Women on the Rise

Challenge and Opportunity in the Resource Sector

We take an unblinking look at the challenges and opportunities women face in the natural resource sector from a Canadian perspective. It’s been a long, long road for women, but one that’s worth the journey.

Getting it wrong
It’s a little-known fact, but in early 19th century England, women, along with girls and boys as young as five or six, worked underground in coal mines in deplorable conditions, for up to twelve hours a day, and, of course, for lower wages than their menfolk.

A colliery disaster in 1838, in which 26 children died, came to the attention of Queen Victoria who ordered an inquiry, which resulted in the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, forbidding women and girls to work underground, along with boys younger than ten.

The results of this Act of Parliament, aimed at protecting women and children, had, in hindsight, some negative effects. In the short term, by not allowing women to work underground, economic hardship was worsened. A better solution would have been to legislate safe working conditions for both men and women and to introduce child labour laws.

In addition, arguments used to pass the act negatively influenced society’s ideas about women working in male-dominated fields for years to come. It seems the Act was less about concern for the safety of women and girls than it was about their role in society. To get the Act through the House of Lords, where some members who owned mines opposed it, Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper appealed to Parliament’s prudery.

Instead of focusing on the working conditions which were equally unsafe for women or men, he focused on “girls and women wearing trousers and working bare-breasted in the presence of boys and men, which made girls unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers.”

It should be noted, however, that the actual report mentioned only one woman working bare-breasted – because of the heat – and that most of the women were already wives and mothers.

But it was variations on these notions that pervaded the resource sectors on both sides of the Atlantic through the rest of the 19th century, on into the 20th, and even into the 21st. No matter whether it was forestry, oil and gas, or minerals, even when other sectors of the economy were making strides toward gender equality and diversity, natural resources lagged behind the prevailing trend.

Simply put, they were male-dominated industries and women didn’t fit. But that was then, and this is now, and in the 21st century, women’s presence in those fields is on the rise, albeit slowly.

What the stats say
By the Numbers: Gender Diversity in Canada’s Natural Resource Industries and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), a document published by Statistics Canada in 2015, reveals that while progress has been made, it has not kept pace with other sectors.

Despite progress since the 1980s, women holding positions in STEM remain a minority. In 2011, women comprised 66 percent of graduates in non-STEM subjects, but only 39 percent in STEM. By 2014, only 22 percent were still working in STEM fields.

Natural Resources Canada faced a similar gender imbalance, notably among researchers, with only 19 percent being women.

While women account for nearly half of the national labour force (47 percent in 2015) women’s share of employment in the forestry, mining, and oil and gas industries remains under 20 percent, with 70 percent of those women working in business and financial roles. And, although average weekly wages for women in these sectors have increased, women are still under-represented in high-earning leadership roles.

It’s also interesting to note how women’s participation has evolved differently across the primary sub-sectors of forestry, oil and gas extraction, and mining. Between 1996 and 2011, employment opportunities in the forestry sector dropped significantly; however, the proportion of women working in it increased from 9 percent to 15 percent. The number of women working in mining between 1996 and 2011 increased by similar amounts, from 10 to 14 percent.

The oil and gas extraction sector, however, presents an anomaly. In 1996, it was by far the smallest of those three sectors in terms of employment numbers, but women accounted for 27 percent of employees. By 2011, that sector had doubled in size, outstripping both other sectors, but women still only accounted for 28 percent. What was going on?

Before taking a closer look at an international initiative to address gender diversity, we want to introduce Sarah Morse, who has worked as a geotechnical engineer since 2000, and who graciously agreed to describe her career trajectory and the challenges she faced.

Meet Sarah Morse, P. Eng., PMP, Senior Geotechnical Engineer
Throughout school, Morse was more interested in STEM subjects than in the humanities, so engineering seemed a natural choice at the University of British Columbia. She considered civil engineering – “I wanted to build bridges,” she says – before geological engineering captured her interest.

About 20 percent of classmates in first-year engineering were women, although stats showed that in 1996, while Morse was studying, only 10 percent of mining sector employees were female. Once she switched over to geological engineering, the class was much smaller, and out of 20 graduates, four were female. Three women, including Morse, have continued to work in the field.

“The work was challenging but not too hard,” she says. “Some students were friendly toward me, and some weren’t accepting, but you learn to stay away from those people and manage.

“I was quite shy, and I found it intimidating to speak with the professors, but I think that was just me. I don’t think they were doing anything that wasn’t inclusive. Students were there to succeed, or not, and it wasn’t their job to help you along.”

Numerous studies in every field of career development have shown the importance of role models and mentoring, but Morse says there were none when she was younger. “When I got further into my career, I had some role models I could look up to, but not in the early times, so it was all about forging my own path,” she says.

“What I found has changed over the last 22 years that I have been doing this work, is that while there aren’t necessarily any more women entering engineering, there are definitely more senior women. When I started there were none. Now there are and that is a big change.”

