That sociocultural barriers exist, notably common prejudice, perceptions and implicit stereotyped notions on gender roles in the mining sector, is no overstatement.
However, for a mover and shaker in the mould of Sarah Leshabane, AECI Mining Explosives’ site manager, no barrier could be too high to carve her own path in the mining environment.
Upon completing her matric, studying mining engineering at Wits University was both an opportunity and a challenge, given the status quo and stigma around the mining industry being a male-dominated environment. Being the only daughter in a family of three, however, was sort of a great preparation for the challenge.
After graduating with her BSc in Engineering, she still had her fears to enter a traditionally man-driven industry, but her vivacity to challenge the status quo was incentive enough to take the challenge on.
“I am a natural go-for-it type of person who believes that nothing set before me is impossible. I have been in the industry for 10 years, moving from being a mere graduate miner to obtaining my Mine Manager’s Certificate. I have spent the past few years of my career as a shift supervisor and mine overseer,” she says.
Leshabane has been with AECI Mining Explosives for a year and some two months – a company that has been at the forefront of the change regime in this sector to bring inclusivity, defeminisation of the workplace, and working towards achieving organisational modernisation, competitiveness and an assurance for non-gender driven, innovative mining.
Her role as site manager entails overseeing the whole operation, ensuring that all the appropriate standards, systems and procedures are implemented in line with customer requirements.
For Leshabane, entering an industry such as mining as a young female comes not only as a great opportunity, but also presents its set of hurdles. “Accepting that this is the state of play is the first step in overcoming the hurdles,” she says.
“The majority of what the industry stands for promotes patriarchal stigmas and nuances. However, coexisting with these isn’t as impossible as it has always been thought to be.”
Yes, she has had to work extra hard to be afforded the same privileges and honours as her male counterparts, but Leshabane believes that’s the beauty of it all – it is a challenge for one’s person, not just the intellectual ability, but the emotional aspect as well.
“Women are said to have great emotional instincts. This can be a curse to some, but can be also used as a powerful tool to pave one’s way in an industry where the femininity is associated with mediocrity. In fact, being told ‘I can’t do it’ is what motivates me to keep going,” she says.
Commenting on some of the challenges women face in the industry, Leshabane says the greatest tragedy that could befall a young woman deciding to enter a male-dominated industry is lack of self-worth and identity.
“This can, and almost always, is defined by subtle utterances and ‘jokes’ about the inadvertent failure that she faces. The trick that has always worked for me is to realise first that there is no need to turn into ‘one of the guys’ in order to achieve what I have set out to achieve,” she says.
“Entering a male-dominated industry,” declares Leshabane, “is not about losing the essence of what makes me a woman, but rather, embracing the differences between us, using my strengths to make up for what I don’t have – the masculinity, maybe.
“It has to be about recognising that my male counterparts make it because they stand true to the ‘bro code’, supporting each other and pulling each other through.”
For Leshabane, where her male counterparts lack self-sufficiency, “I, as a woman, excel. In an industry where one, in most cases, will not have a few other females around the boardroom table, the sheer essence of being a female around a group of male counterparts is what makes me thrive.”
Looking ahead, Leshabane wants to move up the corporate ladder. “I am aiming to be one day part of the Executive Team of AECI Mining, and phenomenal women like Meagan van den Berg are indeed laying the petals for us to walk proudly on,” she says. To achieve this, Leshabane is planning to study for MBA and CFA qualifications.
Her message to other women out there: “Pursuing a role/career in mining or anything else really, demands you to work only to impress yourself and satisfy YOUR desire to succeed. You are strong. You are capable,” she says.
In conclusion, Leshabane says: “Embrace your weaknesses and identify what you are good at and make it count. Conquer your fears and move right on. Nothing that anyone says to you or about you is definite.
“A good friend of mine has always told me about ‘performing for the audience of one’. Be your own audience. Set the bar high and once you have reached the heights you have set for yourself, everyone else will have no choice but to acknowledge. It all starts with you!”