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Women in Mining: Breaking the barriers

Women in Mining:
The barriers that barred women from the mining industry

Authored by Halo Media  |  Originally published by in 2019 by Mining Review Africa, and updated in 2022

Gender diversity may be a common topic now, but it certainly wasn't in the past. Women used to be barred from entering the mining industry at an underground level.

Legislative restrictions, gender restrictions, and even superstition stood in the way of them proving what a valuable resource they would be to the industry.

Legal restrictions

The South African Minerals Act of 1991 legally prohibited women from working underground. However, there were no laws that prevented them from working in mines above ground, so a few women chose to do so.

Physical restrictions

Working underground is dangerous and requires extensive physical training. As a result. mining has always been a male-dominated sector. The fairer sex was considered physically incapable of working in the mining industry as they were seen as weaker than men.

Social restrictions

As bizarre as it sounds, women were labelled as bad luck if they stepped foot in a coal mine.

Let's tell you an inspirational story about defying the odds

Before women were allowed to work underground, one brave woman challenged legal, physical and social norms when she left her home in search of a better life.

Pili Hussein grew up in Tanzania in a large family. At the age of 31, she ran away from an abusive marriage in search of work. She found herself in Mererani, a small town in Tanzania – the only place in the world where tanzanite was mined.

Pili dressed up like a man, changed her name and entered the mine. She worked 10–12 hours a day in the heat, hundreds of metres below the ground, proving that she was physically capable.

Pili dug her way to riches when she uncovered two massive clusters of tanzanite stones, and used her fortune to build houses for her father, mother and twin sister.

Today, she owns her own mining company and has 70 employees working for her – paving the way for women in mining and marketing.

Pushing legal boundaries

In 2002, the South African Mining Charter was introduced to ensure that mining companies included 10% of women in their total workforce by 2009.

Why is it so important for women to be a part of the mining sector?

It not only promotes diversity but can also improve economic performance and lead to better decision-making processes.

Women constantly multitask, juggling careers, children and households, and finding solutions to everyday challenges.

Furthermore, the odds are against women's leadership. They face constant challenges in what is to some extent still seen as a ‘man’s world’. This gives them more reason to prove themselves and fight for their place at the top.

Women in the Mining industry in Africa

Copyright: Halo Media | Source: Department of Mineral Resources/Minerals Council South Africa (2019)

What women within the industry have to say

We did a little digging of our own and spoke to two women working in two different sectors of mining, namely, Ellie Moshoane and Louise Cunningham.

Ellie Moshoane has worked in the mining and metal industry for more than 20 years. Over the years, she has seen an increase in women in mining, particularly in the artisan field.

Like many women in the industry, Ellie faced a lot of challenges when she began her career in mining, specifically with regard to male colleagues who undermined her capabilities.

She proved herself to them by expanding her knowledge of the machinery she worked with and by completing physical challenges by herself.

We asked Ellie about the advantages of including women in the mining sector.

She said: “Women are strong on emotional intelligence. Companies are building organisational cultures that encourage leaders to talk to the mind and heart of the employee in order to hold them accountable for their deliverables. Many male employees lack this skill and are not comfortable with this culture. Women are able to implement this kind of culture in the workplace, allowing organisations to transform.”

Ellie believes that more women are pursuing an education in mining. However, there are still organisations that are not equipped to employ women.

She said that South Africa is ahead of other countries, as there are SA companies with close to 20% female representation, whereas other countries still do not allow women to work in mining. Ellie cannot wait for the day that she becomes CEO of a mining company, where she can make a difference in the lives of female employees.

We also spoke to Louise Cunningham, Director of Halo Media. Louise provides marketing and designs directly to mines and mining support services. She’s worked with Rio Tinto and South32, from simple communication design like emailers and newsletters; to creating and designing full health and awareness campaigns; and production of videos for sustainable development reports.

Louise brings a wealth of international experience to the mining table and believes that women are well represented at an administrative level in the mining industry, but on the whole, she says that there seem to be more men than women in the industry.

Louise strongly believes that mining is a good career choice for women. “Considering that RSA is estimated to have the world’s fifth largest mining sector in terms of GDP value, it should be in the crosshairs of all South African career prospectors, men or women!

"There are huge possibilities for growth, and international networking and women may just bring in some solutions to problems that have plagued the sector with solutions not yet considered,” she said.

“I think if the mining sector were to engage more with smaller businesses, then even more women would be positively impacted. For example, our company, Halo Media is a small business, with a 75% female staff contingent. When mines and support industries choose to work with us, they are positively impacting the roles of women (and their families),” said Louise.

Breaking down barriers

You’re not alone if you seek a career in mining. There are many support structures and women’s organisations like IWIM and WIMSA that are active advocates for women in mining. They support, encourage and honour women in the mining industry, and provide great networking opportunities.