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Shelia’s Down The Mine! Changing Attitudes To Women In the Australian Mining Industry

141 Sulphide St Broken Hill“Nurse or teacher?”, was the laconic question as I joined the barbeque.

“I’m a geologist, at Zinc Corp”, I countered with a hint of pride, after all I was one of only two of my graduating class of 83 to get a job in the industry, the mining industry was in the depths of recession, again.

“No job for a lady”, was the abrupt response, as he turned away.

I knew I was entering a different world, when in 1984, I took a mine geologist job in Broken Hill, NSW, Australia. I was a New Zealander working in Australia, always an opening for ribbing. However, my passport was never an issue. The issue was my gender. I didn’t realise that I was also travelling back in time.

Union Town

Broken Hill in 1984 was operating in a time warp. A world where the union ruled, all jobs except the “professional” ones of teachers, nurses, engineers and geologists, were unionized. Every shop assistant, every miner, every worker was a member of the Barrier Industrial Council. To be a union member you needed to live in the town for about 8 years, this was a “closed” town, you couldn’t just move there from somewhere foreign like, say, Sydney and expect a job! Single women could be union members, but the day they married they lost their union ticket, and therefore, their jobs. How else was the town to attract suitable potential wives to move into town?

Line of Lode, Broken Hill, NSW
The line of lode, 1984. Area of the Broken Hill Miner’s Memorial

Women had never worked underground; they were considered bad luck. An old Cornish superstition still genuinely held by many men in the mine at the time. They argued, along the same line as the Taliban do today that women could “distract” men from their jobs, and accidents may happen.

The distraction was true. There was always tension between a geologist who wanted miners to stop production so they could map the face, and the miner who wanted to make his targets, and bonuses. I approached one mine face, to find work stopped, and the shift-boss already in robust discussion with the miner. It was noisy, but it was clear from the body language that the boss wasn’t getting a word in, as the miner lambasted him using language not all suitable for a young lady’s ears. As I walked up behind the boss, the miner realised I’d overheard. He went bright red beneath the black mine dust, and literally stopped in mid swear word as my presence robbed him of every expletive  and adjective in his vocabulary. The boss grabbed the opportunity to take control of the conversation, as I walked past to the stope face. The boss was very helpful from then on, and the miner never gave me hassle about stopping production again!

While I was working at The Zinc Corporation, there was a strike when management decided to direct credit workers bank accountants, and remove the option of being paid in cash. Decades-long marriages failed when wives finally found out what their husbands really earned for all those years.

New Broken Hill Consolidated Shaft and Core Yard
New Broken Hill Consolidated Shaft and Core Yard

We worked underground in the mornings from 8-12 and then come back up to the office for the lunchtime card game. One morning, about six months after starting underground, I came into the office. My boss looked up from his cards and said. “Oh, I see!”.

The whole room burst out laughing. Everyman found something about me hilarious. I didn’t get it, I was dressed for underground, wearing overalls, work boots, my hair tied back. Pretty much the same as I’d been wearing for the last six months. Well the overalls were a bit cleaner than usual because they were my new year’s issue. The previous ones had been white, a relic of my “visitor” status when I was surface geologist. On re-order, I’d got khaki, a rather more practical colour for a lead-zinc mine.  My boss had fielded three separate calls that morning as various underground shift bosses saw me.

“Lis is underground in disguise!”

“Lis is wearing men’s overalls!” (All underground clothing was men’s sizes only; female clothing involved skirts and was suitable for office use only).

“What would happen if a bloke was taking a slash, and Lis walked past?”

Without missing a beat my boss had the reply to the last one, he thought it was okay; I had probably seen one before.

Geologist working in the core yard, Broken Hill, 1984
Geologist working in the core yard, Broken Hill, 1984

Wife, Mother, Daughter, Geologist?

None of the mine’s workforce had ever worked with women – women were mothers, wives, and daughters. We fragile, delicate things and they really didn’t understand that they could relate to female-person as a person, rather than a female. The showdown came in the core yard one day. Core came to the surface in standard 3 ft core boxes. These weren’t terribly heavy, but the light aluminium had a tendency to bend in the middle, so you really needed one person each end. Putting the core out was a union job, so technically we weren’t supposed to help. But sometimes there was only one guy at the yard. The yard boss, Wilbert, was relaxed about the rules. I’d seen him let some of the guys layout core when they were in a hurry to see it to make a call on a rig. I had that problem, and the off-sider, “old Ralph”, had called in sick.

“Come on mate,” I said, “I need to call this hole before the end of shift.”

“You gonna help me?”, Wilbert was bemused rather than aggressive.

“Sure I said,” grabbing the end of the nearest box.

We laid out the core, without further comment. But for days afterwards, my fellow geologists regaled me with stories of my apparent super-woman strength, and the crowning compliment of all,

“She’s bloody stronger than Old Ralph!”. Well I should bloody well hope so, I was 22 at the time!

The Batch Broken Hill

The Bachelor’s Quarters

My biggest triumph though was moving into “The Bach” the single graduate quarters, a shared house used to house new graduate engineers and geologists. I couldn’t move in until a new bathroom was constructed. There was only one shared bathroom, which was not, according to Personnel, at all suitable for me. I made the mine’s in-house paper when I moved in, but the joke was on Personnel. Plenty of women had lived there before me; the rooms were large enough for a decent sized bed, and there was no rules about overnight visitors. After all men were expected to look after themselves. The nurses’ and teachers’ quarters, in contrast, had strict visiting rules and curfews. It was true, I was the first women actually employed at the mine, to live at The Bach”.

Times Have Changed

Even at the time, Broken Hill was particularly conservative. Today, some Australian mines who find it hard to keep a workforce in remote and isolated towns  have even introduced a “mummy-shift” with hours to suit women who are doing the school run.  Women are seen as reliable works who are often more gentle on equipment than their male counterparts.

In 2007, at the height of  the latest mining boom, I was offered a position in a remote fly-in-fly-out mining operation. My sex was no issue, neither was my absence from the industry for nearly 20 years. The agent was a little surprised when I asked if they could accommodate a woman, apparently bathrooms for both sexes are now standard issue in single quarters. However, women are still seriously outnumbered by men in mining, making up some 15% of the Australian mining workforce in 2013.

Companies Mentioned

The Zinc Corporation,was  fully owned by Conzinc Riotinto Australia . Perilya later bought out both The Zinc and New Broken Hill Consolidated mines. The mines are still in production.

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