Unearthing the Possibilities [Women and Mining] – by Ashley Milne-Tyte (Women of Influence – August 26, 2013)



Considering that women weren’t even allowed underground at Canadian mines 40 years ago, the strides we’ve made into the industry — sometimes up to the C-suite — are to be celebrated.

When Barb Courte started working with her husband in the mining industry 18 years ago, his associates made clear this was no place for a woman — not the drill sites, not the office, not the mining conventions. This was a man’s world. Courte’s husband Garry ran a drilling company, and boring through the earth looking for minerals, because of the sheer physicality of the job, attracts tough, burly men — with attitudes to match.

Many didn’t want her around. “If I was talking to a man [at work], they’d spread the rumor I was having an affair,” she says. “I still to this day experience [problems] being a woman in this industry, but I’m such a smartass I turn it around with humour.” Several years ago she attended a mining convention and spotted a man who had been gossiping about her behind her back. She sat down next to him. “He turned his back on me. I said, ‘How many contracts do you have to bid on? He said ‘none.’ I said, ‘Well I’ve got 10, because I’m better looking.’ ”

Courte would need every ounce of humour and fortitude in the years to come. In 2007, while travelling with her husband and their three daughters from Montreal to Thunder Bay to re-start their lives, her husband had a massive heart attack and died in her arms.

Shocked and devastated, Barb, whose youngest daughter just 10 years old, took over the business and is now the owner of Northstar Drilling and co-owner of Cobra Drilling in northwest Ontario.

She has up to 20 clients a year, all mining companies that, for the most part, are based in Canada but can come from as far away as the Dominican Republic. Being an owner makes her highly unusual in an industry where just 16 percent of employees are women, but she says women bring something to this area of mining that men do not.

“Most drilling companies just go in and drill,” she says. They’re focused only on the task at hand: extracting resources efficiently and quickly and moving on to the next job. “But as a woman, when you see an area where there’s no work, you hire the locals, you give people goals. One guy came up to me and said ‘I was able to spend $700 on my kids — I’ve never been able to do that before.’ ” Courte says knowing she is improving people’s lives is one of the reasons she loves the business.

Mining needs more passionate advocates like Barb Courte. The industry is facing a labour shortage that, according to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council, will see 145,000 positions become available between now and 2023. In order to fill those jobs, the industry must look beyond its traditional employee base and reach out to new groups, including immigrants, members of the First Nations and women. When it comes to women in particular that will involve a deep cultural shift.


The number of women in the industry has remained stubbornly low for years, and now hovers at 16 percent. That’s up from 10 percent in 1996, but many agree the mining industry has a perception problem among women (it’s not all about picks and shovels). Of course there have also been genuine barriers to entry: for one thing, women weren’t even allowed underground in Canada until 1974.

Leanne Hall is human resources director for Noront, a junior mining company based in Toronto, with mining projects in northern Ontario. According to her, rotational schedules — weeks on the job at a remote location, followed by time off — are unfriendly to women with families. Then there’s what she calls “the command and control style of leadership” favoured by men, and which is unappealing to many women. And let’s not forget the simple fact that most young women don’t even think about the mining sector as a career option because no one talks about it — from family to high school guidance counselors, through post-secondary career training, mining is generally absent from the list of possibilities women are encouraged to pursue.

“If you’re not promoting the industry to younger generations in schools, you’re not going to bring out that talent pool,” says Hall. She points out that while many people picture dark, dank conditions when they think of mining, there are actually more than a hundred types of jobs in the industry, from underground miner to engineer to accountant.

For the rest of this article, click here: https://www.womenofinfluence.ca/unearthing-possibilities/