The business case for a gender-inclusive company culture is evident across industries, and the mining sector is no different. The recently released Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) Gender Diversity and Inclusion: A Guide for Explorers, illustrates that society (including shareholders, investors, stock exchanges, employees and communities) expects mining companies to build inclusive workplaces. Companies that support a gender-inclusive culture have a healthier, more innovative workforce that leads to sustainable, responsible and profitable operations.
While a gender-inclusive culture has many benefits, it can be challenging to achieve. A rights-based approach is an effective lens to illustrate the hurdles that stand in the way of a gender-inclusive company culture. Companies that commit to international standards, such as International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions, must respect them even when they are more stringent than local norms. There are also good business reasons to implement gender inclusion policies, including to retain talent, build a local workforce, and foster a productive workplace culture.
Hiring and retention
The mining industry experiences difficulty in recruiting and retaining female employees. The Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR) published the report Gender Equity in Mining Works in 2018, which noted that in 2017, women represented 19% of the labour force in mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction, while they accounted for 48% of the labour force as a whole.
The MiHR report Exploring Gender Inclusion (2016), based on results from a survey conducted in Canadian mining companies, noted that the workplace culture can be described as “gendered.” The survey results demonstrated that the “glass ceiling” barrier and unconscious bias are experienced by women, who state that it can be difficult for them to be considered for promotions and that “boys clubs” are still challenging to enter. The survey also showed that 32% of female respondents reported having experienced harassment, bullying or violence in their workplace in the last five years.
Many Canadian mining companies have projects operating close to communities with high poverty levels, often with little access to education, skills training and employment opportunities. Companies usually hire local workers for non-skilled positions, and training can be offered. Women from these communities can suffer from increased vulnerability, which can be worsened by heavy family responsibilities and little opportunity and capacity to obtain an income.
A women’s role as primary caregiver can be a barrier to working at a mine site. Mine locations are often remote and transport time is added to long days of work. Where fly-in fly-out schedules are required, the difficulty for workers to be present for their families is further increased. ILO conventions require that companies provide workers with maternity leave, flexibility allowing the mother to breastfeed, and reasonable period of leave for family reasons. However, these standards can lack legal or actual protection in the national system where the company operates. Companies that are committed to international standards must keep this in mind when thinking about HR policies.
Female workers from vulnerable communities also often occupy support positions, cooking or cleaning. Discrimination regarding access to training that is necessary to move up the ladder is often reported, as these training opportunities can open the door to more skilled jobs (e.g. machine operators or technicians), which are more typically seen as “male” positions and are often better paid.
Workplace harassment and grievance mechanisms
Many companies have made an effort to ensure women are included in local consultations and have access to effective grievance mechanisms. This must be true for employees as well. When women are involved in workplace harassment, they can feel strong peer pressure to avoid reporting complaints, especially in cases of sexual harassment or gender-based violence.
Furthermore, when women feel that their employment may be jeopardized by filing complaints, they can be inclined to avoid reporting – a behaviour that was noted in the MiHR survey. The “gendered” workplace culture in the mining industry can make it easy for infringements on women’s rights to happen, and difficult for the victims to speak out. For these reasons, companies need to provide empowering tools for women to express complaints and effective early warning systems.
Proper safeguards against any form of retaliation or secondary victimization must also be put in place by the company. Mining companies have to recognize the impacts of the workplace culture and policies on women’s rights and assess them adequately.
Protecting women’s rights benefits everyone
Changing mentalities in mining requires training and awareness raising, but there are many organizations that are leading the charge and several guidance documents and tools that can support gender-inclusion.
With rising scrutiny of Canadian companies’ operations abroad, changing attitudes about women’s rights should be seen as an opportunity to protect the company from claims which can have legal, financial and reputational effects. It is also the opportunity to improve workplace culture, access a wider pool of candidates, and retain talent. Respecting female workers’ rights is also a way to provide benefits to communities and facilitate a relationship of trust between company and communities. For example, De Beers Group notes that investing in women and girls has an exponential impact on community development due to their tendency to reinvest around 90% of their income into their families and communities. With mining companies trying to demonstrate the value they bring to local communities, this is an important achievement.
Guidance and good practice on gender inclusion
- PDAC Gender Diversity and Inclusion: A Guide for Explorers: www.pdac.ca under “Responsible Exploration”
- MiHR Gender in Mining Works program (GEM Works): Companies such as Agnico Eagle, Hatch, and Mosaic Co. have implemented GEM Works to identify change agents within their companies, and find and address systemic barriers in their policies: www.mihr.ca/certification-training-standards/training-programstools/ gender-equity-in-mining-works
- UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles: www.unglobalcompact.org/take-action/action/womens-principles
- DeBeers Group partnered with UN Women and became a HeForShe Thematic Champion: www.debeersgroup.com/building-forever
- IFC Unlocking Opportunities for Women and Business – A toolkit of actions and strategies for oil, gas and mining companies: www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/topics_ext_content/ifc_external_ corporate_site/gender+at+ifc/resources/
- Women in Mining Canada has various gender inclusion initiatives: https://wimcanada.org/
ISABELLE GILLES is a human rights lawyer from Montreal, working with the firm LKL International Consulting Inc. She works on human rights impact assessments and specializes on the rights of women and other vulnerable groups.