Dominique Dionne, vice-president of Corporate
Affairs at Xstrata Nickel and the first president of the Quebec Mining Association not from an engineering background, decided to fight the deficit of women in the workforce head on. Her objective: to show young women that attitudes have changed and that the mining industry now stands ready to welcome them with open arms.
It is a fact: recruiting women to work in the mining industry is a struggle. The industry still lags when it comes to gender diversity: women comprise only 14.4 per cent of the industry’s labour force, a step behind the oil and gas sector where 20.2 per cent of workers are women, and still further trails the Canadian average where women are the majority in the workforce. The mining industry will need to work upstream in the recruitment process and change perceptions if it wishes to meet the labour demand, and to establish itself as an attractive career choice for female students. Of course, there are those already hard at work inside the industry, changing perceptions and providing inspiration for the future female workforce.
CIM: When you began your career at Noranda in 1979, the percentage of women in the mining industry must have been close to zero. What attracted you to an industry that was so utterly male-dominated?
Dionne: It’s true that the industry had few women at the time. In 1971, article 259 of Quebec’s Mining Act stipulated that no woman was to work underground in a mine, except as an engineer or geologist. I have to tell you that in 1979, when I started working for Noranda, there was indeed a palpable uneasiness among miners with regard to having a woman working alongside of them underground. In those days, it was thought to bring bad luck.
It was more or less by accident that I found myself working in the mining industry. My field is management of public affairs and communications – one in which the majority of workers are women, regardless of the industry. I was interested in community relations, and it was through this that I entered mining. So I was in an enclave where the jobs were more traditionally held by women, but in an industry that was still largely dominated by men.
CIM: What were the obstacles confronting women at the time? Are these obstacles still present today?
Dionne: The major difficulty in those days was to find a way to reconcile work and family life. Family life could never, under any circumstances, become a problem. Today, things have changed. I have come to realize that the important thing is to accept one’s role as a mother and to speak frankly about it with one’s employer. This way of thinking is increasingly common among young people and among a growing number of employers. In most industries, solutions have been found. Why should ours be any different?
The second obstacle was that the workplace had not been designed to accommodate women. For example, there were no changing rooms for women, which became an easy excuse for managers, who would say, “We can’t hire women; we have no women’s washrooms, and it would be too much trouble to rework our entire system.” Abandoning the very idea of working with women was fairly easy to do.
We were up against a mentality that saw mining as men’s work. One of the solutions in this industry has been, rather than to bring one woman into these groups, to bring in several at once – create small teams. Today, men are more open and welcoming, and we see a reversal of the trend.