Back in the late 1970s, Ingrid Hann visited an underground uranium mine in Northern Ontario. Her presence was not exactly welcome - some of the miners dropped to their knees, made a sign of the cross and urged her to return to the surface.
Women, they believed, brought terrible luck underground.
Ms. Hann, then a recruiter for Denison Mines Inc. in Elliot Lake, Ont., heard lots of complaints about women in the field: They weren't strong enough to do the work. They weren't cut out for the job. They'd just have a baby and leave.
Even the law wasn't on their side: Ontario legislation forbade them from working underground until 1979.
"It was harsh in those days. There were definitely obstacles," recalls Ms. Hann, who is now vice-president of human resources at De Beers Canada Inc., a subsidiary of the world's largest diamond miner. "But I do not see any trace of those obstacles today."
That may be a bit of a stretch, but when it comes to making way for women, the still male-dominated industry has made strides in recent decades.
These days, mining apparel and boots are produced in women's sizes. Women, for the most part, have access to their own on-site change rooms and showers. Thanks to new technology and safety standards, mining has become a more automated and healthier industry, helping to erode its dirty, brute-force image. And perhaps most importantly, Cynthia Carroll shattered a glass ceiling in 2007 when she assumed the helm of Anglo American PLC, becoming the first woman to lead a global mining giant.
These days, if anyone is dropping to their knees, it is to try to convince women that mining is a worthy career option. Despite today's tough economic times, mining companies are still employing a variety of strategies to woo women to meet their long-term staffing needs. They are working with schools to try to turn young girls on to the subjects - such as sciences and engineering - that they will need for the job, and offering scholarships to female university students. They are also offering mentoring and sensitivity programs in the workplace.
"I have noticed quite a change in the last decade - more women who are geologists and mining engineers; and more women getting into other technical fields that would have been predominantly male," says Kim Harris, founder and chief executive officer of gold exploration firm Midlands Minerals Corp.
Yet, if mining has become more accessible to women, change comes slowly. About 14.4 per cent of the 161,000-strong mining work force were female, according to the 2006 Statistics Canada census, up from 13.1 per cent in 2005.
The same 2006 census shows women accounted for fewer than 1 per cent of geological engineers or land survey technologists. Just 4 per cent were mining supervisors and 11 per cent were mine labourers.
With layoffs across the sector, short-term prospects in this economy may be muted but, in the long run, the sector will be rife with opportunities for "non-traditional" workers - aboriginal people, new immigrants and women, says Patricia Dillon, past president of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, who has worked for 30 years in the industry.
"Yes, the downturn is going to have a short-term effect. ... However, there's no getting away from the demographics of the labour force," she says.
Nearly half of those working in mining are over 45, and, as they near retirement age, the Canadian industry will need up to 90,000 new employees over the next decade to replace them, estimates the Mining Industry Human Resources Council.
Labour shortages aren't the only reason why the industry should hire, train and promote more female workers, says University of Toronto economist and demographer David Foot. He says bringing more women into the field will help family stability - spouses can live together, rather than one person making a long-distance commute. "It's simply a good retention strategy for the men," he says. "It's okay to be isolated for a while, but guys in their 30s want to start a family. ... If [spouses]can both have a career in the same industry and region, they're much more likely to have family dynamics working well, and retention issues then become less important."
Change is afoot. In Labrador City and Sept-Îles, Que., where Iron Ore Co. of Canada employs about 2,000 at its two operations, the proportion of female workers has jumped to 27 per cent from 15 per cent in the past seven years, says human resources manager Heather Bruce-Veitch. The transformation came after about half of its work force retired in that time, forcing the firm to find new ways to recruit staff, she says.
In Labrador City, Iron Ore teamed up with a local community college to start apprenticeship programs aiming to attract young local women and men. It put out word that work at the company offered a chance to earn good wages ($28 to $33 an hour) while staying put in the community. It added women's bathrooms to facilities, got suppliers to bring in apparel in smaller sizes, and conducted workshops for staff on creating a respectful workplace, Ms. Bruce-Veitch says.
It's making other adjustments. With 1,350 workers in Labrador City - a tenth of the population - it's working with the community to start the town's first official daycare. And it's changing some of the heavy requirements of the job - using technology more than brawn to lift heavy materials.
"There's a lot of value in having female and male viewpoints in the workplace," says Ms. Bruce-Veitch, who recalls there were less than a dozen female workers at the company when she started 20 years ago.
"We now have some terrific role models for younger people - and we're attracting attention from across the province from women who are now entering the trades."
Other companies are also making efforts to welcome women.
De Beers is this year starting to offer $5,000 scholarships to female geology students at Queen's University, while Mosaic Potash Esterhazy LP in southeastern Saskatchewan has a women's council, which offers a mentoring program for female professionals in the company. The mining human resources council is showing videos about the industry, featuring many female workers, in schools. In its "mining for diversity" report last year, it mentioned a range of other efforts companies are making, from offering onsite workshops that promote a respectful workplace to making schedules more flexible.
Still, barriers remain. One of the biggest is the challenge of juggling child care with a job that often entails travel, moving to rural areas, and irregular work hours, say women in the field. Few, if any, mining companies offer on-site daycares at remote operations, the Mining Industry Human Resources Council says.
The industry is also still working to banish the image of "big, brawny guys" who toil underground at all hours of the day, Ms. Dillon adds. "That's part of [the reality]but that's not all." she says.
The gritty image is still one of the biggest reasons women aren't entering the field, contends Ryan Montpellier, executive director of the Kanata, Ont.-based Mining Industry Human Resources Council.
Though Ms. Harris, who founded her company in 1996, has grown used to being the only female in the room, she says it hasn't hindered her from doing business in the field, which frequently takes her to Tanzania and Ghana.
As more women have started to enter the sector in the past decade as geologists and mining engineers, she believes it's "inevitable" that more women will take on leadership roles. "It is still basically a man's world and the industry is dominated by some very powerful men," she says.
What the industry most needs, she says, "is a few really good success stories, major discoveries by exploration companies led by women.
"That, in my opinion, would go a long way in encouraging others to consider getting involved in the industry."
DEARTH OF DIRECTORS
Women may be making inroads in the mining world, but few are making it into mining boardrooms.
Women account for just 11.6 per cent of corporate officers in the mining and oil and gas extraction industry, one of the sectors with the lowest representations, a report last month by research group Catalyst Canada found.
The study, which examined the 500 largest companies in Canada, found that 18 mining companies have no women on their boards of directors. One of those is Barrick Gold Corp. Spokesman Vince Borg says the lack of representation is due to a lingering scarcity of qualified women in the pool.
"It will change in the next 10 years," he predicts, as more young women enter the field as geologists, engineers or other professionals, and move through the ranks. For now though, "it's a traditional industry that's slowly changing over time."
By the numbers
The percentage of women among the 161,000 workers in the mining industry in 2006, up from 13.1 per cent a year earlier
The percentage of women among geological engineers or land survey technologists in 2006
The percentage of mining
supervisors in 2006 who were
The percentage of mine labourers in 2006 who were female
The number of jobs that have been shed in the natural
resources sector in the first three months of the year
The estimated number of new employees that will be needed
to replace retiring workers
over the next decade
Statistics Canada; Mining Industry Human Resources Council