In honour of Women in Mining Day, Electric Autonomy Canada spotlights some of the leading women in the Canadian mining sector. While there remains a steep climb to gender equality, signs of progress — including opportunities due to mining electrification — are encouraging
Kendra Liinamaa knew she wanted to be a millwright. There was something that, even as a teen taking welding and automotive in high school, she liked about being on the shop floor — far more than sitting in a classroom.
Born and raised in Sudbury, Ont., Liinamaa didn’t exactly plan for her trade to lead her into mining, but given the culture of her hometown and the history of her family, perhaps she should have expected it.
“There’s more roads underground in my town than there are above ground,” says 23-year-old Liinamaa, who is the fourth generation mine worker in her family.
“My great grandfather immigrated from Finland to come work in the mines in this area. Then my grandpa was a powerline technician for Inco and my dad is a miner at Garson Mine right now.”
But there is one key difference between Liinamaa and her pedigreed mining relations: she is the first woman in her family to get into the sector.
And there lies the point of tension in Liinamaa’s professional life.
Liinamaa already knows she stands out for being a “Jill” working a Jack-of-all-trades job. Couple that with being a millwright underground and it didn’t take Liinamaa long to notice that the mining industry still has a lot of catching up to do with gender equality and inclusivity.
Despite being highly trained in the latest technology used underground (ranging from giant combustion loaders to electric shotcrete sprayers), a hard worker and keen to learn with deep familial roots in the industry, Liinamaa says women still face serious barriers to entry in the mining world.
“I hear men talk about things like, ‘Oh, [women] don’t know anything about this industry. They shouldn’t be here.’ Well, if we want to start changing that aspect of things — how men view women entering this industry — we need to start young. We need to encourage women and tell them that it’s possible and that we believe in them and we’re here for them. From then on, they can choose their own path and become successful in their own way.”
Women in Canada’s mines
There has been a concerted effort to get more women into trades and specifically the mining industry, but the space still remains, overwhelming, the men-ing industry.
Liinamaa says the gender representation gap is glaringly obvious underground.
“I still don’t enter the cage with more than two women on at a time,” she says. (“The cage” is the elevator that runs from the station above ground into the mine.)
“This isn’t a normal amount of women in a workspace when you average it
out…the industry has just cracked open the door to women.”
According to 2019 data from Natural Resources Canada, women make up just 14 per cent of the mining workforce in Canada (compared to 48 per cent of the total Canadian workforce).[L]ow representation of women in mining is both an occupational and industry-level issue and that, in general, occupations that are mining specific demonstrate the lowest representation of women,” reads research from the federal government.
“By working to narrow this gap, the mining industry could simultaneously alleviate its anticipated skilled labour shortages and add diverse skill sets and perspectives to the workforce.”
That potential for change is epitomized by 23-year-old Elizabeth Kelly, a Designer 1 (a detail drawing expert for heavy machinery and machinery parts on the utility vehicle team) at MacLean Engineering in Sudbury.
Kelly’s work includes designing some components of the equipment used in MacLean’s all-electric mining underground test site. It’s a role that weaves together two new trends in the sector — training more women to fill skills gaps and changing the nature of mining by replacing diesel equipment with battery-powered technology — that could both open new doors for more women in the field.
“For me, after taking a summer course on battery electric vehicles in mining, it definitely sparked my interest,” says Kelly. “I recognized that this was going to be a very important area of work and I wanted to assist with the transition in whatever way I could.”
Bias and old attitudes continue to be obstacles, however — as Kelly discovered first hand before graduating early this year from from Laurentian University’s mechanical engineering program.
“In one of my classes this year a question was asked: ‘Why do you think there aren’t as many women in engineering?’,” recalls Kelly in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
“Somebody said that woman display more caregiver characteristics and they should be nurses or psychologists and that girls don’t want to play with boy toys. I was so mad because that’s completely untrue.”
Widening the pipeline to mining
Unlike many of her female colleagues in the mining sector, Kelly did not grow up in Canada’s nickel belt. Hailing from a small town outside of London, Ont., Kelly, a mechanical engineering graduate from Laurentian University, recalls she originally had plans to go to medical school.
“I didn’t know that engineering was a thing. I didn’t know what engineering was,” says Kelly. “The automotive industry is pushed so hard in southern Ontario that I didn’t think about mining.”
But a chance extracurricular involvement on her high school robotics team gave Kelly a peek into the world of engineering design. After changing her trajectory from pre-med to mechanical engineering, Kelly soon found herself getting a co-op offer from a mine in Timmins, Ont.
“It was something completely different than I had ever seen before,” says Kelly. “I loved it.”
Kelly directly credits the mentors — male and female — she has met and the Women in Engineering Club at Laurentian she was president of for helping her to find her place and stay in the mining industry in Canada. Were it not for the small communities and support networks that encourage women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) she may never have made it to where she is.
“People brush women in STEM off a little bit. They will say, ‘Oh, okay, good luck.’ And then that’s it,” says Kelly.
“A really good example is how late these [inclusion] programs have been implemented. It is a positive thing, but it’s also a double-edged sword because you have ask why weren’t these started sooner?”
A 2021 study from McKinsey & Co. entitled “Why Women Are Leaving the Mining Industry and What Companies Can Do About It” surveyed 1,000 women in mining in 52 countries, including Canada.
The report determines that “Women are underrepresented at all levels within mining companies.” When it comes to the attrition of women in the mining workforce the top three reasons for leaving are, “the work ceases to be interesting, cultures are noninclusive, and there is a perceived lack of advancement.”
