Ann Carpenter got a phone call from Canadian mining entrepreneur Rob McEwen last fall about his latest venture exploring for gold in Nevada, and how he was looking for a No. 2 person for U.S. Gold Corp.
Within a few weeks, Ms. Carpenter, a Reno-based geologist, agreed to climb on board as president and chief operating officer of the Denver-based junior mining company controlled by Mr. McEwen.
Under their leadership, U.S. Gold recently made an unsolicited bid for four other junior miners with nearby properties in Nevada's Cortez Trend, to create a major exploration company and attract institutional investors.
"I thought this [job]would be an opportunity -- a fun ride," Ms. Carpenter, the 47-year-old geologist, said during an interview at U.S. Gold's executive office in Toronto.
In the global, heavily male-dominated mining industry, Ms. Carpenter is among the few women who have been appointed to the corner office. But industry observers suggest that situation could change as companies seek out female talent in the face of a skills shortage in the industry, and more women become attracted to a sector that is increasingly losing its gritty image.
A report by the Ottawa-based Mining Industry Human Resources Council indicates the Canadian industry will need about 81,000 people at all levels over the next decade to fill vacancies caused by a looming bulge of retirees and strong growth fuelled by rising global demand for metals and minerals.
"There are a lot of shortages in the industry, and I think there will be more opportunities that will come up for women," says Michele Ashby, a U.S. Gold board member.
Mr. McEwen recalls complaining to Ms. Ashby about the "shortage of senior personnel in the industry" when he was looking for a president, but she begged to differ. Ms. Ashby, also a member of the U.S.-based Women's Mining Coalition, a lobby group, told him there were a lot of talented women around who haven't had a shot at the top, and recommended Ms. Carpenter.
Ms. Carpenter, a "tomboy" who grew up with six brothers in Montana and Nevada, has worked as a geologist for various firms, including Placer Dome Inc. and Noranda Inc. "I have been getting the diversity in my work experience that would allow me to ramp into that type of position . . . to get into upper management," says Ms. Carpenter, who is married but has no children.
Other women holding corner office jobs in Canada include Heather Conley of Auramex Resource Corp., and Doris Meyer of Kalimantan Gold Corp., both Vancouver-based.
Ms. Conley, 43, had been a partner in her husband's investor relations firm before getting the call by a good friend to head up Auramex. It's because "I have a geology degree," says Ms. Conley, who also worked as a government geologist.
Ms. Meyer, 53, started her mining career in the accounting department at Denver-based Queenstake Resources Ltd. She worked her way up to chief financial officer before moving in 2004 to Kalimantan, which is exploring in Indonesia.
Other women have created their own corner office positions by starting their own companies. Catherine McLeod-Seltzer, chairwoman of Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Corp. and Bear Creek Mining Corp., is a name that often pops up as a role model. Born into a mining family, she also co-founded and was president of Arequipa Resources Ltd. in the 1990s before it was sold for $1.1-billion to Barrick Gold Corp. of Toronto.
Lynda Bloom, CEO and co-founder of Toronto-based Canadian Shield Resources Inc., became an entrepreneur afterseeing few women with technical or science backgrounds getting top jobs at larger mining firms.
But more women will rise to senior positions in the industry as they enter programs like engineering and geology in greater numbers, and get into "the pipeline," predicts Patricia Dillon, president of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada.
"We are a very high-tech industry now," says Ms. Dillon, a geologist and manager of corporate relations for Vancouver's Teck Cominco Ltd.
"It used to be that you needed tremendous physical strength to work within this industry, and now this is not so much the case."
Ferri Hassani, a professor and director of the mining engineering program at Montreal's McGill University, agrees. Forty per cent of first-year students in his program are now female, compared with 20 to 25 per cent five years ago, he says.
Female students are becoming aware of the attractive salaries in the current market, where skilled workers are in short supply, Prof. Hassani adds. "We are looking at starting salaries between $60,000 to $80,000 for a 23-year-old, and signing bonuses of about $100,000 [usually spread over a five-year period]"
The skills shortage has also caused some mining executives, such as Ian Telfer, CEO of Vancouver-based Goldcorp., to think of creative ways to entice more people to the sector. He came up with the idea last year of hiring an "apprentice," and chose Melanie Pilon from a short list of MBA graduates at the University of Ottawa, his alma mater. The program was inspired by the TV show, The Apprentice, Mr. Telfer says, in which real estate tycoon Donald Trump hires a young entrepreneur to work by his side.
"My intention is to hire an MBA grad every year . . . but it wasn't accidental that the first one was a woman," Mr. Telfer says.
Women at the helm
Some women who have stepped into corner office jobs by starting up junior mining companies.
Eira Thomas, 37, CEO and co-founder of Vancouver-based Stornoway Diamond Corp., which is exploring for diamonds in northern Canada and Botswana. A geologist, she led the 1994 exploration team at Aber Resources Ltd. that discovered the Diavik diamond mine in the Northwest Territories.
Joanne (Joey) Freeze, 48, CEO and co-founder of Vancouver-based Candente Resource Corp., which is exploring for copper and gold in Peru.
Pamela Strand, 40, CEO and co-founder of Edmonton-based Shear Minerals Ltd., which is exploring for diamonds in northern Canada, and has a 51-per-cent stake in the Churchill diamond property in Nunavut.
Peggy Kent, 52, CEO and co-founder of Century Mining Corp., based in Blaine, Wash., which bought a dormant gold mine in Val-d'Or, Que., and has restarted operations. Ms. Kent (maiden name), a metallurgical engineer, was formerly Peggy Witte, who presided over the rise and fall of Royal Oak Mines Ltd. in the 1990s.
Beth Kirkwood, 56, CEO and co-founder of Toronto-based First Nickel Inc., which bought and operates Falconbridge Ltd.'s Lockerby mine in Sudbury, Ont. After a stint as a legal clerk for a securities lawyer specializing in junior miners, she started up several companies.
Lynda Bloom, 49, CEO and co-founder of Toronto-based Canadian Shield Resources Inc., which is exploring for gold and copper in Peru.