Women making their mark in the underground world

By Dineo Phoshoko

Many years ago, it was rare to find a woman working underground in the mines. Today the likelihood of finding a woman working in all areas of the mining industry are quite high. Times have changed and so has the mining industry. Although there are still many challenges within the industry, things are slowly improving.

Legislation prohibiting women from working in mines
One of the main reasons for women being under-represented in the mining industry is largely attributed to the International Labour Organisation which had a Convention (54 of 1935) that did not allow mining companies to employ women to work in underground mine operations.

The convention has been in place since 1935 and countries such as Australia, Canada and Chile had approved the convention, but have since denounced it. South Africa was also part of the countries that ratified it. The convention has since changed to Convention 176 (Safety and Health in Mines 1995), which covers the rights of all workers, regardless of their gender.

The Chamber of Mines reflects on how women in the past were resilient and worked in mines, however they were limited to only doing certain jobs above-ground. It was only from 1996 going forward that women were considered for jobs underground across the world.

Regarding South Africa, women were considered to work in mines after 1990. In 2004, the country’s Mining Charter encouraged mining companies to include more women in their workforce. According to the Charter, a target was set for a 10% representation of women in all major mining jobs. This target had to be met within a 10-year period. Many major mining operations have achieved that target while others still need to put in more work to achieve it.

Overall, most mining companies do encourage women to get involved and become more active in the mining industry across various levels. Another legislation that contributed to women’s inclusion in the industry is the Employment Equity Act, which prohibits any form of discrimination (race, gender or religion) in the workplace.

Challenges facing women in the mining industry
The mining industry is very challenging, especially working underground. For women, it can be even more challenging when taking the physical aspects associated with the activity of mining. The physical nature of mining has been a major contributing factor in the small numbers of women working in the mining industry. According to a fact sheet by This is Gold, South Africa is home to one of the deepest gold and platinum mines in the world. Deep-level underground mining can be extremely difficult and physically demanding. As such, mines are known to be very labour intensive with rigorous working conditions.

A major biological challenge that will always face women is the fact that they may not have the physical strength and effort required to carry out certain tasks underground. A rock drill operator is an example of a job that women would find difficult to perform, due to the physical nature of the job.

The patriarchal and sexist culture found in South African societies need to be addressed.

Besides the physical, there are other challenges faced by women which men don’t experience. A woman’s physical capacity to have children can have negative implications on her ability to work underground in a mine. As such under no circumstances are pregnant women allowed to work underground. Women who are breastfeeding are also prohibited from working underground.

Safety underground is another significant challenge facing women in the industry. The issue of safety has been in the spotlight quite often with reports of female miners experiencing sexual harassment and sexual crimes at the hands of their male colleagues. The Chamber of Mines reports that there are cases where women have been raped, physically assaulted, verbally abused and even murdered underground.

Related to safety is the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE) for female mine workers. Most of the overalls, boots or tools were initially designed and manufactured for men and therefore are not appropriate for women. The biggest challenge with regards to PPE is the sizes are often too large and the clothing does not have adjustments suitable for women’s bodies.

Mining industry accommodating women
Apart from the legislations put in place, the mining industry has made a noticeable effort in accommodating women. Some mines have designated facilities specifically for women. These including safe toilets, showers and changing rooms.

The Chamber also notes how some mines even go as far as assigning women with work buddies to ensure that they do not travel around some quiet areas of the mine alone, making them vulnerable. Improving the lighting in working areas are additional measures taken by the mines to ensure women feel safe. A collaborative effort between equipment manufacturers, the Chamber, female employees, mine management and unions have seen adaptions being made to PPE and other tools within the industry. During a period where a woman is unable to work underground due to pregnancy breastfeeding or maternity leave, the Chamber explains how the mines are obligated to provide safe above-ground work, until the woman is ready to return underground.

The industry is changing as more women become part of the working force in the mines, not only underground, but in management as well. It is not uncommon to find women sitting on the board of directors of major mining companies. In addition, women’s opinions are no longer side-lined when it comes to making major decisions in the mines. A report by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) reveals that 21.05% of women sat on the boards of the top 100 listed mining companies.

Gerald Seegers, PWC’s director for Human Resources explains that the high percentages of women in executive management positions in the mining industry can be attributed to South Africa’s general gender diversity policies.

Although women in the mining industry are to a certain extent limited from doing all the jobs in the mining industry due to their physical nature, there are opportunities for women in areas of the mining industry. The opportunities are not just restricted to underground operations as there are also opportunities in management positions as well. Women have embraced the challenges that come with working in the mining industry and every day, the do their jobs very well, be it underground or in management positions. The mining industry continues to explore more ways of ensuring women’s safety in mines, and the Chamber highlights that to advance changes in the industry, patriarchal and sexist culture found in South African societies need to be addressed.

Statistics from the Department of Labour’s Employment Equity Report. The report reflects the number of women in the mining industry.
Credit: Chamber of Mines

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