Gender in the Mining Industry - ROAPE
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Gender in the Mining Industry

Gender in the Mining Industry

By Thandi Dlamini

More than twenty years after democracy women make up only 11% of the operational mining workforce in South Africa.  Before 1994, underground work was exclusively for males.  This report assesses the possible side effects of the mining industry’s apparent new found enthusiasm for female employees.  The urgency with which the industry seeks to recruit female employees is ultimately driven by the threat of their losing mining licenses if they do not ‘transform.’ The report has been produced with the assistance  of the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR).

The creation of the South African worker

The effects of colonialism and apartheid on black people are well chronicled and correctly deplored.  Rather less attention is given to the effects of these two destructive political and economic forces on black women specifically.  The effects of colonialism were felt most intensely during the long 1800s in which waves of European settlers arrived on the coast and moved into the hinterland of what would later become South Africa.  Colonialism went hand in hand with the dispossession of the land on which African people had subsisted for generations. As land was the basis of the agrarian economy upon which indigenous people depended, their removal from it also severely impoverished them.

Poverty drove mainly male Africans into the wage economy servicing white agriculture and later mining and manufacturing interests.  Indeed, together with the imposition of various taxes, historians see the removal of black people from the land as a means to force them to seek employment at very low wage rates. As most of jobs were in the city and since wage levels would not support entire families, black males became migrant labourers, leaving wives and mothers in charge of the rural household.  Females, children and the elderly would have to survive as best they could on remittances and whatever crops and livestock they were able to cultivate.

It is difficult to assess the reliance on female labour power to sustain pre-colonial societies.  Some evidence exists to suggest that women, in any event, were assigned the tasks of cultivating the fields and drawing water in addition to domestic work and child-rearing whereas the division of labour favoured men working with livestock, engaging in war and homestead protection.[1]  Aside from genuinely hunter-gatherer groups, there is little debate that traditional pastoral African society was patriarchal.  Whatever the case, the removal of men seeking work as migrant labour in the cities would have added even further to the workloads of females remaining behind to sustain villages and farms.

In 1948 the National Party regime in South Africa formally legislated many of colonialism’s exclusions of black people from social, political and economic life.  Apartheid came into being.  The migrant labour system intensified with economically ‘unproductive’ blacks theoretically confined to only 13% of the land in nominally independent bantustans or ‘homelands’.  Notwithstanding this, a number of densely populated ‘townships’ sprang up around centres of economic activity.  These reservoirs of labour were tolerated, although highly regulated, because they were useful to the white economy.  To name but a few, Johannesburg had Soweto and Alexandria, Cape Town had Khayelitsha and Gugulethu, Pretoria had Soshanguve and Mamelodi and East London had Mdantsane.  Where a labour intensive operation such as a mine existed far from an established town, the employer would provide a rudimentary compound in which workers would be housed.  Housing conditions were very poor with many reduced to residing in shanties.

Apartheid as a crime against women too

Under the social conditions described above, not only in South Africa but throughout the black diaspora, it is proposed that black women suffered ‘triple oppression’; first as blacks oppressed by white people, second as women oppressed by patriarchy, and third as members of the working class exploited by capitalists.[2]  Under apartheid the labour market was racially highly segregated, with black people being restricted to do the more menial jobs, requiring little skill and earning low wages. This is well known.  However, the fact that blacks as a group were kept out of most categories of work obscures the fact that sex discrimination was also alive and well under apartheid.  Because of the nature of the labour market, this only becomes clear when one considers the informal job reservation that existed for white women too.

During apartheid, patriarchal attitudes also applied in the labour market.  Many occupations such as law, higher education and engineering supposedly required the manly aptitudes of logic, physical strength or mental fortitude.  While not outright prevented from studying in these fields, women were deliberately streamed into other occupations.  This started already at school where girl learners were not readily permitted to take ‘technical’ subjects.  Male-oriented working environments were also hostile to women who did manage to enter them.  Aside from negative attitudes from male colleagues, facilities often did not cater for female workers, or rules existed that made it exceptionally easy for them to be dismissed for reasons such as marriage, divorce or pregnancy.  Throughout all sectors, a glass ceiling was certainly in place when it came to promotions with the regressive idea that women struggled to exercise leadership holding sway in many, if not most, boardrooms. This exclusion of women from sectors of the economy occurred notwithstanding the fact that the social stereotypes against them were increasingly being debunked as more and more capable women entered the global labour market, particularly in the post-war West.

In certain sectors things were even worse for women as they were legislatively prevented from meaningful entry.  Examples are mining and defense, where laws prevented women from doing most jobs.

