Golden girls of Kalgoorlie's Super Pit represent changing face of Australian mining
Golden girls of Kalgoorlie's Super Pit represent changing face of Australian mining
ABC Goldfields By Jarrod Lucas
Updated yesterday at 1:22pm
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It was a different world in the 1980s — a so-called "man's world" when Gordon Gekko claimed "greed is good" and real-life tycoon Alan Bond bought up all the mining leases on the famous Golden Mile, once considered the richest square mile on Earth.
• The Super Pit is one of Australia's biggest gold mines, employing about 1,100 workers and contractors
• 30 per cent of the workforce is female, compared with the mining industry average of 16 per cent
• 21 million ounces of gold have been mined from the Super Pit since mining began 30 years ago
The America's Cup hero, who later went to prison for his part in one of Australia's biggest corporate collapses, played a memorable role transforming several underground mines into one gigantic pit.
When miners first broke ground at Kalgoorlie-Boulder's Super Pit in 1989, there was not a single female worker.
Today, the Super Pit remains one of Australia's richest gold mines.
At nearly 3.5 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide, the mine is so big it is visible from space.
The workforce has undergone as radical a transformation as the bush landscape and is now 30 per cent female, which is nearly double the mining industry average.
Of 160 truck drivers working in the Super Pit, 78 are women, including 25-year-old Hannah Rout.
"The females are definitely taking over the mining game, that's for sure," she said.
"In the old days I don't think they [women] were allowed on the mines, so that stereotype of the stay-at-home mum has gone out the window.
"Now the mum is working, and we also have a lot of partners who work back-to-back, so husbands will work one shift and the wife will work the other, so there's always someone at home with the kids and they basically do the same job."
Mining mums behind the wheel
A round-trip to the bottom of the Super Pit generally takes about an hour and once the trucks are loaded, they crawl at a snail's pace of about 10 kilometres an hour.
The trucks can carry up to 273 tonnes, and when the ABC was on board for a ride-along with Mrs Rout, the load weighed in at 243 tonnes of waste rock.
Mrs Rout, whose husband Matt also works at the Super Pit as an electrician in the Fimiston Mill, switched from a desk job 18 months ago to become a truck driver.
She loves the shift work but admits nobody enjoys night shift, where she passes the time driving by listening to music or podcasts.
There is a nifty bit of technology in the truck cab which detects if she closes her eyes for an extended period or is not keeping her eyes on the road ahead.
Mrs Rout started out driving the water cart, which is used to keep dust down, and has even been a "stick picker" at the Super Pit.
That involves combing through the rocks to make sure old timber supports used by the underground miners and other leftovers do not go through the gold mill.
"We found railway tracks and horseshoes, and one time we even found a railway cart, so it's quite fascinating to think all this was down there," she said.
While driving to the bottom of the mine, Mrs Rout explained how the machinery needs to be working 24/7 to keep the mine profitable and so they use "hot seating", where drivers are swapped out for meal breaks.
The game of tag typically involves casual drivers, including several mothers working flexible shifts during school hours, who are literally worth their weight in gold.
"They come in once they've dropped the children off to school and they will work until about 2.30pm so they can go back and do the school pick-ups," Mrs Rout said.
"It helps us out because it keeps us running, so that we don't have to shut down the shovels or the trucks to all have lunch, they come in, cover smoko and lunch and it just keeps the mine continuously running."
Gold digger graduates to shovel
Trinna Coulter started driving trucks at the Super Pit nine years ago after moving from New Zealand.
She has graduated to the enormous PC 8000, one of three gigantic shovels which dig out the gold.
"People ask me what I do at the Super Pit and I tell them I'm a shovel operator, and they're like 'no you're not'," she said.
"I think it's quite hard to fathom that I'm one of two women that operate the shovels.
"Keeping in mind that it's been mostly a man's world, the times have definitely changed."
A century of mining on the Golden Mile left more than 3,500 kilometres of historical underground tunnels and shafts — about the equivalent of driving from Perth to Sydney — extending more than 1,200 metres below the surface.
Some of those historic workings contributed to two separate rock falls at the Super Pit last year, when more than one million tonnes of rock slipped down the eastern wall of the mine.
Ms Coulter said the shovel operators were on the frontline and played a key role in maintaining safety, so they needed to remain vigilant at all times.
"We have a lot of open voids, which are the old miner's stopes, the tunnels that they dug, so that's a huge thing we have to work around," she said.
"We don't have the plans of every stope and hole there is, so some do open up unexpectedly from time to time.
"It's just being aware of your surroundings and you get taught what to look for."
Cooking gold bars for a living
Driving trucks may be where some women got their start in mining, but there are a number of other technical roles at the Super Pit which require university training
Jenny Do's job as a graduate metallurgist is highly complicated and involves working with chemicals like cyanide to extract gold from rock, but essentially, she cooks gold bars for a living.
