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’If you want excitement, then mining every single day is a challenge,’ says UBC mining student Veronica Knott.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Veronica Knott grew up with no concept of mining. “We lived in downtown Toronto,” the 25-year-old says. “I could not be further from the mining industry.”

That changed in 2015 when, intrigued by what she heard from students and faculty, she switched from materials engineering to mining at the University of British Columbia. This spring she graduates with a bachelor of applied science in mining engineering (and a mineral processing specialty) from the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering.

Now completing a second work placement before graduation, Ms. Knott has found her career.

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“If you want excitement, then mining every single day is a challenge, with a new problem to solve every day,” she says. “You do it as part of a team and that’s what attracted me to be a part of it.”

While her enthusiasm is infectious, she knows she is joining an industry with low female participation. In 2016, women accounted for 16 per cent of mining employment compared with 48 per cent for all industries, according to the Mining Industry Human Resource Council.

In response, some companies have started to post gender-neutral job openings, add female-focused scholarships and introduce flexible work schedules for young parents.

In an industry whose image was forged by men with pickaxes, the rise of remote-control technology and artificial intelligence are redefining work and female recruitment practices.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” says Darren Ratz, head of human resources for the North Atlantic region of Brazil-owned Vale SA, whose Canadian operations include an open-pit mine at Voisey’s Bay, Labrador.

Now planning to go underground at the site, subject to land claims by the Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut territorial government, the company has negotiated employment commitments that include training for below-ground positions.

The first trainee is an Indigenous woman, with four of the first 10 trainees also women, Mr. Ratz says.

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“Where we have the new operations we have a much better opportunity to get a diverse population,” he says. At Vale’s four-year-old hydrometallurgical processing facility in Long Harbour, Nfld., women account for 23 per cent of the work force compared with 12 per cent company-wide.

Still, gender barriers persist.

A 2016 report by Women in Mining Canada called for gender-specific reforms, including workplace respect, accommodation for work-life balance and inclusive practices for career development.

“Progress is being made, the issues are being talked about and action plans are being put in place,” says WIMC chair Catherine Gignac, a corporate director for several mining companies. But she cautions: “We are not in the middle of a boom period now; it is difficult to say, ‘Hey, let’s jump on board.’ ”

A major concern is a “leaky pipeline” phenomenon that sees women leave mining after five to 10 years, reducing the applicant pool for senior management.

“One of the issues we feel needs to be targeted is ‘how do you retain women, including Indigenous women, who serve in the industry?’ ” says Ms. Gignac, noting the emphasis on contract positions in current job openings.

“The employee is looking for a position and will take the contract, making a commitment in many instances to move to a remote location in a mining town,” she says. “That is not like being in downtown Toronto.”

Diversity is one strategy to improve mining’s image, says UBC professor Nadja Kunz, cross-appointed to the schools of mining and public policy and one of four women in the 12-member mining faculty. Today’s graduates are interested in questions “that are beyond what traditional mining engineering is about,” she says.

“As we have more complex social and environmental dilemmas in front of us, we need engineers, the best and the brightest, but we also need people who are very strong on social and environmental issues.”

Nalaine Morin, who founded ArrowBlade Consulting Services in Leduc, Alta., examines core samples at the site of the Johnny Mountain Mine, a closed gold mine in northwestern B.C. that is in the process of being remediated and reclaimed by mine owner Seabridge Gold.

Elizabeth Miller/Seabridge Gold

Mining consultant Nalaine Morin, a member of the Tahltan Nation in British Columbia, learned about mining from her father, who worked in the sector. “It put food on our table,” she says.

But when she earned her mining credentials from the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Institute of Technology in the 1990s, she had few female classmates, none of them Indigenous.

After several years with a mine operation in Manitoba, she founded Arrowblade Consulting in 2009, based in Leduc, Alta., with a focus on Indigenous and resource development issues. For her efforts, she was named an “Indigenous trailblazer” by Women in Mining Canada in 2017.

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She says she is encouraged by recent changes in hiring practices, including new internships for male and female Indigenous students. “It makes a huge difference because they [the students] are bringing their Indigenous knowledge with them,” she says.

While praising “very positive things happening” in recent years, she also urges expanded effort. “There needs to be recognition of the need for balance and diversity,” she says.

Increasingly, school outreach is a route for the industry, with its education counterparts, to educate girls about mining at an early age.

Geologist Ashley Kirwin, who co-founded her company with two other women six years ago in Sudbury, visits elementary classrooms to talk about mining. She also supports her alma mater, Laurentian University, and other postsecondary institutions in the region, serving as both a judge for student competitions and a mentor.

Her company, Orix Geoscience Inc., provides geological and other expertise to exploration firms and has grown to 63 employees, with 52 per cent female.

Ms. Kirwin says her company looks for employees with soft skills (and technical knowledge) and offers flexible hours and support for those who want to pursue additional education.

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“Our retention is high and our reputation is out there when we go to conferences,” she says. “They [potential employees] want to work with us because of our culture.”

Like other universities with mining programs, Laurentian hosts events to teach elementary and high-school students about career options.

Last fall, with the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering, Laurentian’s Bharti School of Engineering held a day-long session of hands-on activities, some tied to mining, for girls in Grades 7-10.

A 'Go Eng Girl' event held in the fall of 2018 at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., to give girls in Grades 7-10 the chance to learn more about engineering, and mining, as career options.

Laurentian University

Amber Kabaroff Scott, a Grade 8 student at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School, attended the “Go Eng Girl” event for the second year in a row. The 12-year-old says she liked working in groups and the chance to “think outside the box” to solve math-rich projects such as weighing different kinds of matter, including copper balls and rocks.

A fan of “computers, robotics and the programming side of things,” Amber says the experience piqued her interest in engineering, though she remains uncertain about mining as a career. “It interests me a little bit but I am not the best in enclosed spaces,” she says.

Her mother, Lynn Kabaroff, describes the outreach event as “a fabulous opportunity” and says she would support her daughter if she went into mining. “With the technology that is changing, and the computer coding, mining is becoming a lot safer and there is less need to go down into a potentially more risky situation,” she says.

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As Ms. Knott prepares to graduate from UBC, she says she is pleased to see the growing emphasis on female recruitment to mining but also warns “we are not there yet.”

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