Aug '13

Sustainable mining is gay-friendly

Joshua Collins urges companies to put academic HR theories to the test

By Peter Braul

Though not a mining expert, Joshua Collins is doing his best to reshape the culture of the industry, which he describes as masculinized. As the managing editor of the journal New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development and an EdD candidate at Florida International University, he has an outside perspective on how HR in mining can and ought to change. With research published in many academic journals, some of Collins’ recent work focuses on the case of Lord John Browne, the former CEO of BP who resigned in 2007 once the fact he is gay was made public.

CIM: What is a masculinized industry?

Collins: I define a masculinized industry as one that sustains masculine norms based on a history of being male-dominated and obsessed with the notion of masculine authority. This sustainment is intentional on the part of a few in order to keep certain “types” of people out of work in these industries. Normally this includes women, and I would say it also includes gay men and lesbians. The basis for many of the HR issues in these industries stems from a history that favoured and even justified in policy the employment of only certain types of people: usually white men with overtly masculine work styles.

CIM: How would you respond to those who would argue academic research is out of touch with the reality of the workplace?

Collins: Hostility toward inclusiveness is in some ways understandable in these industries, where those in power are likely to believe the old adage about not fixing things that are not broken. This is short-sighted. Mining takes place in rural communities, many of which are getting smaller, meaning that employers have no choice but to begin to look at “different” types of workers if their intent is to keep production at a certain level.

Policies must be put into place to support a workforce that looks and works differently than those in the past. Inclusiveness is about doing what is best for individual workers, their families, their crews and co-workers, and even the community at large. An organization that takes these things into account will be more successful and could perhaps leverage support and resources in places and people where they had not before. The harsh realities out there make identifying and addressing new trends and issues in masculinized industries worthwhile and, frankly, better for everyone in the long run.

CIM: It is easy to imagine mining sites with hundreds of employees, very few of them women, and none of them openly gay. What is the first step to a more inclusive workplace?

Collins: The first step is to create and make known policies that are explicitly supportive of all workers and job applicants across gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status, age, national origin, et cetera. If a person can do the work, they can do the work, and that has to be the attitude of the organization from the top down. After policies are in place, there needs to be training.

In settings like mining sites, I see no reason why humanistic policies like this should be enforced or valued any less than policies that keep people safe in the mine itself.

Here’s an example of why: in the United States defence industry up until the 1970s, it was actually policy that if you were even suspected of being gay, it would hinder your ability to get certain clearance levels. The military created a culture where people are very distrustful of disclosing personal information, because it could in some way affect their work. Many gays in the military are still choosing not to disclose their sexual orientation unless they’re asked directly because in the military, and also in mining, you depend so much on other people that you work with, especially for safety.

CIM: What are the elements of a good diversity training program put on by a company?

Collins: In general, a program should aim to increase awareness rather than to change peoples’ minds or to make them feel like they are wrong. These programs also have ground rules such that participants feel free to express what they are feeling and thinking about new information without feeling judged, and knowing that what they say will not leave the safe space of the training.

When I facilitate these, I give the same respect and attention to the person who completely agrees with what I’m saying as I do to the person who vocalizes something that is completely racist. I’ll ask the same questions of both of those people: Why do you think that? How do you think you came to believe that? What do you think the impact of that belief is on those around you? At least the person who does not agree with what I said is able to leave respecting me and feeling comfortable enough to ask me questions afterward. Delivery and evaluation methods can be one on one, in big or small group settings, or through workplace observation to see if the training is “sinking in.” A good diversity training program also occurs more than once, especially in rural areas or in a work setting where previous exposure to diverse populations may be lower.

CIM: “Diversity” is often referred to as a catch-all for any minority groups in the workforce. How useful is this?

Collins: Personally, I hate the word “diversity.” It is such a watered-down term at this point that it almost means nothing. While on the one hand I see the value of the word because it is inclusive of many different kinds of groups, it also takes away from what it actually means to accept and work with the individual groups themselves. In my experience, when employees hear “diversity training,” they almost always immediately roll their eyes or feel like it does not really apply to them.

It is an interesting problem, though, because at this time I offer no real solutions. Maybe diversity training could be divided up into several smaller training sessions, so that you have a day on “gender and work” and another on “sexuality and work” and another on “age and work” and so on. Each could build on the other, while also paying homage to the fact that different groups of people will experience unique issues. Whatever the solution is, I think it involves breaking down that catch-all label of diversity in some way.

CIM: Why is lesbian-, gay- and bisexual (LGB)-specific training particularly important?

Collins: The effects of discrimination or maltreatment based on sexual orientation are different than those based on race or on gender. All are inexcusable, but here in the United States at least, of those three, sexual orientation is the only one that is not a protected class. That’s a term used in the U.S., in laws that protect people based on gender, disability, race, ethnicity and national origin. In many states, people can still get fired for being gay. And in 38 out of 50 states gay people still cannot go to the courthouse, get a marriage licence, and be married under federal law. So, I think at this particular socio-political moment, for many the effects of homophobia and heterosexism are simply much more visceral.

CIM: Is having Lord John Browne’s case available a tool that could help move LGB-training forward in mining?

Collins: Absolutely. Lord Browne’s case highlights the need for holistic approaches to LGB-inclusivity at work. This could take place by establishing multi-layered mentoring programs, truly inclusive policies, training explicitly for the purpose of addressing lesbian and gay issues, and more. Reading over the circumstances leading to his resignation is also a valuable experience. Lord Browne was a hard worker and his sexual orientation had nothing to do with his ability to do the job well. He would not have become CEO of BP if his sexual orientation affected his ability to do the work. What ultimately affected his ability to do the work was homophobia and heterosexism; that is what forced him to step down. Had he felt freer to be out in his career, he arguably wouldn’t have been in the compromising legal position that he faced at the time of his resignation. It highlights the importance of supporting people for who they are and of allowing them to do the work.

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