Fist fights, tin sheds, and big trucks: the real story of a female miner.

Most of us would have a mate who have gone off to work in the mines.

It’s a fast way to get great money (like, really great money), and the challenging conditions are offset by large chunks of time off in between. But how many of these miners you know are female?

Are the mines are a suitable place for females to work?

It’s these two factors – great pay, and even time roster – that is attracting an increasing number of Aussie women to the mining industry. Young singles, married couples, mothers with children: ladies from every walk of life are lining up to score a place in one of our country’s most lucrative industries.

But according to a recent study by the Australia-International Institute of Workplace Training, the conditions for females in the Aussie mines are far more difficult than they may have bargained for.

 “Women have to work harder to be recognised, to gain promotions, as there were so few or none of them around. The application of the glass ceiling is still relevant to these women and there is a need to break through.”

Another article on the report noted that women who want to rise to the senior ranks in WA’s mining industry needed, “self-confidence, and should be prepared to fight discrimination and hostility.” 

Yikes. Pretty grim outlook.

But the bleak picture these comments made seem to be undermining (no pun intended) an industry that is making leaps and bounds in welcoming women into its workforce.

So I interviewed a 27 year old woman, Rachel*, who works in an open-cut coal mine.

For privacy reasons her location is concealed, but we can tell you that by all accounts, her life seems pretty darn normal. She lives a 2.5 hr drive from the mine with her partner (also a miner), and their baby girl. They met in a coal mine and lived a few doors up from each other in their donger (I’ll explain what that is in a minute), and he works whilst she’s on maternity leave.

But aside from this apparent normality, I really wanted to know what the conditions are actually like for women out in the mines. Were they safe? Did she like it? What do women do?

The food is crap, the housing is crap, but it’s not unbearable.

All mining staff live in what’s called a ‘donger’ – long rows of housing with tin roofs, squared around a common cooking and social area. Rachel said,”Conditions for a woman on a mine site are the same as they are for men, as are expectations. If you do what is expected of you and do it without complaint you won’t run into any problems.”

Here’s a kangaroo outside the donger. (That’s the most Australian thing I have EVER written.)

The accommodation is not separated between the men and women, with Rachel noting that she was the only female in her ‘pod’ for over 2 years. She describes the rooms:

“The rooms are a king single bed, a bedside table, a big cupboard with a lock so you can leave your stuff there on days off, a desk, a chair, a bar fridge, a split system and a little bathroom with a shower, toilet and sink. All lino floors and white insulated walls…like big, furnished fridges.”

Kind of looks like the Virgin lounge: salami? Check. Boiled eggs? Check. Mystery meat? Check.

Yes, the work is hard.

Second to the living conditions, my next big query was about the work: did it involve much physical action? Did she struggle?

Rachel, a slim lady of average height (read: not of UFC fighter physique) drove massive trucks, some of which required a level of physical pulling and pushing. She reckons women on site do anything and everything, from driving 400 tonne dump trucks, to firing shots, blowing up rock, and the senior site executive.

Yes, it can be dangerous.
I mean, c’mon folks. You’re driving trucks the size of buildings around a big old hole in the earth. Rachel stressed that the safety processes are extensive, but on some sites women are limited when operating bull dozers to the rubber tyre variety. “If women want to drive them, they have to sign a detailed waiver to operate a track dozer as there have been studies linking the harsh jolting the rattling to reproductive problems.”


I guess this is a good point to note that the average salary for a miner is around $130,000 p.a., plus benefits. *Gulp*

Rachel’s office.

Sexism is apparent, but it’s not everywhere.
The conditions were dirty and rough, and their behaviour followed suit. “Our presence is somewhat threatening to their way of life,” says Rachel, “a sort of dissipation of “the boys club”  – ie. no more pissing off the side of your digger or reading dirty mags in the crib huts. The challenge for women is to find a place where they are accepted for themselves amongst their peers while not threatening the traditional work environment, but also not allowing themselves to become sexualised, coerced into doing things they wouldn’t normally find appropriate or at the butt of every joke.”

Like any workplace, there is bullying.

Rachel’s first mine experience sounded horrifying – with only three women on the crew (including her), she was subjected to physical and verbal assaults daily.

“I had water thrown on me, comments about my arse being too big, and I even overheard a conversation between my supervisor and another crew member on a two way radio about what I would be like “in the sack”.”

However, she was also quick to note that this is not the norm, and that the future mines she went on to work at were far more welcoming. If not still requiring a thick skin:

“Once I pulled on my big girl panties and started to stand up for myself (including pouring hot coffee on someone, engaging in a fist fight with another bloke at the pub and making various threats about exposing what the boys were up to to their wives) I actually found myself a popular and respected member on crew, and thoroughly enjoyed my time at that mine. I still have my closest friends for there and count it as the best job I ever had.”

One of the less glamorous ‘dongers’ that Rachel has lived in for months at a time.

Yep, she would recommend you give it a go: but you need to be tough. VERY TOUGH.
There is no point trying to dress up what is clearly a pretty tough gig: the type of woman who succeeds in the mines – both on the ground and in management roles – must be up for the challenge. Resilience, humor, and acceptance of hi-vis clothing is a good start, reckons Rachel. Does she think it’s an ‘appropriate’ work environment for women?

“If she finds it appropriate for herself. Some people, make or female, wouldn’t find it an appropriate place to work. Filthy surroundings, freezing cold, scorching heat, swearing and spitting,” Rachel said.

“It’s like asking if a pub is appropriate for a woman to go into. It really depends on the woman. I’m a feral by nature, none of those things ever worried me, I prefer it to square eyes in front of a computer screen and a pile of paperwork.The thought of that makes my head hurt.”

Look inviting? No? Um, wait until til you see the paycheck.

Most female miners will be a pioneer in one way or another. Some will be the first woman on their particular site. Others will be the first truck driver. Some will be the first  manager. For Rachel, she was the first mother.

“My contact company were a little confused over what to do with me! My branch had never faced having a pregnant operator and gave me false information regarding my entitlement to maternity leave and pay. As for my pregnancy on site – best ever. I was immediately taken off the biggest trucks that run under shovels (it’s very hard on the body), allowed extra breaks if I was tired or unwell without penalty, put on short, gentle runs, usually in coal or reject material (it’s light and soft and goes into the truck smoothly).”

It might be the wild west, but these women are tougher than you think.

*not her real name.

Do you or would you ever work out in the mines? 

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