Redress after 1994

Viewed against this backdrop, apartheid was not only a racist social order, it was also a sexist one.  That is why, when democracy finally came to South Africa in 1994, law-makers included in legislation the imperative to stop unfair discrimination not only against black people as a class, but as women as a class of their own too.  Section 6 of the Employment Equity Act of 1999 goes so far as to not only outlaw sex or gender discrimination but to also permit preferential treatment to be afforded to women, (along with blacks and people with disabilities) in order to achieve workplace demographics that accord with that of the economically active portion of the population as a whole.  Thus, as a matter of law, all employers were obliged to cease any direct discrimination against women and to identify and remove any occupational barriers that might indirectly stand in their way.  In addition, employers with more than 50 employees, were obliged to go out of their way to attract and retain female employees at every occupational level where there was a deficiency.

Because of past hiring practices, these deficiencies were drastic in mining with no females performing core mining functions, especially underground work.  As already mentioned, the target of female employees large employers were expected to meet was roughly 50%.  One of the most effective methods an employer could use to increase its number of female employees was through affirmative action; that is giving preferential treatment in promotions or appointments to women who might be equal or slightly less capable than a male counterpart.  The idea was that such positive discrimination in favour of a female candidate, although detrimental to the interests of an individual male colleague, served the larger social purpose of redressing past discrimination against the whole group of women.  The same redress was available to black people.  Affirmative action was thus legally permitted up until the point where women, black people with disabilities enjoyed representation in the workplace proportional to their demographic percentage.

The situation in mining

One of the most skewed demographic profiles from the point of view of its male / female split is mining.  Twenty years after democracy women make up only 11% of the operational mining workforce.  Before 1994, underground work was exclusively for males.  Female employees on mines were to be found in human resources, finance or laboratory work above ground.  Even after the coming into being of the Employment Equity Act of 1999, mining was slow to transform.  Relying on a caveat in section 6 of the Employment Equity Act, mining houses argued that females were unable to meet the ‘inherent requirements’ of much of the underground work.  As female employment levels stayed resolutely low, the government increasingly rejected these arguments and insisted on higher levels of female employment, setting targets to rectify the gender imbalances in the industry.  This was done in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 and the Broad-based Socio Economic Charter for the South African Mining Industry of 2004.  The penalty for not meeting these targets ended in the non-renewal of mining licenses.

Under pressure to transform, mines have aggressively recruited female employees.  Even where a suitable male candidate exists, employers would be entitled to prefer a female applicant for a job, indeed they would end up not complying with legislation if they did not.  In the words of a human resource practitioner at Impala Platinum, female miners ‘are like gold.’[3]

While rectifying these imbalances is undoubtedly a just cause, it is also important to assess the possible side effects of the mining industry’s new found enthusiasm for female employees.  The urgency with which the industry seeks to recruit female employees is   ultimately driven by the threat of their losing mining licenses if they do not ‘transform’. However, there are hidden costs associated with mining houses suddenly treating female employees ‘like gold.’  These costs become plain only if one looks past the statistics and focuses on the full human beings involved.

Unintended and un-researched consequences

Even in societies without apartheid, mining is overwhelmingly a male occupation, especially in its core function of drilling into and moving rocks to the surface from deep underground.  To some extent the gender imbalance may make sense.  Underground mine work is particularly strenuous.  It takes place in the most inhospitable conditions, in cramped and dangerous conditions, at temperatures that test the limit of human endurance, with heavy machinery and with scant facilities.  Could this account for women either not choosing or not coping with this work?

At first glance, a statement proposing that any of the above-mentioned conditions constitute a general problem for female employees would seem to reproduce sexist attitudes.  Surely some women may be able to perform under these conditions just as some men would not.  However, saying that a female teacher is unsuitable as a Principal because women lack the required leadership skills to enforce discipline (an obvious canard), is different to saying that the heavy machinery in a mine may, notwithstanding an individual’s capacity to work, be damaging her reproductive health.  The one is a social construct, the other a physical reality.

The associated question then becomes whether the noble goal of opening up sectors of the economy to female participation might, in certain limited areas, harm those female individuals to whom those jobs are offered in unintended ways.  While opening up the economy to women is a noble goal, any unintended harm must be assessed and addressed.  This is what the remainder of this article seeks to do.

Factors affecting female miners

Physical (aerobic) Strength

Despite popular arguments in sections of academia, sexual differences are not all culturally assigned.  As a matter of physiology, the physical work capacity of women is up to 30% lower than that of men.[4]  This is measured by the maximum amount of oxygen intake possible to sustain high intensity work. Mining work, such as digging and drilling, is high intensity physical labour.  To attain the same levels of productivity, women would, physiologically, thus have to work far closer to their maximum possible oxygen intake than men.  This in turn leads to far greater levels of fatigue in women after doing the same work.  This greatly increases the possibility of accidents and injury.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is the dominant trade union in the North West Province’s platinum belt.  Its regional secretary is a woman, Pontsho Sello.  Sello used to work underground as a scrapper winch operator at Impala Platinum.  She describes the most physically demanding jobs as rock-drill operator, winch operator, loco operator and rigger.  She concedes that fewer females than males will be suited to underground work but states that if a female employee has “passion” for the job and is properly trained, she will be able to do it.  ‘But a woman needs more passion than a man’.[5]

This is precisely the insight suggested by aerobic strength differences between men and women.  In an industry where production targets are high and apply equally to men and women, the average female worker who is capable of performing her daily labour properly is nevertheless working far closer to her outer physical limits than the average male.  To use an analogy, the bodies of average male employees performing high intensity work every day behave as if having jogged along the beach.  The bodies of average women feel like they have sprinted the whole way.

