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Women in the coal sector: from barriers to entry to challenges in the aftermath of mine ‎closure ‎

The extractive industries in oil, gas, and coal mining are traditionally male-dominated sectors. As observed in the report Promoting Gender Diversity and Inclusion in the Oil, Gas and Mining Extractive Industries that was developed this year by the Advocates for Human Rights at the request of the UNECE Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane (CMM), “there is great potential to draw on the increasing numbers of women with the requisite qualifications, as more [of them] are graduating with engineering and other technical degrees. […] [Furthermore,] [a]s the [coal] sector becomes more mechanized and less reliant on heavy manual labour, traditional arguments for a male-dominated sector that relied on stereotypical reasoning become obsolete.”

The Group of Experts on CMM met on 7-8 November 2019 in Geneva and discussed gender diversity and inclusion. Recognizing both ongoing changes and the need to promote inclusiveness in the industry, the Group discussed barriers impeding women from entering the sector and barrier hampering women’s professional development at the later stages of their careers.

Ms. Sandra Seabela, Mining Engineer from Assmang’s Khumani Mine observed that “there are a number of challenges hindering progression of women in the South African mining industry.” She noted that “there have been improvements in transforming the industry to better accommodate and enhance careers of women in mining” and explained that “these improvements come as a result of a collaborative effort from different stakeholders aiming to achieve an inclusive mining industry which treats people of different genders and backgrounds in the same way.” Importantly, as highlighted by Ms. Seabela, “mining companies that have embraced this transformation are seeing improved financial performance and better work culture.” 

In a similar vein, Ms. Elizabeth Clausen, representing the Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies at RWTH Aachen, Germany, remarked that “one of the biggest challenges for innovation in the sector is to attract and retain young and bright talent. Therefore, in the spirit of fostering diversity, we have to ensure the use of the full talent pool of society.”

The discussion gave a special focus to problems faced by women as a result of the gradual phase-out of coal in many countries around the world.  Ms. Kray Luxbacher, professor at Virginia Tech, observed that “with only about 4% of the US coal workforce identifying as female, it might seem illogical to discuss the impacts of these closures on women, but, in fact, women living and working in these communities suffer negative impacts.” She pointed to the fact that most efforts for re-education and employment are aimed at out-of-work male miners, without enough attention being paid to the situation of women living in the affected communities.  

In this context, Ms. Luxbacher underlined that “employment and education programmes must be aimed at all members of the community” and advocated for “inclusive long term mine closure planning in collaboration with all stakeholders,” rather than the often unsuccessful re-education and re-employment programmes that focus only on out-of-work miners. Such planning is difficult as mines typically close in bankruptcy or under financial duress and therefore lack resources for such developments. 

In response, Ms. Bobbie Foot, Head of HSE for BHP Mitsubishi Alliance’s Coal Division observed that “when organisations don't have the appropriate plans in place, women and young girls can often experience higher levels of social or personal safety issues as well as education and health disadvantages.” She called for “applying innovative thinking to build social value into the future when planning for mine closure and transitions in a way that empowers and benefits everyone in the community.' Ms. Foot argued that applying a Social Value, rather than Social License, approach to the closure of mines and other workforce transitions can help prevent many of the negative impacts of the process.

Based on these discussions, the Group of Experts decided to promote measures aimed at raising awareness on barriers to women’s engagement and professional development in the coal sector in all its activities. As per the report from the session, the Group of Experts also requested the Bureau and the secretariat to engage with the relevant stakeholders in order to identify actions that it could undertake to alleviate the identified problems. In line with the objectives of Sustainable Development Goal 5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, the Group of Experts is fully committed to gender matters and stands ready to undertake all necessary steps to assure full inclusiveness in its membership and work, and to promote the value of diversity.  

For more information on the work of the Group of Experts on CMM please visit: http://www.unece.org/energy/cmm.html, or contact cmm.energy@un.org