars from as far as Nepal and Japan. Yet, in its serendipitous way, the research at the Iron Library revealed an unexpected story of ‘collecting and connecting.’ The library contained a collection of polonica, metallurgy literature published in Poland between the 1960s and the early 1980s. How did the Iron Library come to acquire such a collection? As archival correspondence revealed, in the early 1960s the Library approached the Mining and Metallurgy Academy in Krakow asking for help in acquiring publications produced in then communist Poland, which were not available abroad. One of the professors, Dr. Jerzy Piaskowski, who had a private collection on history of metallurgy, enthusiastically agreed to supply the books and magazines in exchange for material published in the Western Europe.

… in its serendipitous way, the research at the Iron Library revealed an unexpected story of ‘collecting and connecting’.

At the time, as Piaskowski explained in one of his letters, this was the only way that books from the West could make it to a scholar from the Eastern Block. Dr. Piaskowski produced handwritten bibliographies, which he mailed to the Iron Library. The Iron Library staff would make a selection and mail it back to Dr. Piaskowski. He then purchased the books and sent them to the Library with a list of publications that he wished to receive in return, of the value equivalent to his shipment. This cooperation lasted for almost two decades. At one point, in the mid-1960s, the Library invited Dr. Piaskowski for a visit. He diplomatically ̶ as not to offend any potential censors and jeopardize his future contacts with the Library ̶ replied that it was impossible for him to travel outside of Poland. As the staff at the Iron Library changed and the collecting policies become more practical in the early 1980s, the new Librarian suggested in one of the last letters to Dr. Piaskowski that books in Polish were not useful for the Library’s clientele. “Perhaps, now there are no people who can read my papers”- replied Dr. Piaskowski – “but there will be in future.” I wish, I could tell him that he was right.

Figure 5. Iron works in the Georg Fischer Iron Library

Figure 5. Iron works in the Georg Fischer Iron Library

Resources:

Iron Library Online Catalogue

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank the Georg Fischer Iron Library Foundation for their generous support of the Scholar-in-Residence programme. Many thanks to the wonderful library staff Franziska, Florian, and Uta, for making my stay truly special.