Mind the Gap

Growing the Role of Women in Natural Resources
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

From greater land holdings in developing nations to working in North America’s mining industry, much can be done to boost the role of women in natural resources. And the time to do it is now.

Dressed in traditional ribbon skirts, ten women from Little Red River Cree Nation were recently photographed proudly holding their framed certificates. All were newly graduated as heavy equipment operators, and their backdrop was not the typical curtained stage of a presentation, but the frozen tundra under an overcast sky, multi-ton trucks and bulldozers just a few feet away.

For these women and the 5,500 members of the community located about an hour and a half east of Northern Alberta’s High Level, the graduation ceremony represented not just individual accomplishment, but a collective hope, and an inspiration to other women for the future.

Long viewed as the domain of men, the operation of excavators, graders, loaders, and other large equipment is drawing women into the industry who are quickly establishing themselves as confident and talented operators. For the resources sector, it is a welcome sight.

For decades, women have been underrepresented in natural resources, in some nations much more than others. Worldwide, less than 14 percent of women are landholders, and the holdings they own are often smaller and of lower quality than those of their male counterparts, “although more women than men are working in agriculture and natural resources management, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa” (A Gender-Responsive Approach to Natural Resources, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs).

However, studies have shown that enabling greater access to land or title for women has resulted in much improved environmental sustainability, more productive soil, and more sustainable tree planting, water harvesting, and food security initiatives.

In developing nations, unequal access to – and gender inequality in the control of – natural resources create hardship and struggles to survive; in Canada and the United States, it means women are shut out of a workplace where they can excel while making a living, supporting themselves and their families.

According to Statistics Canada, women continue to be underrepresented in natural resources, including forestry, oil and gas, and mining. Although the industry is making efforts to address the gap, there are not enough women working in these sectors. Historically, these industries and others, such as construction, have a poor track record of training and hiring women at all levels, both in the field and at the executive levels.

Now, with so many seasoned workers reaching retirement age, hiring more women to future-proof mining, for example, simply makes sense.

The issue of not enough women in natural resources – and concerns over how to best manage water, soil, and the environment – is far from recent. Thirty years ago, a paper from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources titled Men, Women, and the Environment: An Examination of the Gender Gap in Environmental Concern and Activism stated, “surprisingly little has been done to examine the extent of environmental activity of women and factors relating to it,” adding, “Ironically, what information exists has tended to show that even though women may be somewhat more concerned about the environment than men, they are less politically active on these issues.”

Despite being published in 1992, the paper by Paul Mohai highlights the key difference between women and men in resources that exists to this day: women, being caregivers, approach the environment with a “motherhood mentality.” “Men, however, view the environment and natural resources with a ‘marketplace mentality’ that gives priority to economic growth and development and that may portray environmental pollution as a necessary tradeoff for growth.”

These days, we carelessly toss around the words “diversity” and “inclusion”, but what do they really mean when it comes to putting them into action?

Studies show that businesses that hire a higher proportion of women and minorities tend to be more creative, because they encourage more viewpoints and often come up with interesting new products and new ways to attract customers and motivate staff. For mining, oil and gas, and other resource sectors, how can women be better represented? While better and more available education is an obvious choice, what else can be done to make natural resources a more viable career option for women?

A multi-pronged approach is necessary, one which encompasses training opportunities, mentorship, and financial and moral support. Norms need to be challenged, and most times, shattered. As the recent all-woman graduating class from Little Red River Cree Nation shows, women too can operate dump trucks and bulldozers, the kind of things that have long been the domain of men.

The same is true for other disciplines related to mining. Most metallurgists – who perform a valuable role in testing and analyzing extracted metals – are male. Yet in Canada, one of the most prominent metallurgists was Ursula Martius Franklin.

Born in Germany, she later immigrated to Canada, was hired by the University of Toronto, and became an associate professor at the institution’s Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science in the Faculty of Engineering. She was designated as a University Professor in 1984 – U of T’s first female professor to receive the honour.

Franklin was regarded as a pioneer in archaeometry, and inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2012.

Then there’s Deshnee Naidoo. Late last year, she was named Executive Vice President of Base Metals at mining giant Vale. In 2018, she had been recognized by Women in Mining as one of the 100 Global Inspirational Women in Mining.

Prior to her current role, Naidoo served in other key mining roles, including six years as Chief Executive Officer of the Zinc International business at Vedanta Resources, and 16 years in various executive roles at Anglo American, including Chief of Staff and Chief Financial Officer for the company’s thermal coal business.

Although key positions in mining and natural resources are traditionally held by men, more women like Naidoo are bringing about change.

In its recent report, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Journey, Vale described the milestones the company has reached in just the period 2020 and 2021. Becoming a signatory to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles for Women in 2013, Vale later included diversity and inclusion “as central strategic pillars of the business” in 2019, creating Five Principles, including the promotion of an environment of respect for all, a process free from prejudice, and the promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion. This includes six priorities covering gender – doubling the number of women represented in the next decade, LGBTQIA+ awareness, ethnic-racial, inclusion, people with disabilities, and local talent.

“We have brought forward our target to double the number of women in our workforce, compared to 2019, by five years, to reach 26 percent of women in the workforce by 2025,” the company said in a release. “By November 2021, the percentage of women at Vale was 18.7 percent, up 5.2 percent from 13.5 percent in 2019 when the company established our target for employing women as part of our global diversity strategy. There are now 4,500 more women working in our company.”

From female property ownership and management, to workers in the field, to executive leadership roles, more women in natural resources means better lives and more diversified points of view – for the benefit of us all.



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