Mining in a man’s world – A female CEO’s perspective

An interview with Vanessa Guthrie, CEO of Toro Energy

Wherever you look around the world – regardless of a country’s level of development, or a company’s size and level of success – the mining industry is lacking in one key element: women. The boards and management teams of mining companies are predominantly male and for one to have a female chief executive is exceedingly rare. For one to have a woman in a leadership position is exceedingly rare. Fortunately, there are a few exceptions – and one of them features in this issue.

Toro Energy is a pretty exceptional company even before you look at the people behind it. It’s on track to become Western Australia’s first ever uranium producer, and its Wiluna Uranium Project is the only one approved in all of Australia. However, the fact that its Managing Director is female – and its Non-Executive Chair as well – is probably equally exceptional.

Vanessa Guthrie joined Toro Energy in 2011 and became Managing Director and Chief Executive in February 2013. This was no lucky break, inheritance or case of knowing the right people; she worked her way up from the bottom, and worked very hard at that.

Backed by qualifications in geology, environment, law and business management, Vanessa has racked up more than 25 years of mining industry experience. Her career has seen her fill a variety of roles at companies including Woodside Energy, RGC Limited, Pasminco Limited, WMC and Alcoa, where she became Western Australia’s first female mine manager.

It was well deserved, then, when last year she won the 2013 Outstanding Professional Woman award from the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy, “in recognition of her efforts towards building a world-class industry that provides attractive career opportunities and enhances the recognition and participation of women in the sector”.

There’s no doubt that Vanessa has a lot of drive, skill and talent. But does her exceptionalness indicate that a woman needs to be ‘outstanding’ to even stand a chance of getting ahead in this industry? Juliet Langton quizzes Vanessa on her own experience and asks what can be done to get more women into mining.

JL: In my own experience, the vast majority of mining CEOs I’ve interviewed have been men. Have you found that it’s unusual for a woman to be at the top of a mining company?

VG: Absolutely. I think the main indicator is that, if you look around the world, you can probably count on one or two hands the women who have made it to CEO level. They may be from small companies like ours – I do know a couple of other women in Western Australia who are also mining CEOs – or from large companies, with Cynthia Carroll from Anglo American being an example [she resigned from the position in late 2012]. But the reason that female mining CEOs are obvious is because we are so few.

JL: Why do you think that is – is it due to a lack of interest, perhaps, or because women face barriers to progressing up the ranks?

VG: The history of my career in the mining industry is probably not representative of women’s future careers in mining. I started in the mining game in the early 1980s, and the cultural aspects of mining companies in those days are something you would never see today. And that’s not a comment on how women specifically were treated, but on how people treated each other, both men and women.

So I think it’s a combination of things. I think women are probably not, or at least have not been in the past, as attracted to the mining industry as men because the industry is fundamentally built on science and engineering and these subjects have been less promoted to girls than to boys.

There are also, I think, cultural barriers that occur in any industry, but are perhaps particularly obvious in the mining sector. And this is not about the structural issues, such as more options for flexible childcare, flexible hours and for women to return to work after they’ve had children, because in fact I think the mining industry is leading the way in changing working structures to support women in the workplace.  The mining industry in Australia, at least, has been very strong in making those structural changes.

But, underneath that, there are cultural differences that I believe force a number of women to self-select out of the industry. And that’s a great shame, because it means that a lot of talent leaves our shores.

JL: How did you first get interested in mining?

VG: I studied geology at university, and I was fascinated by the geology itself, particularly the geochemistry. One of the underlying drivers for my joining the mining industry was the fact that it is an industry that creates intrinsic value. We basically take ore from the ground and turn it into knives and forks, electric kettles, jewellery, electronics and electricity. There are just so many end products, and this is what really attracted me to mining. It’s an industry that basically takes rocks and turns it into something that’s really valuable to society and which sustains our lifestyle. I wanted to be part of an industry that did that.

JL: Do you think it has been more difficult for you to get to where you are now, than it would have been had you been a man?

VG: I think any woman who has worked her way through middle management and executive positions to a similar place as I am now… if you ask any of us, we’d say, of course it’s been tough. It’s certainly tough for men too, but I think it is a bit more difficult for women. A lot of it depends on your appetite for challenge, your focus and your goals – for me, it was a desire to become part of the mining industry that motivated me to get to where I am.

And I don’t underestimate the support that I’ve had from home. I have two kids and a wonderful husband who are always there in the background. My boys are now in their late teens and early 20s, and it certainly wasn’t easy bringing them up while sustaining my career, but it was made a whole lot easier through having that fundamental, underlying support from my partner.

JL: Do you believe that women can bring anything extra to the mining industry?

VG: The research tells us that when you have a diverse board and a diverse executive running a company then the statistics show that it tends to outperform its peers. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a case of including women, or people from different ethnic backgrounds or of different ages; when you have a diverse group of people contributing, you tend to get better results.   I think that is the real point for companies to consider, rather than looking at it from a ‘quotas’ point of view.

If you do want to narrow down the benefits of diversity to the inclusion of women alone… Well, put it this way, if you bring one or more women into the board room or executive team, you will find that they ask different questions in different ways. I think that women approach problems from a different perspective to men. And I have seen a change to company performance as a result.

JL: Do you think mining companies could be doing more to support women’s careers?

VG: I think that this is a generational issue. For example, if I think back to when I was a child, I remember that my mum was not able to have her own bank account, or to take out a mortgage on her own, until the 1970s. It seems crazy today. But I remember my mum coming home from the shops and showing my brother, sister and I her bank account, and saying to me, “This is the first time I’ve had a bank account of my own; I’ve never been allowed to have one before”. Equally, when mum married, she had to give up her job – which seems bizarre today. So inequality in the workplace is a generational thing.

You could just as easily ask, “Could insurance companies be doing more?” or “Could the government be doing more?” Unfortunately, this will not change overnight. It’s only through generational evolution, and through continuing the debate, bringing the issue to the fore and asking the question: “How much better could your company perform, and what difference would it make, to have a woman on the board or on your executive team?” that things will change. Even asking the question opens people’s eyes, I think.

By Anna Guy

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