Women still face a threat to their safety at remote mining sites around the world.
It’s a challenge facing the industry after BHP Group, the world’s largest miner, lifted the lid on a male-dominated culture in which sexual harassment is rampant.
Read: Toxic workplaces and sexual harassment remain common in professional companies
The company has laid off 48 workers at its sites in Western Australia since July 2019 after verifying the harassment allegations, BHP said in a submission to a state investigation. The Melbourne-based company said it had also received two substantiated allegations of rape, with more cases still being investigated. Rio Tinto Group, in its filing, said it had received 29 confirmed reports of harassment at its Pilbara iron ore operations since January 2020 and one case of sexual assault.
While harassment is a problem in workplaces around the world, isolated mines can be especially dangerous for women. They remain largely male-dominated, with workers in and out (FIFO) living in camp-style accommodation that blurs the line between work and social life. Add excessive drinking to the mix, and it often follows inappropriate behavior.
“Mining was done by and for men,” said Fiona Vines, BHP’s director of diversity and inclusion, in a telephone interview earlier this month. “Now we are introducing women to that environment and we have to fundamentally change it so that it is safe in the first place, and then comfortable and attractive.”
Western Australia’s parliament announced in July an investigation into sexual harassment in the FIFO mining industry following a series of allegations. Miners, including BHP and Rio, say the spike in reports shows that their efforts to make women more confident in speaking out are paying off. Still, other research submissions suggest that the problem is endemic.
Nearly 23% of women in the industry have experienced physical acts of sexual assault, according to a survey conducted by the Western Mineworkers Alliance union body. Only four in 10 FIFO workers said staff are encouraged to report sexual harassment and half said workers are not supported during the reporting process, WMWA noted in its submission to the investigation.
Toxic male attitudes are certainly not just a problem in Australia. In Chile, where BHP has significant copper operations, the company has had to work hard to overcome traditional perceptions of the role of women in society, Vines said. Hiring more women in the South American country was a challenge in itself, although progress was being made including the first female general manager of a mine.
BHP is taking a wide range of measures to combat harassment in its global operations, including tighter security, limits on alcohol consumption, and education programs for its workers. Vines highlighted the importance of changing the attitudes that sustain bad behavior, in part by improving the diversity of its workforce. The company has increased the percentage of employed women to nearly 30%, from 17.6% in 2016, and is targeting gender parity by 2025.
“Male-dominated environments are not normal, they are not natural, they are not healthy,” Vines said. “Let’s go to gender balance, because when you have 50% women and 50% men, these things just don’t happen that much.”
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