Maria Ezpeleta was planning to fly to Toronto earlier this month to speak about the impact of mining projects on women when she heard the news: The panel session, on “tackling gender bias” in the mining sector, was called off.
In an ironic twist, the discussion of gender bias had been ensnared by #MeToo — the growing movement to stop sexual harassment — because new accusations were surfacing against men linked to Ezpeleta’s organization, Oxfam.
The Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, which hosts one of the oldest and largest mining conferences in the world, scrapped the session from this year’s agenda, citing negative news surrounding panel organizer Oxfam, a U.K. charity, which faces allegations it covered up for ex-workers in Haiti accused of using prostitutes.
At a time when sexual harassment in the workplace is receiving heightened attention, the organizers’ decision to disband the panel is raising questions about whether it speaks to a broader indifference in the mining industry to widespread gender problems.
In addition to suffering from one of the lowest proportions of female workers, there is growing criticism from outside organizations that mining projects disproportionately harm women in the surrounding communities, with incidents of sexual exploitation and rape brought up, in addition to other consequences.
“Our moral leadership on the issue was undermined at that particular moment,” Ezpeleta said, lamenting the fact that the mining industry’s gender problems had been “eclipsed by the fact that we (Oxfam) were going through public scrutiny.”
Since the conference in Toronto ended last week, understanding why PDAC decided to wipe off the panel session at a time when corporations are re-examining the gender policies has been fuelling chatter in industry circles.
Lisa McDonald, interim executive director of PDAC, said the session was called off because, in early February, a U.K. newspaper unearthed fresh details about the humanitarian non-profit Oxfam’s response to a scandal in 2011. At that time, seven of its workers who were in Haiti to aid the country after a devastating earthquake, were dismissed or resigned for unspecified misconduct.
Then, news reports earlier this year, suggested the misconduct included hiring prostitutes, bullying and intimidation, and accusations that Oxfam had covered up the misconduct.
Oxfam Canada’s policy specialist Ian Thomson has not been implicated in the scandal — the organization has nearly 10,000 employees in 90 countries — but he had organized the gender bias panel at PDAC and was slated to moderate. He was not available for comment.
McDonald said she was concerned that someone from Oxfam Canada would make a statement about the organization’s response to the controversy.
“That’s not what the session was about,” she said. “The session was about practical tools” for addressing gender bias.
Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada, said she told PDAC organizers that her organization was not interested in making a statement or doing anything that would divert attention from the topic of the panel discussion.
In any case, McDonald said the panel can wait until next year’s conference, adding that gender bias was the main topic at a different panel about diversity at this year’s conference.
“It’s a pretty competitive process to be a part of the program,” she said. “Gender was the one overarching topic that we’d given two slots to.”
Unfortunately, the second panel “Integrating diversity into the mining system” was scheduled at a time that overlapped with the Women in Mining cocktail reception, said Tanya van Biesen, who spoke on the second panel and is executive director of Catalyst Canada, a non-profit that works to advance women in the workplace.
That only added to a perception that gender bias is not being taken seriously.
“I just thought it was quite ironic,” said van Biesen, “that this is exactly the problem: people are not putting appropriate weight on the issue.”
Still, concerns about the industry’s gender imbalance may be rising for other reasons: Women represent only 17 per cent of Canada’s mining workforce compared to a national average of 47 per cent, according to the Kanata, ON-based Mining Industry Human Resources Council.
Ryan Montpellier, executive director of MIHR, said that in the next five years, 26 per cent of the roughly 190,000-strong mining workforce in Canada is set to retire, and the industry will need to look far and wide to replace them.
“At the end of the day, the sector has some work to do not only in attracting but training and retaining women,” he said, adding, “I have never seen a time when mining companies were taking the issue of gender more seriously.”
Several women with experience in the mining industry said a range of hazards exist for their gender. One woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, who works on community relations for a Canadian mining company in Chile said she is often excluded from meetings that are essential to performing her job, at least partially, because she is a woman.
Another woman who worked as a geologist on exploration sites said she experienced outright threatening behaviour, such as when a male stationed himself outside her shower stall. She was never assaulted but the cumulative effect of being treated differently as one of the few women on site weighed on her emotionally and contributed to a decision to leave the mining industry.
For Ginger Gibson, a director at the Firelight Group, which is a research and advocacy organization that works with indigenous groups, the need to improve gender diversity in the mining industry is urgent for a different reason: When a male-dominated group of workers sets up camp near a rural community, the threats to women and children rise measurably, making them more vulnerable to sexual assault or other forms of violence, she said.
Ezpeleta, gender advisor for Oxfam America’s extractive industries’ team, said her organization has been studying the impacts of the mining industry on surrounding communities for years.
Her organization is building a mobile application to assess the differential impacts that a mining project has on men and women in nearby communities. While the former may find employment, the latter may find their traditional responsibilities more difficult, she said.
As an example, Ezpeleta said women are often responsible for collecting clean water; and mines often use local water supplies, and sometimes pollute them, which makes this task more difficult.
The consequences can be much more dire too, with a number of incidents of rape reported around mines in Papua New Guinea, Guatemala and other places, said Ezpeleta.
“We’re seeing that more often than not, women have to shoulder the negative impacts more often than men,” she said.
Aidan Davey, a third panelist who is chief operating officer of the International Council on Mining and Metals, which works on sustainability, said he had planned to speak about women as a talent pool for the industry, and examples of companies making headway on gender issues.
Like Gibson, he said he wanted to go ahead with the panel, despite Oxfam’s controversy. She said she told PDAC “sweeping” the Oxfam scandal under the rug would come back to them.
“People seem to not want to dwell on unpleasant situations, but we need to if we want to learn from them,” said Gibson.
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