MELBOURNE (Reuters) - When the song “Eagle Rock” played at a bar in an outback Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie late one night, a dozen young men scattered around a pool table dropped their trousers and heartily sang along in their underwear.
Later that night, they piled behind the counter of the bar attached to the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM), singing an anthem that began, “We are engineers,” and finished with an obscene description of how they treat women.
The scenes, in the background of an industry conference, cut against a hard reality the sector faces: a dearth of skilled applicants, and a workforce hurting for diversity and struggling to hire women.
“If we could attract more women, it could go a long way to helping any future skills shortage,” said Paul Cooper, regional chief executive of mining for recruiting company Sodexo, which is a key supplier to the industry and whose workforce is almost half women.
Without change, the outlook is grim. Enrolments in mining engineering courses across Australia have fallen to roughly 30 this year from more than 250 during the last boom a half decade ago.
Graphic: Australian mining engineering enrollments slump reut.rs/2OVInz6
“We’ve solved crazier problems than this. This is seriously not hard if people have the will,” said Sam Retallack, head of hiring at miner Independence Group.
It will require a “big philosophical shift,” but miners must offer more flexible working conditions to attract the next generation of workers, she said.
The conversation is echoing around the industry. A WASM director, just hours before the carousing in Kalgoorlie, had delivered a pointed address about how the industry must change its testosterone-charged reputation.
“Mining has a dirty image,” mining engineer Sabina Shugg of the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Mining Innovation Hub told a packed hall. “You can have a lot of talk about intent, but really it’s all about outcomes.”
Curtin University, of which WASM is a part, said it promotes equality and diversity, and actively works to enhance opportunities for women, particularly in mining.
Curtin said that it did not organise the event, did not receive any complaints and could not verify the reported behaviour.
“Curtin is very disappointed to receive this report of disrespectful behaviour,” it said in a statement.
Graphic: Women in Mining tmsnrt.rs/2ppEhVi
Interactive: Women in Mining tmsnrt.rs/2ps0S3K
Even top global miner BHP Billiton, which has set an “ambitious, aspirational goal” of achieving gender balance globally by 2025, fell short of its yearly target, raising the proportion of female employees by 1.9 percent to 22.4 percent. In senior management positions, however, the proportion of women slipped by 1 percentage point.
“These results show we are making progress, although we did not achieve the 3 percent annual growth to which we aspire,” BHP said in its annual report on Tuesday.
Large-scale layoffs after commodity busts in recent years and an environmentally challenged image have also harmed mining’s reputation among potential hires, industry sources said.
Yet miners are hiring, with a big uptick in exploration investment. The industry spent A$547 million ($391.76 million) in the three months ending in June, an increase of 6.8 percent over the previous quarter and a jump of 28.9 percent for the year, according to Australia’s Bureau of Statistics.
Part of the issue is the industry’s marketing, which appeals to masculine stereotypes, said Gabriela Love, a mining engineer at ASX-listed Newcrest and chairwoman of Women in Mining and Resources Victoria.
“Mining is marketed as dirty and dull. You think of BHP and its ads are all trucks and high-vis gear; that’s painting the industry in a certain way,” she said. “But now we’re in a digital age, with robotics, big data, high tech. Mining is all of that.”
BHP declined to comment about its marketing.
Mining is the most male dominated-industry in Australia, with women making up 16 percent of the sector’s national workforce for the past decade, according to government data on Friday.
“The sector faces an ongoing challenge to attract and retain the substantial number of additional women required to boost diversity and take advantage of a significant untapped workforce,” the Department of Industry said in a report.
Women can feel isolated in the industry and less inclined to speak up, which undermines the benefits of diversity, Love said.
“When you’re walking round the mess hall, it’s a sea of men,” she said.
Highly specialised positions that require workers to travel to a remote location for “fly in, fly out” work can be more difficult for parents in particular.
One geotechnical engineer, among the most sought-after specialisations, was laid off from a mining major last year as she prepared to return from maternity leave.
During her pregnancy, her manager had told her that if he gave her flexible working conditions, he’d have to give them to everyone.
“I was a senior engineer wanting to stay involved in the industry. When I needed the support, I found myself out of a job. I felt disillusioned with the industry and the company.”
Offering the option to work remotely or on secondment in consulting from a big city would benefit workers and the company, she said.
To be sure, incremental changes at majors Rio Tinto and BHP are rippling through the industry, particularly after the companies set up remote work centres in Perth so fewer employees needed to be at mine sites.
Among other measures, Rio has also introduced a global paid parental leave standard, while BHP is moving to replace heavy physical labour with robots, and is working with suppliers to redesign equipment so it is more ergonomic for women.
“I think that the industry has a reputation that may not be well deserved in today’s world,” BHP’s chief technology officer, Diane Jurgens, told Reuters.
“I think it’s a lot to do with the perceptions of the industry. We need to change that,” she said.
($1 = 1.3963 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Gerry Doyle