Originally from Poland, Dr Eleonora Widzyk-Capehart has studied, worked, and taught in the mining engineering industry for 30 years in multiple countries – including the US, Australia, and Chile – before reaching her current role as associate professor in the school of mining and geosciences at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University.
With a particular focus on the application of smart technologies and automation in the mining sector, she has seen the rise of digital tools transforming the industry, and the novel opportunities this presents for women in engineering.
Here, we spoke to her about her experience working in a typically male-dominated sector, how digitalisation is changing the mining landscape to make greater space for a diverse workforce, and how mining companies can more adequately attract (and maintain) female talent.
Scarlett Evans (SE): What attracted you to mining as a career?
Eleonora Widzyk-Capehart (EWC): In Poland, I studied automation and electrification of mines as part of my bachelors of science, which I was attracted to because a representative from the course came to my high school and spoke about what he did.
After completing my PhD, I worked in the office of roadworks in California before moving to research centres associated with University of Queensland and CSIRO. And then I spent almost seven years in Chile at the advanced mining technology centre, where I was leading the project related to sensor development for mining applications. When that project finished, I moved here to Kazakhstan, where I’ve been since August 2020.
SE: How have you found it being a woman in what is traditionally quite a masculine industry?
EWC: When I began my university studies, the attitude that existed was that you were at university not only for education but to find a husband. In the whole school of engineering, there were only a handful of women amongst hundreds of males, who were all sceptical as to why we were there.
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At every step of my career, I’ve felt I have to prove I can do the job not just equally as well as my male colleagues, but far better.
I’ve been fortunate in that throughout my career I’ve worked with men who don’t have gender prejudices, who looked at me and my abilities and not simply as a woman working in a man’s world. However, I’ve seen other women fearing for their jobs because they have to constantly prove themselves.
SE: Having worked in several different countries, did you see a difference in attitudes to women in the workforce?
EWC: I saw more acceptance, even in academia, in the US compared to Australia or Chile, but in Chile I also found there were many women working in middle management and management positions on projects. This was far more than I’ve seen in other countries, and it was quite surprising to me as it’s a country that has a strong perception of mining being very male-dominated.
SE: As a teacher, what are the sentiments that you see in students these days towards mining?
EWC: Because this generation has been growing up with technology, it’s much easier for them to understand that mining is no longer just about physical labour, it’s about technology. We’re also seeing a lot more women going into geology, and coming across to mining engineering from that background, which brings a whole new perspective on mining.
What mining companies need to understand is how important women are for the mining industry. They improve the ability to meet public and investor demands, helping miners to achieve a social licence to operate. There have also been studies that show a more diversified workforce leads to better performance and increased profitability, and brings more communication and teamwork collaboration because there isn’t a purely male-to-male competitive dynamic.
SE: As digitalisation becomes a more essential part of the industry, how will roles within the sector change?
EWC: The face of mining is changing; there’s a movement towards science and sustainability, and there are many more opportunities with automation and other technology applications. Jobs don’t have to be underground any more, you can remotely control and monitor from the surface – meaning that mining is not as physically intensive or isolating as it used to be, things that make it easier for women to get involved.
Digitalisation must, however, be very well implemented so that we don’t go from a physical male-dominated industry to a digital male-dominated industry. In some countries, women may not have access to the right education to be digitally savvy, which would prevent them from being employed.
Mining companies really, really need to take this under consideration so they look at the society and communities that live next to the mines, or work within them. They need to ensure there is no gender division because of a lack of access to education and training in the digital realm.
SE: What do you make of recent reports of sexual harassment/bullying in the Australian mining sector, for instance from Rio Tinto?
EWC: I was actually quite surprised that the report was released to the public. This is definitely progress and I commend Rio Tinto for releasing it and acknowledging there is a problem. In the past, I’ve seen the problems being swept under the rug. We’re definitely moving in the right direction.
What I would say is that we are seeing a lot of studies and statistics on mining in different countries that are often compared with other industries. I think that we need to be very careful when we compare it to other sectors because they might not have had the same barriers (cultural or otherwise) to female entry. Comparisons need to be very carefully scrutinised and contexts taken into consideration when we look at this data.
SE: How do you think the mining industry could improve and attract more female talent?
EWC: Mining companies need to educate their workforce to ensure that women aren’t simply being included to fill quotas. Quite often, male workers may believe women got the job to tick a box and therefore that the women are just a convenience. Changing this perception is extremely, extremely important both for women to feel supported and for the workforce to become more inclusive.
As a professor, I of course also believe mining companies need to support and emphasise the education of women.
Mining is no longer just about digging in the ground, there’s a lot of science behind it and science is a space where there are growing opportunities for women – there’s no gender disparity in how well men and women can perform in this sector. But mining companies need to make this available for women and, for example, ensure labs are equipped in the best way for professors to be able to educate.
I think the way forward is really a collaboration between the government, the mining companies, academia, and civil society. The benefits to having a more diverse workforce are numerous, but we need collaboration to occur on many levels to make it happen.