Ms Do said attracting women to study mining subjects at university remained an uphill battle.
"I think there is still a lot of stigma around mining being a male-dominated industry, well it is a male-dominated industry, but it's changing a lot," she said.
Senior mine geologist Maryanne De Vries is another woman in a high-ranking technical position.
She has worked in the Super Pit and is now based 3km north at the Mt Charlotte gold mine, a stone's throw from where gold was first found in Kalgoorlie.
Her husband works at the mine on the charge-up crew, which handles explosives.
"He blows stuff up — that's how he vents his anger — mostly at me," she said tongue-in-cheek.
"It's great that we get to work at the same mine, but not closely together, because I don't think that would work out so well."
Mrs De Vries said there had been a significant amount of academic research done on the Golden Mile, but geologists were continuously working to better understand how the gold deposits formed and why in such a rich concentration.
"I think we're all still trying to figure out why 120 years later, and if we continue north is there that next big mineralisation?" she said.
"But I'm not 100 per cent sure what I can give you for tips on where you should go to find that next big deposit.
"It's just normal geology work and exploration drilling — that's how we find out targets and increase those deposits."
First female boss in Super Pit history
The Super Pit has produced more than 21 million ounces of gold over three decades — the equivalent of about $42 billion worth at today's gold price.
The appointment of Cecile Thaxter as general manager two years ago was one of the biggest culture changes in the Super Pit's 30-year history.
Born in Jamaica and educated at Columbia University in New York, Ms Thaxter worked in investment banking prior to shifting into mining, where she worked in various executive roles for Super Pit co-owner Newmont Goldcorp.
Ms Thaxter provides a glimpse into the macho world of mining with the story of how she was mistaken for a man after being appointed general manager of her first mine in Nevada.
"There were a lot of people who were expecting a Cecil, and not a Cecile, so I got asked where's Cecil?," she said.
While giving a speech at a women's leadership forum in Kalgoorlie-Boulder recently, Ms Thaxter revealed when she took on the general manager's role for the first time she feared "screwing it up for others like me".
The challenge of a being a woman in a male-dominated industry was further complicated because she was not a mining engineer or geologist, which is typical for people in leadership roles in the industry.
"I knew I know the mining business better than most," she said.
"What I was concerned about was the safety — I was scared about being accountable for the safety of hundreds of people — I still am.
"It's what keeps me up at night — it's what makes me colour my hair."
Workers among 'highest paid'
The Minerals Council of Australia estimates there are more than 33,000 women working in the resources sector.
But they represent only 16 per cent of the workforce.
"If we look back to the 1990s, we sat at around 9 per cent," Minerals Council of Australia CEO Tania Constable said.
"Today, we're 16 per cent and of course we've got some way to go, but that's been a significant movement over those 20 years."
The slow progress, like a loaded truck climbing out of the Super Pit, comes amid an industry-wide skills shortage.
Ms Constable said the Minerals Council was targeting high schools to attract more women to the mining industry.
"Mining is a great place to work," she said.
"We've got, of course, amongst the highest paid workers in Australia.
"Our workforce on average earns around $140,000."
Skills shortage a hot topic at Diggers and Dealers
The lack of skilled workers and how it will impact the next mining boom will be a hot topic for the 2,300 delegates — mostly men — expected to attend this week's Diggers and Dealers Mining Forum in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
Former Prime Minister John Howard, who left office after losing the 2007 election as the mining boom was gathering steam, will deliver this year's keynote address at Diggers.
Of the 50 presenters this year, just three are female — Fortescue Metals Group CEO Elizabeth Gaines, AngloGold Ashanti's Andrea Maxey and Lynas Corporation's Amanda Lacaze.
There was a similar theme in the Australian Institute of Company Directors' latest quarterly report on gender diversity which showed, as of June 30, women represented just 29.7 per cent of directors on ASX 200 boards.
Mining contractor NRW Holdings and mining equipment supplier Emeco were among four companies on the ASX 200 without a woman on their board, and the former will be exhibiting at Diggers this year.
There has at least been a significant increase in the number of female analysts and media represented at Diggers over the years.
The popularity of Diggers grew in its early days from tapping into Kalgoorlie-Boulder's old Wild West image, particularly skimpy barmaids and brothels.
But those days appear long gone as mining companies look to revamp the industry's image.
One miner stands alone
In February, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency named 141 companies across the country as Employers of Choice.
The only mining company in Australia named on the list was St Barbara, which operates the Gwalia gold mine in WA's Goldfields.
St Barbara managing director Bob Vassie said there was no longer a gender pay gap among the miner's workforce.
"I think really what has to change is not just the focus on diversity for diversity's sake, it's more about inclusion," Mr Vassie said.
"The mining industry in Australia is up for about 60 per cent of export revenues for the country, so it's a big part of how this country thrives, so if we can attract more people to this industry it's only going to set us up for the future."