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Empowering Women Leaders in South Africa's Mining Sector: A Prerequisite for Sustainable Growth

In a world where industries are striving for gender inclusivity, South Africa's mining sector lags in empowering women for leadership roles. Carla Clamp, Director at BDO South Africa, sheds light on this issue, drawing from her experiences at the annual Women and Leadership in Mining Conference.

“South Africa's mining, a cornerstone of the nation's economy, holds an undiscovered treasure—untapped potential within its women. It's time to spark a dialogue and action by highlighting the urgent need to empower women in this vital sector”, says Mining Superintendent Dolly Masilela from Exxaro Resources. She, along with other inspirational women leaders gathering to share valuable insights and guidance for the future of female leadership in this industry at the event.

According to the 2020 World Bank report, women comprise of just 15% of the global mining workforce, and in South Africa, despite a promising increase from 11,400 in 2002 to 56,691 in 2019, they still represented a mere 12% of the total mining labour force of 454,861 people. With mining increasingly becoming one of South Africa’s most important industries, the sector is ripe for transformation and closing the gender gap must be made a priority.

One of the most pressing challenges facing women in mining is a disproportionate gender pay gap because of occupational segregation. Women are often concentrated in lower-paying administrative and support roles while men dominate higher-paying technical and operational positions resulting in a persistent gap in pay estimated to be around 15% on average. This disparity highlights the urgent need for women to ascend to leadership roles within the industry.

We simply cannot ignore the imperative of having more women in leadership positions as the crucial caveat in transforming the industry. This is about so much more than just achieving gender equality; it's about disrupting the industry's future, fostering innovation, and driving sustainable development. Masilela says: “The mining industry is no stranger to tradition and long-established practices. However, disruption in this sector should not just be a buzzword; it's an essential force driving progress, sustainability, and competitiveness. South Africa's mining sector is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent in the form of women. By disrupting the deeply entrenched gender status quo, breaking down barriers and encouraging women to take on leadership roles, the industry can access a diverse pool of skills, perspectives, and experiences that have been historically underutilised.”

First and foremost, increased female representation in leadership positions is essential to combat gender inequality and promote inclusivity. Historically, women have been underrepresented in the industry due to stereotypes and biases that have limited their access to opportunities and career advancement. This systemic exclusion perpetuates gender inequalities and hampers the sector's potential for growth. By actively promoting and supporting women in leadership roles, we can challenge these norms and provide much-needed role models for young women aspiring to enter the field.

Another aspect where female leadership can make a significant difference is in environmental stewardship. Mining, by its nature, has a substantial environmental footprint. Women leaders, who often have a stronger track record of environmental consciousness and sustainable management, can help steer the industry towards greener practices that safeguard the environment for future generations while ensuring the sector's long-term viability.

Women are also showing their prowess in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and their inclusion in leadership positions can accelerate the sector's digital transformation. As the industry becomes increasingly driven by data analytics, automation, and artificial intelligence, diverse perspectives are crucial for harnessing the full potential of technology.

Beyond these economic and environmental imperatives, there is also the issue of community development and social responsibility. Mining operations often have profound social and cultural impacts on the communities where they operate. Women leaders are more likely to prioritise community development, education, and healthcare, fostering a more inclusive and socially responsible mining sector. This not only benefits local communities but also helps improve the industry's image, reducing conflicts and resistance from affected populations.

So what do we need to do to ensure that more women are able to access and take on more leadership positions?

Masilela says that it begins with recognising that women are ready to take their place at the helm. “South Africa's mining sector has the potential to be a beacon of progress and transformation, not just economically but socially and environmentally. To harness this potential fully, we must empower women to take their rightful place as leaders, innovators, and drivers of change within the industry.”

First off the bat, mining companies should actively work to challenge and break down gender stereotypes by promoting success stories of women who have excelled in mining roles, highlighting their achievements and contributions. Take for example, women like Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita, and Bridget Radebe who shattered the glass ceilings and whose stories are testament to the power of determination and vision. Across the sector, women too can take on pivotal roles and challenge stereotypes, but they must be recognised and be made examples of.

There needs to be a much greater investment into education and training. Mentorship programmes and apprenticeships that specifically target women are essential. But just as essential is support beyond these programmes. We must make sure that women are not over mentored and then under sponsored. Programmes must provide support for women at all stages of their careers, right through to leadership roles.

Developing inclusive workplace cultures that prioritise diversity and respect is also crucial. Part of this is relooking at all aspects of the female experience – from working ablutions, to safe and secure changing areas, to personal safety and respect both on and off the mine, we must start to hold leaders accountable for creating a safe and respectful space for all employees.

The demanding and often remote nature of mining jobs can conflict with women's caregiving responsibilities, making it difficult for them to balance work and family life. Much more needs to be done in recognising and accommodating these challenges. Mines could start by offering more flexible work arrangements, including remote work options and family-friendly policies.

As we journey towards a more inclusive and equitable mining sector, let us remember that when we empower women, we empower the future. With some of the largest mines in the world, South Africa's mining sector has an opportunity to lead by example, to prove that our mining legacy is not in the minerals beneath the earth but in the strength and resilience of its women. Learning to unlearn is the cornerstone of success for women in the mining sector. By shedding preconceptions and embracing change, women can not only succeed but also lead the industry towards greater inclusivity, innovation, and progress.