Mentors or “sponsorships” can have a measurable impact on womens’ advancement in their companies says the report and, as a result, net benefit to the business: “Mining companies that harness the power of a full talent base by attracting women and nurturing their development across the career pipeline will seize the advantage in terms of productivity, innovation, and ESG leadership.”
However, McKinsey found that worldwide, women only account for 13 per cent of the C-suite positions in mining companies and only a handful are in Canada. “Women experience being sidelined, particularly in technical roles,” reads the report, in part, and goes on to note, “Mining companies are failing to promote women.” and “Alarmingly, more than 45 percent of women respondents experienced inconsistent to no sponsorship.”
Kelly says, based on her experience, more mentoring opportunities for women entering STEM need to exists, as do more professional organizations dedicated to supporting and advancing women’s careers in STEM and mining in Canada.
“If I didn’t have female mentors and male mentors who saw my potential, I would have never ended up where I am today. It’s important to expose all different types of people — including young women — to mining,” says Kelly.
“What people maybe don’t realize is that as important as it is to support these women when they’re young, it’s also important to continue to support them throughout their careers. The amount of effort that you have to put in increases substantially to do well and to keep up. These programs are great, but they need to be extended to post secondary options.”
If the coverall fits, wear it
Inclusivity and peer-to-peer support looks different to everyone. For Alicia Woods, founder of women’s Sudbury-based workwear company Covergalls, it begins and ends with every worker’s right to safety and comfort regardless of their gender and her role in being able to provide that.
Woods, like Liinamaa, comes from a family with deep mining roots. Looking up to four generations of mining equipment makers — mostly men — Woods says she always felt “at home” in the field. That is, until she actually tried to go into the field.
Back in 2000, Woods was pulled off her administrative desk job and sent underground for the first time. A quick trip to the safety supply store planted the first seed of irritation: there were no protective coveralls or gloves for women. Woods had to buy the smallest men’s sizes she could find and roll them up.
They felt like “your dad’s clothes,” remembers Woods, and for the next 10 years she just made do. A few female colleagues were taking their equipment home and modifying it. The problem, says Woods, is that tampering with a specialized garment can compromise its safety features.
The crux of the issue was clear: if mining companies want their female employees to be as safe as their male employees, they needed decided, purpose-designed equipment.
“That’s how the Covergalls was really born,” says Woods. “This is about health and safety. The reality is, is that this is an all-gender issue.”
But Covergalls was a tough sell. Initially brushed off as a fashion crisis rather than a valid health and safety issue, Woods remembers door after door being slammed in her face.
“The second we said it was for females, nobody would return our calls, they wouldn’t return our emails, nobody wanted to touch it,” says Woods. There were even chuckles at pitch meetings and questions like, “Why isn’t it pink?”
A painstaking education campaign ensued as Woods went door-to-door at the various mining companies explaining the acute need for Covergalls. And lately the hard work is starting to show returns.
“I’d say that in the last two, three years, we’re starting to see people understand why,” says Woods. One of the best examples of how far awareness about the need for inclusivity has come, says Woods, is that Covergalls has just launched a new line of maternity workwear for expectant miners and already have one suit in use.
“You think about all the different stages of your personal path…most women, once you start a family, that’s scary, too, when you’re in a career,” says Woods. “When I was expecting, I was also growing my career and I didn’t want it to impact my position with the company. I did want them to say, ‘oh, you can’t work anymore.’ [But] if it’s not safe for unexpected mom to be underground, should anybody be there?”
Electrification as an incentive for women
While there are no promises about the speed of changing culture in the mining industry, one feature of the sector may be providing a side door to draw more women into the field in Canada: electrification of mining equipment.
Sudbury is one of the epicentres of Canada’s and the world’s transition to electric mining vehicles. Those changes include, as mentioned, a dedicated all-electric underground test site run by MacLean Engineering, the deployment of electric heavy machinery in a growing number of working mines, as well as a robust R&D and training centre for electric technology out of Cambrian College. As a result, if you are a miner of any gender looking to work with zero-emission vehicles, Sudbury may be the ideal spot.
But for women the transition to electric mining equipment and the changes that it forces — either in retrofitting mines to be more efficient and modern to accommodate the vehicles or through the introduction of entirely new electric-first, purpose-built projects — could prove a powerful incentive to choose a career in the sector.
Liinamaa says that while she has not come across many electric machines in her job (yet), she knows the change is coming and hopes that in addition to the obvious benefits of electric vehicles (less vibrations, less noise and better air quality) that they will be built with women in mind, too.
“It’s a strain on my thumb sometimes to reach the trigger on certain equipment,” says Liinamaa. “Most tools seem to come in a one size fits all. I’d love to see some manufacturers coming in with different sizes.”
One step further could be for Canada’s mines to start utilizing autonomous electric mining equipment with most workers staying above ground or, potentially, even operating from home. Already the technology is heavily in use in Australia, where women represent 18 per cent of the mining workforce according to 2020 data from the Australian government, with 13.5 per cent working from home.
Adoption of autonomous electric vehicles here could mean netting a currently unreachable workforce — many of whom are women.
“We want people to see women as a fierce force. I am here to do the work so I can be respected as professional later on in the industry,” says Liinamaa. “You don’t necessarily have to be big and burly. You don’t have to be huge anymore. We have so much mechanical advantage at our fingertips. There’s no reason not to make mining more inclusive.”