SANTIAGO – An old wives’ tale in Chile maintains that women traditionally weren’t allowed in underground mining pits because their presence would distract the men and anger the mine, whose jealous rage would manifest itself in the form of cave-ins.
But despite the pull of superstition, women have been making inroads for years in Chile’s powerful mining sector and showing that long-held, male-chauvinist prejudices are not insurmountable.
One of these pioneers, Cesia Barraza, plies her trade at the sprawling El Teniente. Owned by state-owned giant Codelco, it is located 85 kilometers (53 miles) south of Santiago and ranks as the world’s largest underground copper mine.
At 2:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon in December, Barraza nudges the elbow of the miner she is replacing at the controls of a seven-meter-long (23-foot-long) electric shovel, a tool capable of lifting as much as seven tons of material.
Eight solitary hours of picking up and moving rocks lie ahead of her.
“The mine is like a monster, but it can be tamed,” the first female operator to work at the mine’s sub-6 level, which contains more than 3,000 km of underground tunnels, said in an interview with EFE.
Mining is one of the most strictly male-dominated industries in Chile, with women making up just 8.4 percent of the workforce, according to a study by the Mining Skills Council (CCM).
“In other countries with large-scale mining output such as Australia and Canada, that participation is as high as 20 percent,” Tamara Leves, president of the Chilean chapter of Women in Mining (WIM), a global non-governmental organization that seeks to accelerate women’s inclusion in that industry, told EFE.
Besides the cultural barriers, women also have faced structural impediments, including a law dating to the early 20th century that sought to protect women and girls from the harshness of mining work by barring their access to those deposits.
It was not repealed until 1997, when the authorities “became aware of its existence,” Leves said.
Although women’s presence in the mining sector has grown over the past decade, a big gender gap remains in terms of task segregation and training, since the majority of female workers are engaged in administrative activities and tend to boast higher qualifications on average than men.
Evelyn Jimenez, who has worked in that industry for nearly two decades and currently is a supervisor at El Teniente’s Integrated Mining Operations Center, says she has participated in the industry’s “slow but steady” cultural transformation.
“I was part of a generational shift. I started out with very senior workers and had to develop a variety of soft skills to be able to fit in. This profession at that time was 100 percent male,” she recalled.
The mining sector, which accounts for more than 10 percent of Chile’s gross domestic product, is the country’s economic engine and now is playing a key role in the country’s recovery amid the coronavirus crisis.
An estimated 30,000 people will be needed in that industry in 2023, and so “increasing the percentage of women not only responds to the legitimate right to equality but also to the need for qualified labor,” Claudia Rojas, the director of Diversity Development Consulting, a Chilean firm that focuses on gender issues, told EFE.
“Around 25 percent of women study something mining-related, but only 8.4 percent end up working (in that field), which is evidence of a significant loss of talent,” added Rojas, who also is vice president of WIM Chile.
Natalia Zuñiga, 32, is well aware of the situation facing women in mining. As head of extraction in a sector of El Teniente, she supervises a team of 120 people, including Barraza.
Although well aware that the harsh work conditions and irregular hours, among other factors, discourage women from choosing jobs in mining, she said she hopes to add more female members to her team as the industry becomes more automated.
“Precision is needed now, and that’s where we have an advantage: we’re more delicate,” Barraza added.
Most mining companies operating in Chile aim to accelerate the process of inclusion and stamp out sexual harassment, a big scourge in that industry.
According to a WIM study, 98 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 35 say they have suffered some degree of sexual harassment at work, ranging from catcalls and unwelcome greetings to physical violence.
Rojas said most of these instances occur at mining camps – accommodations located alongside remote mines that the workers make use of in shifts.
“You want them to look at you as a colleague, not a sex object. But it’s very difficult when every stimulus they have in the industry is sexual. It’s very common, for example, to find brothels outside the camps,” she said.
Women also find themselves bumping up against glass ceilings, with only 14.5 percent of female mining employees occupying management positions, according to the CCM.
Amparo Cornejo is perhaps the highest-ranking woman in the Chilean mining sector with her position as vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs at Teck Resources- a Canadian company where the female workforce is double the national average – and director of Chile’s Sonami national mining society.
She said she is aware that major challenges lie ahead and that providing employment access to women is not sufficient, especially since the mining industry has among the lowest female retention rates.
“You can create a lot of parity in some more low-level positions, but if the decisions are made only by men the cultural shift won’t occur,” Cornejo said.