Discrimination in the mining business is real, but there’s good news, too. Just ask these four industry veterans

At a recent Association for Mineral Exploration panel on diversity and inclusion, four industry veterans shared some horror stories—and agreed that their business is changing for the better.

Credit: Courtesy of Association for Mineral Exploration

(Clockwise from top left) Moderator Kendra Johnston with panellists Shastri Ramnath, Andy Randell, John Antwi and Linda Murphy

At a recent Association for Mineral Exploration panel on diversity and inclusion, the guests shared some horror stories—and agreed that things are changing for the better

Moderator Kendra Johnston didn’t mince words when she kicked off a recent panel discussion.

Johnston, president and CEO of the Association for Mineral Exploration, explained that she looked for midcareer geologists and mining engineers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to join A Conversation on Diversity and Inclusion in Mineral Exploration, part of last week’s AME Remote Roundup conference.

“It felt a little bit odd to be out there searching for a Black geologist,” she admitted to panellist John Antwi, who is from Ghana. Finding one in North America was no easy task, Johnston added, noting that Antwi is actually a mining engineer. “What are your comments on that, knowing that you are here because you have a really important value-add to the conversation, but you’re also here because you’re Black?”

Antwi, president and director of Nevada-based Elim Mining, took the question in stride. “If you go to Africa, there are a ton of us, but this side of the world, most Black people are not interested in mining at all,” he replied. “Diversity with respect to race, and especially Black people, is something that we have to address in this industry in North America.”

The other three panellists were Linda Murphy, senior community relations manager with Toronto-headquartered Yamana Gold; Andy Randell, CEO and principal geoscientist at Vancouver consulting firm SGDS Hive; and Shastri Ramnath, president and CEO of Toronto-based Exiro Minerals Corp. Sharing their own horror stories of discrimination in the mineral exploration industry, the group also sounded hopeful about the future.  

A new level of empathy

Murphy, an Anishinaabe woman from Manitoba who splits her time between her home province and Campbell River, knows very few fellow Indigenous geologists. Indigenous people might not view that profession an opportunity because they’ve had relatively little education on mining’s potential benefits, she said. “And then when they do see mineral industries and the mining industry, they maybe see it as a source of conflict as opposed to an opportunity.”

Murphy also recalled doing mine rescue training back in 1997, soon after she joined the industry. Only one other Indigenous person participated, but at supper she noticed that the servers were Indigenous women. “We’re seen as the people who serve you your dinner as opposed to the people as a part of the decision makers in the industry.”

Almost 25 years later, Murphy wonders why her First Nations peers in the business still have such a low profile. “There are things that we can do better to create more visibility, because there are [Indigenous] geologists out there who aren’t visible,” she said. “If we maybe stepped a little more into Indigenous territories, we might find some. But they are hidden.”

Johnston asked Manitoba-born Ramnath, whose father is from Trinidad and Tobago and whose mother is a “blond Caucasian Mennonite,” how women’s role in mining is changing. “First of all, I would like to thank Donald Trump for bringing misogyny and racism to the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Ramnath said.

Although some people still downplay those problems, there’s a new level of empathy now, she added. “I think it’s because one, we see it in the news, and secondly, people are realizing that they have daughters or sisters or friends who have actually gone through this type of discrimination.”

For those wondering what a white man was doing on the panel, Randell settled that question. “There’s 157 people listening in on this right now, so I think I’m about to break my record for the most amount of people I’m going to come out to in one go,” he said. “I am a gay geologist.”

Mineral exploration is still “a very macho environment” where gay people face stereotyping, Randell observed. Although some of that is humour he can brush off, he’s also endured discrimination. “But because you are afraid to maybe rock the boat or don’t think you would have support, you keep your mouth shut,” he said.

“When you came and asked me if I’d do this session, the first thing I think I said to you was, ‘I think I’m far enough along in my career right now to really handle any backlash that comes from this conversation,'” Randell told Johnston. “I thought that was kind of sad, that people have judged me on the fact that I’m married to a guy as opposed to the fact that I can go and find you a porphyry system with gold and copper in it.”

