It’s interesting, exciting, and enjoyably challenging

Fiona is the Lead Geochemist, working with the Greenfields Exploration Team at South32.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

It’s an interesting, exciting and enjoyably challenging role. Discovering an ore body requires strong and diverse technical skills, team work and a bucket load of determination. I love being part of a skilled, highly motivated, collaborative and fun global team. I am also proud of our exploration portfolio which comprises over 20 high quality base metal projects globally.

Describe your career path to your current job?

I grew up in a small, historic coal mining town in northern England and then pursued a geoscience degree in Scotland. My Dad was convinced I had made a huge mistake doing a geoscience degree and thought I’d never get a job, but I was keen to prove him wrong! My first job out of university was in West Africa where I spent three years in Sierra Leone working for a junior gold explorer. We made a small gold discovery and it was a great experience in geology and life in general.

I then moved to Tasmania to pursue a PhD in nickel exploration with Anglo American. After some years working as a consultant geochemist, including consulting to South32 on some fantastic exploration projects, I joined South32 when a role came up in early 2018.

­What attracted you to a career in mining & resources?

My entry into the mining and resources industry was more good luck than good planning. I loved geology and I wanted to travel so when I saw a job advertised as an exploration geologist in West Africa, I couldn’t resist and naively jumped right in. Exploration is exciting and completely addictive and once I was in, I was hooked. I’ve also always loved the team spirit in exploration. Most geologists I’ve worked with in the industry are down to earth and fun and, because I’ve travelled and lived in remote camps with many of my past and present teammates, we’ve gotten to know each other on a personal level. I really value that and think it makes for great working relationships.  

How do you juggle working in mining and resources with family life?

Juggle is a good word! Both my husband and I work full-time and, with three children under seven, it isn’t always easy. However, we have both chosen roles that suit our family life and we’ve worked hard to ensure we share parenting and home responsibilities equally. We also both work for family-friendly companies and this has allowed us the flexibility to have a healthy work-life balance. On a day-to-day basis, we have a good routine which the kids are used to and don’t mind following. Basically, I can be found shouting “where are your shoes?” and “get in the car” at the same time every morning! Our weekends are all about quality family time. We all enjoy the outdoors, so most weekends we head to the beach or for a walk in the Perth hills.

Sometimes I feel work dominates and other times I feel family dominates. I used to feel guilty either way, but these days I’m kinder to myself and more relaxed in the knowledge that equilibrium will prevail sooner rather than later.

What do you think of the general perception that mining and resources is a male-dominated sector?

My experience as an exploration geologist is that it’s true. It’s common that I find myself in a technical meeting or at a geoscience conference where women are underrepresented, and I have visited several exploration camps globally where I have been the only women on site. I’m pretty accustomed to this and I try to turn it into a positive, knowing that my outlook and opinion is often different and therefore an important voice in the conversation. I won’t deny that gender bias has, at times, negatively impacted me. However, the vast majority of men that I’ve worked with are really good and fair people. With strong female and male champions, who call out unacceptable behaviour and truly support women in the mining and resources industry, I hope that our industry will become increasingly more attractive for women and therefore more gender-equal in the near future.

What advice would you give to other women considering a career in the sector?

Do it! I love my job and the opportunity it brings. Women can excel in almost all roles in the industry. I would also advise to choose your company, role and even your manager wisely. I managed to work safely and successfully in Sierra Leone for three years, and as the only women in camp for much of that time, because my manager made sure I was treated equally and with respect by everyone. I have managed to have a young family and a global exploration role with South32 for the last few years because the company and my managers support flexible work, and my husband and I have worked to ensure we have equal responsibilities at home. My last piece of advice is stay true to yourself. When I was younger, my main goal was to blend in which meant not speaking up when I viewed things differently to my male colleagues. Now, I always try to speak my truth.

What’s the biggest thing you would like other women to know about working in mining and resources?

There are plenty of intelligent, strong and amazing women in the mining and resources sector. Seek these women out if you need advice, support or an ally. I didn’t do this when I started out but over the past few years, I’ve really benefitted from establishing a group of wonderful female friends in the industry. We have shared experiences, they provide solid advice and they are my biggest supporters.

­­­What initiatives/policies has your employer put in place to encourage more women to be involved in the sector?

I’m really proud to now work for a company with a progressive parental leave policy. When I had my children, the company I was working for didn’t have a paid parental leave policy and my husband was only eligible for two weeks of leave. This added increased financial stress and, because my husband wasn’t at home to help with the children in the early days, all childcare and home responsibilities naturally fell to me. This routine and role division has been hard to break, and I really value parental leave policies like South32’s that enable primary caregivers, regardless of gender, the opportunity to take extended leave for family care.

Working flexibly is important to me and my family and we are definitely benefiting from South32’s flexible work policy. With the support of my manager, I work around school and family commitments and split my time between my home and the Perth office. It’s been a win-win situation for me, with my work productivity as good as ever and my family benefiting from me being more present.