Being and looking the part: sustainable insertion of female mining workers

Mining is one of the most masculinized industries in the country and also (coincidentally?) one of the best paid. Although more and more women are joining the sector, the biggest challenge is the sustainability of their careers. What is it like to be a woman in a mine? A diagnosis of the sectoral gaps in the industry, with public policy proposals to push for change.

Illustration: Juan Pez

While women’s participation in mining is minimal, for those who do break through, it offers a pathway to financial independence and high-quality employment. However, entry comes with challenges and sacrifices, including long working hours, consecutive days in camps, physical strain, and precarious safety and hygiene conditions. The experiences of female workers provide insights into the obstacles hindering their entry and retention in the industry, as well as the catalysts enabling their persistence. Understanding these experiences is essential for developing public policies that aim to mainstream gender perspectives in the mining labor industry and broaden women’s employment opportunities.

Mining growth: A labor opportunity

In Argentina, the metal and lithium mining sector is a significant source of foreign currency. The industry boasts the lowest rate of unregistered employment and highest salaries, alongside oil and gas. It currently employs over 14,000 workers, of which only 13% are women.
The launch of new mining operations, currently in construction and feasibility stages, is expected to attract an increased influx of workers into the sector. This growth offers an opportunity to mainstream a gender perspective in the mining labor market and expand employment opportunities for women. If the current trend of increasing female participation continues, it will take at least 15 years for women to make up only 30% of the workforce in large-scale mining.
A change in strategy is imperative. Establishing a critical mass of female workers capable of driving transformations and facilitating the industry’s demasculinization requires active policies and practices to expedite and solidify progress. Identifying catalysts for gender equality in the mining industry, as well as operational, organizational, and structural obstacles, is essential.

Male-dominated mining industry

Female participation

The participation of female workers in metal and lithium production is limited, selective, and in its infancy, accounting for just 12.6% of the workforce. Argentina surpasses some countries like Peru (7%), close to Colombia (13%) but lags behind others like Chile (17%) and global mining hubs such as South Africa (17%), Australia (18%), Canada (19%) and Sweden (25%).

Women’s participation in the mining industry is limited and selective. Observing the different items that compose it, we see that, however small, the greatest female participation is in the lithium sector, where 20% of workers are female, compared to only 10% in metal mining.

Occupational segregation

Beyond limited gender diversity, mining exhibits patterns of horizontal gender segregation (“glass walls”), which asymmetrically condition the occupations accessible to workers. Women are concentrated in mid-level and administrative positions, comprising 67% and 49% respectively. However, they are underrepresented in specific operational and officer roles.

Gender pay gap

In mining production, the gender pay gap stood at around 10% in October 2021, seemingly lower than the 21% gap in overall formal salaried employment. However, this smaller gap is partly due to the occupational distribution, as women often occupy professional and office roles, with the narrowest pay gap. If women had the same occupational distribution as men, the gap would rise to 22%.

An industry designed by men and for men

The underrepresentation of women in the sector may be due to cultures that celebrate masculinity as a measure of work, creating an unwelcoming experience for women.
This model of ‘masculinity as capability’ is characterized by labor components oriented towards risk (accepted as inevitable), the exaltation of manhood (validated among peers through passing tests and overcoming challenges), and heterosexuality (mistakenly perceived by the interest in women present in the environment and supported by the domestic work carried out by partners and spouses).
Homosocial practices emerge in predominantly male workplaces, where men opt to establish social relations with other men only. As a response, women may “camouflage” their femininity, while exceeding in the performance of their tasks and establishing goddaughter, mother or sister relationships, to avoid unwanted attention and gain respect.

Central nodes in female miners’ careers

The industry’s infrastructure and organizational policies were established in periods where there was no demand for women. Today, the metal and lithium mining industry remains organized based on structural factors dissuading women’s employment and challenging the retention of those who somehow manage to enter. Transformations are needed to accommodate a gender perspective in work systems.
There are three main categories that define the need for change in the mining industry: women’s entry, their experiences at work, and the sustainability of mining jobs. Below is a summary of the main barriers associated with these categories.

Valued and required skills

“When I began working as a storekeeper, many tasks required significant physical strength. With the advent of modern equipment, strength is no longer required; you just need to train and pay attention to what you're doing (...) jobs are less reliant on physical strength.”

While historical gender stereotypes were barriers to women entering underground mining, the transition to open-pit mining and the appreciation of soft skills associated with femininity have allowed women to take on operational and strategic roles, although these remain limited. The consolidation of a sustainable mining agenda and corporate social responsibility in the 1990s has expanded job opportunities for women.
However, there are still gaps in access to scientific and technological training for women. This is largely dependent on companies’ willingness to hire and train women to overcome their lack of experience. Even with equal training and education, women still lag behind in terms of on-the-job experience.
Policies aimed to match women to training opportunities must essentially seek to guarantee a sustainable educational journey.
Policies should encourage women’s entry into higher education (university and technical courses) and all training spaces (business and unions) to ensure equal representation of both genders in the sector and prevent it from remaining predominantly male.

The roster and its struggle with care tasks

“(...) we have a double role: to show that we can be part of a thriving industry like mining, but also to prove that we can take care of the family. This really destroys women. There must be a balance, and for that, there must be policies that help us.”

Mining operations run 24/7, 365 days a year. Both male and female workers reside on-site for consecutive days and then spend another series of days at their regular residences. The entry of women into mining does not necessarily lead to a restructuring of gender roles. During field weeks, female workers do not disengage from domestic and care responsibilities but manage them remotely. This entails a dual demand: proving competence at work while “continuing to be a good mother.”

The conflict between work and family responsibilities sometimes results in women interrupting their career development path. Family and household care responsibilities are considered the main obstacles to women’s entry, retention, and career development in mining. Motherhood can impede progress in the field, and women’s career trajectories can put family or couple stability at risk.

Addressing individual care responsibilities poses a huge challenge. Existing regulations regarding leave benefits often fail to account for industry-specific needs, making companies ill-equipped to support employees with caregiving duties. The lack of dedicated policies and assistance for childcare and family care significantly impedes women’s career advancement. Initiatives aimed at attracting women to the workforce should actively involve institutions responsible for comprehensive care management.

Organizational culture in masculinized industries

“The discomfort among male and female workers regarding harassment complaints arises because men are historically used to working among other males and behaving in a certain way. Incorporating women into the workplace is one thing, but preparing men to work alongside women is another (...) We found they did not know how to behave or how to share their workspace with women (...). Compelling participation in training is insufficient, especially when only women engage in these programs, thus failing to produce effective change”.

The mining workplace has significantly evolved since the initial entry of women. While it was once hostile, exclusive, and chauvinistic, the current environment is perceived as more welcoming and inclusive by female workers. 

Despite the absence of explicit or systematic discrimination or violence, workers interviewed report the existence of subtle gender hierarchies that continue to affect the work experience. Instances of discomfort, particularly during integration into technical-operational activities dominated by codes of homosociability, underline the challenges women face. Furthermore, in their opinion, assigning women to roles traditionally held by men places a considerable emotional and subjective burden on female employees.

It is imperative to reinforce adequate enforcement of comprehensive protocols for addressing gender-based violence.

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