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!”
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.
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.”
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
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)