Marilyn Spink, a metallurgical and materials engineer, has worked to make the mining and minerals industry more equitable by championing successful women in the field. Courtesy of Scuralli Photography.

Metallurgical and materials engineer Marilyn Spink’s CV boasts a very successful 30-year career with firms including Hatch, Golder and SNC Lavalin. But at times she has faced a difficult barrier that many of her peers did not have to overcome: her gender.

CIM Magazine spoke with Spink, who has been an active member of Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) and CIM for over 20 years, and was formerly the only female member of the PEO Council, about her experience in her male-dominated field at the 11th international Gender Summit. The summit, held in Montreal November 6-8, discussed inclusivity issues in academia, industry and government. While there are many fields in which there are gender imbalances, the mining industry has one of the widest gender gaps.

In 2013, Women in Mining (UK) and PwC published a report on trends of women in senior leadership positions and found that the mining industry has the lowest number of women on its boards of any other industry, with women occupying only five per cent of the board positions of the top 500 globally listed mining companies.

The report also found profit margins are higher at mining companies with women on their boards.

Yet four years later Canadian miners continue to lag behind other TSX-listed companies in adding women to their boards and C-suites, as evidenced in a report from Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt LLP that was released in October. For Spink, that change can be initiated through education and communication.

CIM: Why did you attend the Gender Summit?

Spink: I'm a leader in the engineering profession in Canada and to me, this is a leadership issue because we're not pulling from the entire talent pool, especially in mining and minerals which relies heavily on engineering talent. I've seen so many women leave and they've gone on to do some really amazing things in other sectors, and it's our loss. I am surprised I’m still here.

Also, I’m committed to the social contract we have in mining and minerals – we’re very much in the backyards of Indigenous people – and this conference delivered some simple tools for all mining leaders to use to increase equity, diversity and inclusion in our industry so that everyone prospers.

CIM: What do you think are some of the biggest takeaways for the mining industry at this conference?

Spink:  I was very disappointed to see that only 14 per cent of attendees at the conference were from industry. The leaders from industry are not here and they are the ones who need to effect the change. So from the mining point of view, I think we need to have a discussion similar to this discussion we’ve had at the Gender Summit. At mining conferences there are diversity sessions, similar to stand alone sessions on Indigenous relations, but instead of having people who are just preaching to the choir talking to one another at an isolated session, maybe equity, diversity and inclusion needs to actually be the theme of a whole conference. People and organizations who have had success leveraging all talent need to share what has worked and what hasn’t. I would like to hear from Alan Coutts with regards to some of the work that Noront Resources has done with Indigenous Peoples in northern Ontario or from representatives from Diavik in the Northwest Territories. There is an opportunity to take what we’ve learned at the Gender Summit and bring it to more people in the minerals industry.

I'm tired of talking to only women. Most women get it, and there are some men who are strong allies who get it, but we need more, as many men still don't recognize their own biases. Everyone has biases, I have my own biases, but we need to learn to recognize them. Early in my career, my boss would ask, "can you do my PowerPoint presentation for this technical talk?" I'd say, "sure." Then he'd ask my male colleague to do his technical work, and after three or four times of that, I started realizing, I'm not developing my technical skills. And when your colleagues start calling you the name of the executive assistant for the department even though you’re an engineer, when it's slapped in your face, you start to recognize the biases we all have. I should've stopped it and nipped it in the bud immediately, but I didn’t realize what was happening right away. Also, I was not aware that half of the senior consultants I worked with were reluctant to travel with women – some pressured by their spouses not to – so I only had half the opportunities of my male colleagues to meet clients. In minerals operations consulting, travelling to client sites is required – there are no mines in downtown Toronto. If you consider other biases, for example that people don't think you're as good as your male peers, then maybe I have a third of the opportunities. Eventually, women just get worn out and this is where I see women leaving the industry. I have also seen men who don’t fit the typical male stereotypes leave engineering consulting and the minerals industry altogether – what a waste.

Related: Presenters at COM advocate more creativity, flexibility and diversity to spur innovation

CIM: What are some examples of ways that we can help elevate women within the industry?

Spink: Last year I was the only female engineer out of 24 individuals on the PEO Council. There were two other women government appointees, but I was the only female engineer. This bothered me, so another female engineer colleague and I initiated a “One Woman Running” grass roots campaign, using tools like LinkedIn to invite women engineers in Ontario to join our network, saying we’d help them. Our goal was to have one woman running for every councillor position. While many of the women did not win, their participation changed the conversation of the election. But, good news, there are now five women engineers on PEO Council. Taking this initiative has stressed some relationships with my male colleagues on Council, but by having more women engineers as PEO Councillors, we are demonstrating our profession is welcoming to women and those who feel “othered.”

At this stage of my career, I’m in a position to effect change. I may have to test more relationships, but it will make it easier for the women coming up behind me. And not just women but any people that don't fit the typical 'white cis-gendered male' mold. Wouldn’t this message be more powerful if it was echoed authentically from mining leaders both male and female? We have talked enough, we need action to increase equity, diversity and inclusion in the Canadian minerals industry.

Related: Program encourages women at Goldcorp to risk taking the lead

CIM: The significance of engaging male allies and sponsors was a big part of the discussion at Gender Summit. How do you begin to build that network?

Spink: I think it is best to start with education. The people that make decisions and set the culture of the organization need to hear the kinds of discussions we’ve had at Gender Summit or they're not going to embrace the change needed. It must come from within. So it's about education and leadership, it's about having these kinds of conversations, it's about being humble and saying, "I don't know what to do, help me to learn." When other companies engage and they see the business case, and they start seeing the monetary success that comes with inclusivity, we’ll be able to move forward together. Besides, it’s the moral thing to do.