Shouldn’t you be parenting?

The panellists had no shortage of cringeworthy stories about hurtful and unfair treatment based on their ethnic background, gender or sexuality.

When he joins an exploration camp, Randell doesn’t advertise the fact that he’s gay because it will start the rumour mill, he says. One incident from a decade ago that shocked him: “I was in a camp, and the drilling manager came up to me and he just said, ‘Would you mind using the bathrooms and the showers at a different time from everybody else? Because I don’t want you to make the rest of the team uncomfortable.'”

After “stupidly” agreeing, Randell found himself annoyed by the assumption that he’d be automatically attracted to the other men. “It really made me step back and think, How is this going to affect me, and how are other people going to judge me because of this?”

Antwi remembered getting ready to give a presentation about his company at a conference. “In the prep session, the person wrote an email to my [investor relations] person to say, ‘You know what? His accent is so strange that I think we should shorten the presentation.’ I just couldn’t believe what I heard.”

Murphy, who earned a geology degree when she was older, said colleagues kept asking her to build relationships with First Nations. “It took me this many years to become a geologist—this was my one chance—and you’re asking me to make it easier for you to go in and do the geology. What does that look like to me?”

As a result, Murphy effectively worked two jobs, keeping up her geology credentials while pursuing relationship-building as a paid career. “That might be some of the reason why Indigenous geologists stay invisible,” she said. “They get to do what they want to do.”

For Ramnath, one of the biggest problems is unconscious bias. “I’ve heard all kinds of people say that they’ve never seen unconscious bias, they have never contributed to unconscious bias,” she related. “And I’d like to say, People, it’s unconscious. If you’re saying that, you’re probably participating in it.”

During her career, Ramnath has been no stranger to misogyny. Told to use bigger words so she can sound smarter, she’s also experienced pay inequity twice. “I’ve been told I’m beautiful, but I sure ain’t brilliant in that circle of six different men where nobody stood up.”

When Ramnath attended a course at the 2018 edition of Roundup, she had a 10-month-old baby at home. “A 35-year-old male walked over to me and said, ‘Shouldn’t you be parenting right now?’ I felt terrible. They wouldn’t say that to my partner.”

Older white men in particular must make a stand, Ramnath argued. “They need to speak up on our behalf, and if you see something happen, you have to speak up, or you’re just as guilty as the person who’s saying it.”

Antwi agreed, pointing out that white people supporting Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements has made a big difference. “What I saw there is that, and I think I realized over the years, if the favoured group is the strongest advocate for the least favoured group, solutions are found.”

And now, the good news

Asked to share some positive examples that show the value of having diverse and inclusive teams, the panellists didn’t hesitate.

Antwi stressed that North American colleagues have mentored and stood up for him, from his stint at mining giant Newmont Corp. to his current business. “If somebody attempts to say anything against me, the way the team will come and support me and defend me, it’s unbelievable,” he said of the latter. “I see that there are all these positives in the industry, and we should highlight them.”

Women in the industry work well together, Ramnath said. “I’ve had people say, If there’s another woman in the camp, do you ever, like, argue? It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Women in mining are hardy just by being in mining, and so we stick together.”

At first, working with First Nations communities kept her at entry level, Murphy explained, but her career prospects improved. “It netted me much better work in the industry, and certainly very well paid, and I still get to do my geology,” she said. “And so in the end, we’re all gaining and learning and becoming models for the next ones coming, too.”

Randell said he struggles to understand why there would be any debate about diversity in mining. “People are very, very diverse in life, so it should be the same in the industry.”

For employers in the mining and mineral exploration business, Ramnath offered a compelling reason be more diverse and inclusive. “We are going to have a workforce shortage,” she said. “So there’s going to be no choice but to turn to Indigenous communities for workforce, to turn to women, to turn to young people. I think there’s a real wave coming, and I really hope I can help lead that wave.”