Karen Requena stands for a photograph in Santiago, Chile, on June 25, 2018. Image Credit: Bloomberg

SANTIAGO The first time Karen Requena entered the cafeteria at one of the biggest mining company’s in northern Chile, she couldn’t help feeling countless eyes fixed on her as she walked across the vast hall. “It can’t get worse than that,” she thought. Then as Requena looked for a place to sit, the noise started. Thousands of men began banging their knives and forks against their plates. The pace of the deafening clattering picked up as she searched for an empty seat.

That’s how it went day in and day out at the world’s largest copper mine. It was 2012, and Requena was working 10-day shifts as a safety officer. Soon she began eating alone in her room.

Five years later, Soledad Caceres, another safety worker, witnessed an almost identical scene in the cafeteria of a mining company in the city of Antofagasta. Caceres relayed what she had witnessed to her employer, as well as to the management. Officials brushed off her complaint, she says. Three months later, the contractor she worked for declined to renew her contract. She was later told by one of her former co-workers that her comment was seen by management as “out of place,” Caceres says.

There’s a double standard where companies say they’re interested in bringing in more women. Men don’t harass women because of their culture, but because they can, because the situation allows it.”

 - Carla Rojas | former risk prevention officer

“Men think women must adapt because it’s still their world,” she says. “If you complain, then you’re troublesome, you’re crazy.”

The experiences Requena and Caceres say they’ve endured are not isolated events. Women are routinely subjected to demeaning behaviour and worse, according to Bloomberg interviews with more than a dozen current and former female employees, as well as academic research. A study conducted in 2016 for the Ministry of Mining surveyed 603 women and found that more than 40 per cent had heard cutting jokes, cat-calling and wolf-whistling. About 20 per cent had been groped, and 7 per cent had received proposals to have intimate relations.

Of all the workplaces on Earth, mines are and always have been notoriously inhospitable to women, and nowhere has this been more true than in Chile, where popular macho culture has long held that the mere presence of a woman in a mine shaft would bring bad luck. Until 1996, women were banned by law from working underground. In the past two decades, the government has made efforts to bring change, and corporations have responded by pledging to hire women and better educate their still predominately male employees. While progress has been made, mines remain perilous places for female workers.

Mining is by far Chile’s largest industry, accounting for about 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and more than half of the country’s exports. Women now make up about 8 per cent of the workforce. By comparison, in Canada, just under 20 per cent of mining industry workers are women.

“I would like to see a faster incorporation of women,” says Chile’s Mining Minister Baldo Prokurica, who adds that some companies find “women are less prone to suffer accidents, and machines operated by women at the mines require less maintenance.”

An open-pit copper mine run by Codelco near Calama, Chile. Bloomberg

Advances in technology should help. Modern-day mining is no longer the physically taxing job it once was. Driving a giant 550-ton truck, these days outfitted with power steering and air conditioning, doesn’t require much more effort than driving a car. “You can steer the truck with your little finger,” says Gustavo Tapia, president of the Mining Federation group of unions.

And as automated excavators and other heavy machinery slowly replace traditional mining work, operations can be controlled and monitored from comfortable workstations hundreds of miles away from the mine pit. The job comes with excellent family health care and pays about $23,500 per year on average, almost twice the average income in Chile.

Mining companies around the globe are joining an industrywide push for gender equality and launching initiatives to increase the proportion of women working in mine pits, smelters and refineries.

“The prohibition for women to work in underground mining only ended in 1996, and change has been slow,” says Daniel Sierra, vice president of human resources at Codelco, a mining company in Chile. “The culture was mainly masculine, and the industry didn’t have the infrastructure” to effectively hire more women.

Hear it from the women

Going home in tears

One woman, who asked to be identified only as Sara, began working in 2014 at the world’s largest smelter in the Antofagasta region. Then a 22-year-old single mother, Sara remembers going home in tears during her first month on the job. She didn’t have work clothes that fit her size, female toilets were a half-hour walk away and, after showering, she had to towel off in changing rooms with no curtains or locked doors. Male colleagues harassed her on the radio, and company bus drivers refused her rides at the end of her shift. Although all of these issues have since been rectified, “many men still insist that we shouldn’t be there because [they say] our hair and nails get damaged and because the job is very physical,” Sara says.

In Sara’s case, the steady work, good pay and health benefits outweigh the hassles, and she continues to work at the mine.

A widespread problem

For years, Carla Rojas worked as a risk prevention officer at several mines, examining dozens of such complaints. Then one day she became a victim herself. On her first day as a contractor at a mining company, she was chosen randomly to take a drug test. At the infirmary, an all-male team of nurses subjected her to extreme humiliation. “That was the start of a string of events that looked absolutely abnormal to me but that seemed normal to everyone at the mines,” Rojas says. “That’s when I realised harassment towards women was widespread and normalized.”

Rojas quit her job in 2015 and entered an academic program at the University of Chile in Santiago to investigate the extent of the problem. Today she is a professor at the university and consults with mining companies on diversity issues; she authored the 2016 study for the government.

When Rojas began her academic career, she set out on a deep-dive study of women’s conditions at mines throughout the country. She interviewed nearly 1,000 people, mostly women, and concluded that working in mines takes a toll on their mental health. Rojas was outraged yet not altogether surprised by what she found.

Says Rojas, “There’s a double standard where companies say they’re interested in bringing in more women,” she says. “Men don’t harass women because of their culture, but because they can, because the situation allows it.”

The Washington Post