‘We come in peace, but we mean business’ is the strapline for the Me Too Mining Association website launched in January.
Earlier the same month, singer and actress Janelle Monáe Robinson spoke the same words at the Grammy Awards in support of the #MeToo movement that emerged from Hollywood as a mark of solidarity with the alleged victims of sexual predator Harvey Weinstein.
From the glamour of awards season in Los Angles, to the around 80% male-dominated mine sites scattered across the globe, the two settings might be polar opposites, but the stories are familiar and the message is the same: end sexual harassment in our industry. Now.
“I have seen it, experienced it and heard many more horrible and serious stories than what has ever happened to me,” says Canadian geologist, Susan Lomas.
Lomas started working as a geologist at Canadian mine sites straight out of university. It didn’t take long before she experienced abuse for the first time. Her male colleagues plastered her work area with pornographic pictures, which she removed, twice. In response, the site sampler threatened to put her hand through a rock crusher.
“When I first started in the industry in the late 80s, there was this attitude of ‘you are in my space’,” she says, “I just had to try and find a place I could operate within it and keep moving forward.”
Lomas tells another story of a CEO at a mining company who used to lift up woman’s shirts to see what bras they were wearing. He was never held accountable and women eventually left the office, one by one.
“Working in remote sites it [sexual harassment] is almost more expected, but in the office, there is often this perception that it is going to be less intrusive, but sometimes CEOs of mining companies are very aggressive men,” she explains, “The industry has that cult of personality, they have all these people fawning all over them and this can breed a culture of impunity.”
Women on the record
There have been very few studies done to quantify the scale of abuse women face in the mining industry. However, along with Lomas, other women’s stories are being put on the record, some that are utterly horrific.
Last year, Kari Lentowicz spoke to local media about the sexist comments, gender bias and insular “boys’ club” she experienced as an employee at Cameco Corp.’s flagship uranium mine site, Cigar Lake, in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. The culture eventually forced her to quit her job.
In a New York Times article published last year, another woman describes working at a mine in the US where she endured sexist remarks, cellphones with pornographic pictures being passed around and her drill and walkie talkie being tampered with, threatening her safety. She also left her job.
In a LinkedIn article, ‘Anne B’ describes her experience, also in Canada, of inappropriate sexualised talk, being singled out and feeling unsafe heading to the showers, that resulted in her feeling ‘disgust’ for the industry. She also decided to quit.
In July 2017, a camera was found in the washroom of Yellowknife RCMP Ekati Diamond Mine in Canada and in Australia the documentary Hotel Coolgardie, shot in 2012, gives an insight into the raging machismo that fuels sexual harassment of women in a remote mining town.
One of the most shocking stories, however, is that of miner Binky Mosiane in South Africa. The young mother was raped and murdered underground at Anglo Platinum ’s Khomanani mine in 2012. It took two years to convict her killer.
A culture of silence
Reading these stories, it seems apparent that a toxic culture of male chauvinism has manifested itself in many mining environments, resulting in a pack mentality that is protected by a wall of silence.
A major focus for the #MeTooMining campaign, says Lomas, will be to help men overcome what she terms ‘bystander behaviour’, that stops them speaking up when they witness aggressive and abusive behaviour.
Lomas has heard ‘some haunting’ stories from men, she says, about what they have witnessed and how bad they feel about not doing anything at the time because they felt helpless and outnumbered. “They didn’t have the support to say anything,” she says.
The campaign will look to give guidance to men on what they can do to help their female colleagues, as well as advocate for company training.
“Men can create some distraction to break-up the scene, get the woman out of there, talk to her, give her support and bear witness to what happened if she does report it,” she explains.
The fledgling Association is currently organising internally but eventually wants to start campaigning for better reporting guidance, whistle-blower lines and independent support for women who make a complaint. Many procedures in place today, she feels, are not well thought out.
“A lot of policies are not clear; they just say file a report. But what happens when they do? Is the woman protected? Are they safe? Are they reporting to the immediate supervisor? What if he is actively involved in the situation? What if officers of the company and members of the board are involved, what are your options at that point?” she asks.
Women or men should go to their employers, she says, and find out what their policies are. If it is not sufficient, approach them and ask for improvements. Equally, if an office has good practices, Lomas wants to hear about it.
Halting the revolving door
Canada is the perfect place to start a conversation about abuse in the mining sector as 75% of mining companies are registered in the country. But what reaction has she had to the campaign so far?
“It’s not a landslide of people rushing out to say something, but people are engaging,” she says.
Is this perhaps to do with that culture of silence? “A lot of women I know have said, yes, we need this, definitely, and start telling me all these horrible stories, but then they explain it is too risky for them to come out and report it because there are so few of us [women], they are scared of losing their jobs.”
She refers to other male dominated industries, like the financial sector, where very few women come forward and report sexual harassment.
“It is your career that you feel you are putting at risk,” she adds.
Through her long career did she ever feel like leaving the sector, as some women do? “Absolutely. But there were times I felt that by just staying, by my mere presence, that I could impact the environment I was in, the company and project site, if I just kept to the work.”
Unfortunately, so many women don’t stay and more than just lip service must be paid to problems of sexual harassment and abuse in the industry if the mining sector truly wants to encourage more women to join.
Otherwise, as Lomas concludes: “We can encourage inclusion and diversity, but unless we change the culture it is going to be a revolving door.”