When Stephanie Saliba was in her second year of McGill University’s mining engineering co-op program, she joined the Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (POWE) group to help mentor first-year engineering students.
“As an older student, I would give pointers and suggestions, encourage them, basically be there,” said Saliba, who has since graduated and now works in the industry.
Recently, Women in Mining and Women in Nuclear Saskatchewan (WIM/WiN-SK) received $163,000 from the International Minerals Innovation Institute in February to fund its Mine Your Potential mentorship program, which connects women working in the industry with male and female “champions,” and encourages students to join the industry.
“Our goal is to change the preconceptions women have of the mining industry,” WIM/WiN-SK chair Anne Gent said in February. “We also strive to retain and promote the women already in the mining industry to realize their full potential.”
Notorious for its homogeneity, the mining industry is starting to talk openly about how to recruit and retain women and visible minorities.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 women made up only 17 per cent of the mining workforce. First Nations, which represent four per cent of the Canadian workforce, made up six per cent of the mining industry.
Mentorship programs have emerged as one of the most popular ways to bridge the gap. Having a mentor can allow workers to make connections quickly and provide assurance that there is someone they can turn to for advice if they need it.
“It’s hard being the only woman in the room, but it’s a lot easier when you know that some of the people at the table are watching out for you and want what’s best for you,” said Veronica Knott, a University of British Columbia mining engineering student.
The systemic barriers to entering and remaining in the industry, however, can be much bigger than what mentorship can fix.
Addressing these issues in a workplace can mean taking a hard look at a company’s prevailing culture. Holly Burton, a leadership coach for women in male-dominated industries and a former mining engineer, says retaining the women that are already in the industry is a huge problem as well.
Burton recalls several incidents back when she was a mining engineer that dissuaded her from continuing down her chosen career path. According to her, over the first six months at one job, the other engineers would frequently go on pit tours without telling her. When confronted, they said it was simply coincidence, and that she was being sensitive.
“When something happens consistently over the course of six months to a year, it’s not really circumstance,” Burton said. “There’s always that message that’s being put forward to women: ‘Well, maybe it’s just you, maybe you’re just being too sensitive.’”
Similarly, First Nations groups have their own obstacles in acclimating to the mining industry that go beyond recruitment.
Mining companies looking to dig near Indigenous communities often sign impact and benefits agreements (IBA), which can come with a preferential hiring practice for Indigenous workers. However, these positions are often contractual labour positions outside the skilled trades with little chance for promotion, which leads to poor worker retention.
Andrew Hodgkins, a researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, studies the relationship between First Nations and resource extraction industries, and the results of these IBAs. Frequently, he said, the infrastructure is not in place for Indigenous workers to succeed.
“It’s very hard to recruit, especially when you’re dealing with such a small pool of potential candidates that would be able to be hired on a long-term basis,” said Hodgkins.
The lack of education to qualify for skilled trades is one of the biggest obstacles that Hodgkins cites in increasing Indigenous employment. There are, however, more effective ways mining companies can help improve those numbers.
Hodgkins conducted a 2016 study into a corporate-sponsored train-to-work program to integrate young Indigenous people into skilled trade positions at mines in Alberta’s oil sands, which included a month-long internship at a local mine..
He found that long-term investment into the communities helped to break the employment barrier.
“Having been in the region for a long time, and developing relationships with local communities, that longevity is a big part of the success of hiring people in that region,” he said.
Inevitably, if one of these relationships lasts long enough, one will begin to see a culture of mentorship from those who came before.
“The youth that I was following, they have mentors in their own communities, family members who have worked in the oil sands,” Hodgkins said. “They know a lot about what they’re getting themselves into, and that’s a significant component of that transition from the learning area to the work.”