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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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bob lee

“I prefer not to talk about it”

The Adventures of an Oral Historian: “I prefer not to talk about it”

In April, I made my way, for the first time, to Wild Rose Country. My trip had two purposes: the first was to promote our museum among Klingons, Catwomans and Cosplayers at the rapidly growing Calgary Expo; the second was to begin my yearlong Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project. The latter requires me to interview approximately 70 people who have played a significant role in the world of mining, metallurgy and petroleum. As I was already headed to Calgary for Comiccon, I decided to begin interviewing some of the veterans of the natural resources world. Being in Alberta, talent in that department was not lacking. The first man I interviewed was Bob Lee, a renowned figure in the metallurgy world.

Dr. Robert Lee was born and raised in the city of Montreal. He began his career with Canadian Liquid Air Ltd as research assistant in metallurgy. Throughout his time at the company, Lee proved himself a prolific innovator, improving many facets of metallurgy. He eventually became the Manager of Metallurgy which led to Manager of the Research Department and then Director of Research and Technology for Liquid Air. By the end of his career with the company, Bob Lee owned well over 200 patents which had earned him multiple prestigious awards such as the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

For our interview, he was wearing the tie of his alma mater, which paired well with the first series of questions I asked him concerning his education at McGill:

“In the old times, they called it the metallurgical engineering department, but now they call it materials engineering. And some of the work that I did while I was at university, I prefer not to talk about it.”

 

Bob Lee during our interview in Calgary.

Bob Lee during our interview in Calgary.

 

 

“In the old times, they called it the metallurgical engineering department, but now they call it materials engineering.

And some of the work that I did while I was at university, I prefer not to talk about it.”

∼ Bob Lee

 

 

 

 

In fact, after a gentle inquiry on my part, he was quite forthcoming about his student years and various not-so-calculated experiments involving grape juice, alcohol and even mercury. His stories related to his subsequent career were equally as colourful. I learned that one of his most important accomplishments, the idea of the porous plug, which allows gas to rise from the bottom of the ladle [a vessel used to transport and pour molten metals] and stir the molten steel, came to him while he was in the bathtub:

“…that was the time I was sitting in the bathtub and released some flatus they call it, a fart. And I went oh! That’s the idea, that’s how it came about. And that’s how I got the highest award of the AIME [American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers].” A story he had presented when receiving the aforementioned award in 2010.

It was evident to Bob and myself however, that flatulence was a very simplified version of the story. In fact, creating his famous porous plug took much more time and effort than it did to take a bath. In order to provide homogeneous temperatures and chemical composition to the molten metal, he needed a way to inject gas from the bottom of the ladle. For that, he needed to get his hands on some porous bricks, which conveniently, did not exist at the time. He was shown the door by some refractory companies who insisted on making solid, dense bricks to increase their service lives, not bricks with holes in them. Finally, a Canadian government ceramics lab helped him develop the porous brick which, after much experimentation, led to the porous plug. This technology and process changed steelmaking and is now used around the world. Because of it, steelmaking has increased in safety and quality. Mr. Lee told me that to this day, it has been the biggest challenge and proudest accomplishment of his career.

 

Bob Lee and Guy Savard patent for treating molten steel with oxygen.

Bob Lee and Guy Savard patent for treating molten steel with oxygen.

 

Dr. Lee is also considered an expert in the fields of gases, energy, combustion, pulp and paper, environment, entomology and cryobiology. Furthermore, he has worked with Hydrogenics to help them finance and develop the hydrogen fuel cell back in its start-up phase. He even helped Seagram’s develop a way to age alcohol (with the help of his porous plug!) by feeding oxygen into the alcohol. This technique, which dramatically sped up the aging process of alcohol, is still used to fortify wines such as port.

At 91 years young, Bob Lee shows no signs of slowing down. Although “retired”, he still acts as an independent technical advisor for Canadian Liquid Air and still has plenty of potential inventions up his sleeve. They might just be a soak away!

 

Steel Irony, July 2012, courtesy Association for Iron and Steel Technology.

Steel Irony, July 2012, courtesy Association for Iron and Steel Technology.

 

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Dr. Bob Lee for making this a very enjoyable first interview. Your combination of experience, expertise and humour is a virtue that should inspire all. Your support for the Mining and Metallurgy Project is greatly appreciated.

Sources:

The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers, AIME Honorary Membership 2010, updated 2015.

http://www.aimehq.org/programs/award/bio/robert-gh-lee

ASRL Quarterly Bulletin No.163 Vol. XLIX No.3, October – December 2012, pp.124-125.

Lee, Robert. Interview with Robert Lee, Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project April 16, 2015. Calgary, Alberta, in person (William McRae)

Air Liquide, Method and Apparatus for Treating Molten Metal with Oxygen, 1958.

http://www.google.com/patents/US2855293