May 2011

Women in Mining

Tilting the balance: Noront a model for gender diversity

By Virginia Heffernan

Renata Smoke teaching Mining Matters in Martens Falls First Nation, summer 2010 | Photo courtesy of Engage Learning Systems

In an industry that is slow to adopt gender diversity, Noront Resources stands out like an oasis in the desert: over 50 per cent of its employees are female, compared to just 14 per cent overall in the mining sector.

Although this remarkable gender split happened more by accident than by design, Noront continues to promote and capitalize on diversity as the company transitions from exploration to development and competes for a limited pool of talent. “We’ve totally embraced the diversity and inclusion model and because of that, we’ll be able to attract really intelligent, bright females from across Canada,” says Leanne Hall, vice-president of human resources for Noront, a Toronto-based mineral exploration company with exploration activity in the Ring of Fire Region in northwestern Ontario. “For us, it is about creating a diverse talent pool that will enhance and engage our workforce for the future – this is also a win/win situation for the mining industry and northern environments.”

Change starts at the top

Wes Hanson, president and CEO of Noront, plays a critical role in setting the leadership tone for change – making workplace flexibility a key priority. He understands that human resource policies and programs that incorporate work/life initiatives are important for attracting and retaining talent as well as maintaining high levels of productivity. Whether talking about work practices or working conditions, it is clear that barriers exist for women in particular.

The Ramp-Up study report, published last February by the Mining Industry Human Resources (MiHR) Council and Women in Mining Canada, focused on the status of women in the mining and exploration sector. Interestingly enough, the number one barrier for female respondents was the seven-day in/seven-day out work schedule practice at many remote camps.

Melanie Sturk, the director of attraction, retention and transition for MiHR, believes that this likely explains the drastic drop in the number of females that make the transition from school to paying jobs in the industry, even though at least 50 per cent of the students enrolled in post-secondary geology programs are female.

Here again, Noront is an anomaly: 44 per cent of all of Noront’s female employees are in management or in technical positions, including geologists. Camp accommodations include separate sleeping quarters, bathrooms and showers for women.

Sturk believes there are a number of initiatives companies can take to support work-life balance, including subsidized on-site day care, for example, or giving female employees work schedule options to choose from. “We’re going to look at new initiatives such as flex-time and childcare issues,” says Hall, “but right now, because the majority of employees are in our exploration camp, we are more focused on keeping them happy while they are in camp.”

The second major barrier identified in the report is the work culture within a male-dominated industry. Notions about women’s intolerance for physically demanding tasks can impede career paths and need to be dispelled. “Eliminating assumptions about women’s ability to manage field work is vital. In addition, there is a need to address practices that collectively contribute to perceptions of a male-dominated culture, including awareness training, closing the wage gap and implementing mentorship programs,” the Ramp-UP report states in its recommendations. Change starts at the top.

“Not just white males”

The increased number of women at companies like Noront is beginning to alter the way mining is presented to young people considering a career in the industry. Several women took leadership roles at last August’s “Mining Matters” summer camp, run by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) and sponsored by Noront, in the communities of Webequie and Marten Falls. They included Renata Smoke, an Aboriginal student studying geology at the University of Western Ontario, and Barbara Green Parker, Aboriginal education specialist for PDAC.

The camp introduced a total of 104 youth, ranging in age from nine to 19, to geological and mineral exploration activities, including prospecting, claim staking, mapping and the use of GPS technology. Providing role models such as Smoke and Parker – along with Aboriginals who work in the industry – to girls thinking of becoming mining professionals is crucial to change the perception of mining as a white, male-only field, says Sturk.

To this end, Noront’s goal of being an employer of choice encompasses employment opportunities for Aboriginal women and men from the communities surrounding Noront’s exploration properties in the Ring of Fire – a vast area containing several polymetallic and chromite deposits in Ontario’s James Bay lowlands. As the company grows, it only makes sense to train and recruit and train local talent, says Hall.

The strategy is already paying off. “When you see Noront at an event, you see Leanne Hall, you see Glenn Nolan, vice-president of Aboriginal affairs and former chief of the Missanabie Cree First Nation, and you see a diverse group of people who love their jobs and are excited about what they do,” says Sturk. “Seeing female faces in the industry and having these people to go to for support is critical for women.” In fact, mentoring has proven to be most successful in developing diverse talent.

Recently, Noront expanded its mentorship program by offering direct access to successful mining women, including Hall, on the Mikawaa (an Oji-Cree word meaning “discovery”) web portal developed by Noront to improve communication, consultation and collaboration between the company and surrounding communities (“Mikawaa breaks down the barrier of distance,” says Hall. “We are just a click away from respectful, responsible and knowledgeable dialogue and the sharing of information with our communities and stakeholders.”

Mikawaa is the kind of initiative that will encourage the next generation of women to join an industry where significant obstacles for women persist. One can be sure that when it comes to diversity, Noront will be leading the charge.

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