Student summer jobs, however, were important in her professional development. Her first was as a field assistant for a consulting company that was assessing soils and terrain stability in forested areas so that a forestry company could decide where to build access roads. Then she spent two summers in Fort McMurray, Alberta with one of the oil sand mining companies, “working in the engineering department, doing drawings for tailing sands and dam stability.”

Together with company engineers, she met on-site with construction monitors who required an opinion regarding the soil that was being brought in to construct the dams if they suspected that a change in moisture levels would affect soil stability. This involved soil analysis and an assessment of the design of the slope to rule out any ensuing environmental issues. “The work was hard, and the days were long, but it was a good community to work in,” she says.

Hard work and a positive attitude stood Morse in good stead in 2000, when upon graduation from UBC, she applied to work in the Vancouver office of an international consulting company. Although the interview went well, she says they were hesitant to hire her, “because I am a woman, and at five feet, a very small woman.”

She ultimately landed the job, because “someone in the company was really good friends with my summer position supervisor, but if it hadn’t been for his glowing recommendation, they probably wouldn’t have hired me.”

She did construction monitoring for tailings dams for that company for three and a half years, similar work to what she’d done as a co-op student, but on her own, without support from a senior engineer. “I would head out to the mines to tell the men who were constructing the dams they were doing it wrong,” she laughs. “They were used to engineers telling them that, and it wasn’t the first time they’d had a young engineer, but it was the first time they had a young female engineer in a position of authority. So it required me to be a lot more confident about my decisions than I truly felt.”

Morse was assigned her own projects, mines in Montana, Washington, and the B.C. interior, which she visited regularly. There were also opportunities to go to such places as Cuba, Romania, and South America, “but they didn’t send me, and I feel that was partly because I am a woman and there were safety risks associated with those places, so I never went even though more junior male engineers did.” Still, she calls the consulting company a great place to work and would have stayed had she not relocated to be with her husband.

There she joined another international consulting company in their infrastructure department, doing “a little bit of mining work, but mostly things like roads and buildings associated with the resource sector and other development areas.”

Three years ago, after working there for 16 years, Morse resigned, “as it didn’t seem to be a welcoming place for senior women, and I didn’t see a good path forward for my career,” and accepted a position as Senior Geotechnical Inspector with the B.C. government. There she works as part of a team of seven geotechnical engineers, four of whom are women, including a classmate from her graduating class at UBC. “I feel we are doing good work and we review each other’s work,” she says. “We do mine inspections, and we review permitting applications and technical documents submitted by the companies.”

Were it not for COVID restrictions, she would be spending approximately one week per month away from home at the mine sites, something she feels comfortable about now that her sons are growing up.

Morse takes pride in knowing that “the materials being mined in B.C. are critical to moving forward with clean energy, with electric vehicles and solar energy, because some of the required components, such as copper, need to be extracted from the ground. At the same time, the mines are working toward becoming more efficient and using more renewable energy for their activities.

“We are moving forward, helping to make mines more efficient and environmentally friendly, and a big part of that is ensuring the mines and the dams that are constructed are safe, and that we are safe in everything we do.”

Equal By 30 – advancing diversity and inclusion in the energy sector
Two years ago, just as the pandemic struck, Natural Resources Canada launched Equal By 30, an international initiative to advance both gender and ethnic diversity in energy under the umbrella of the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) International Initiative. Involved are over 135 energy companies and 12 national governments, including Sweden, which has taken a leading role, along with Canada, the U.K., the U.S., France, and Japan.

Research conducted by Diversio, the Toronto-based platform that tracks and improves diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and applied to Equal By 30, indicates that to meaningfully advance diversity, it’s important to focus on five inclusion metrics: the development of an inclusive culture where everyone feels valued; fair and unbiased management practices; career development; workplace flexibility; and workplace safety, which means ensuring that no employees are experiencing sexual, psychological, or physical harassment (see www.equalby30.org and www.efficiencycanada.org for more).

In the Canadian context, being Equal By 30 refers to three goals as articulated by Efficiency Canada, the national voice for an energy-efficient economy, housed at Carlton University. The goals include equal pay and equal leadership, with 50 percent of leadership roles held by women, and equal opportunities through the creation of policies to support flexible work hours, telecommuting, and part-time work, all of which should be accomplished by 2030.

Equality and diversity in the resource sector have been a long time coming. Now it’s on the horizon, while at the same time questions surrounding energy sustainability are more critical than ever before. We hope, by working together, women and men can bring their own perspectives to the table to solve the most pressing issues facing our planet.



Wellness at Work

Read Our Current Issue


Electrifying the Way to Lower Emissions

May 2023

A Renewable Future

April 2023

A Pipeline of Talent

March 2023

More Past Editions

Cover Story

Featured Articles