The South African mining industry has no data on the long-term effects of such a punishing regimen. Research in associated fields, perhaps sport science, is needed to understand what health risks are associated with a specific class of people working so much closer to their natural limits than others.  Specifically, what dietary steps could be taken to off-set any negative effects in the longer term?  Rest periods may need to be adjusted and physiotherapy provided.

Another measure is to subject all employees to more rigorous pre-employment strength and aerobic screening to ensure that male and female employees are drawn from a pool of those most able to handle high-intensity work.  It sounds a worrying note to state the issue in such starkly capitalist terms, but this would winnow out the frailer employees, or those whose productivity requires too great a physical exertion from them. This would apply to all sexes even if, biologically, it disproportionately excludes more women than men.

Personal Protective Equipment

Mines are inherently dangerous workplaces.  Scarcely a year goes by without several fatalities in mining operations.  Miners must wear a range of PPEs such as safety boots, dust-masks, gloves and overalls. Amcu’s Pontsho Sello is particularly critical of the one-piece design of overalls throughout the industry, made with men in mind.  When a female employee wishes to relieve herself, this means she has to take off the entire garment.  Sello suggests a two-piece overall. It is surprising that this relatively simple accommodation has seemingly not yet been made.  In 2009, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) recommended this change in overall design to at least one mining house, Lonmin. [6]

General Mining Equipment Design

Drills and other equipment are very heavy, historically designed for manipulation by men.  On average, women have about 50% of a male’s upper body strength and three-quarters of a male’s leg strength.  A woman’s lifting strength is two thirds that of a man’s.[7]  Men are also taller than women on average.  Everything from spades to drills is thus a bit too long for average female employees.  Consequently, unless equipment is significantly redesigned, it is to be expected that greater muscular and skeletal strain and possibly injury may result from women using this machinery.

Ergonomic redesign and mass supply of new equipment, however, has financial repercussions that may be difficult to bear in an environment of low resource prices.  This is especially where South African mining houses who must compete with employers in other jurisdictions exempt from having to fund these accommodations.  A question also arises whether to properly accommodate female employees employers would have to redesign the very way a locomotive functions and performs under use.  In the Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Botha, et al, record a female locomotive driver stating:

I don’t have the steam to work at the position that I am working at. I am not strong enough. The job of mine is too hard. We are sweating underground.

The loco is like a train, nè? It’s hard to operate. The steering wheel and everything is hard. The brakes. And to be on it every day, yô, it is hard. When you go on period you have some pains. Your back it pains. And that thing, it vibrates. I’m on it eight hours every day.[9]

The above quote, if reflective of a general problem, would suggest locomotive redesign is necessary to remove a real obstacle to the employment of female miners. Such a laudable human resources goal however would have considerable cost which, in the context of financial challenges in the mining industry, could conceivably tip a marginal shaft into closure. While the unintended consequences of shaft closures as a result of legal compliance is not an argument lightly to be accepted by social justice advocates, the economic reality is that South African companies may elect to do so as a recessionary measure.

Dignity and Reproductive Health

According to Botha and Cronje, female employees report interference with their menstrual cycles when operating certain vibrating machinery.  Women also tend to prefer dark overalls to white overalls ‘for menstrual reasons’, the IFC report states.  This opens a Pandora’s Box since lighter colours, preferably white, are indicated for safety reasons.  In addition, any differentiation in overall colours could signify or entrench gender divisions in the workforce.  Thus, if overalls are changed it would have to be for the whole workforce.  It would be a human resource minefield to communicate to workers as a whole that a safety requirement is being modified to accommodate female employees, although reflector strips might be a solution.

At one level, the seemingly casual manner in which the IFC report seeks to accommodate the fact that female employees menstruate by simply assigning a darker colour overall to them could be seen to be liberating.  It refuses the trope that menstruation is the sort of bodily function that should set women apart or hold them back in performing physical exercise, lest any signs show.  On the other hand, this same cavalier attitude might be seen as insensitively profit-minded, the subtext being that female employees should get on with the job while menstruating rather than attending the bathrooms frequently for hygiene reasons.  It is difficult to find a midway between the poles of a marginalizing preciousness around menstruation and a callous disregard for dignity and privacy about this body function. A second female interviewee, also working underground as a mine overseer, states that she would prefer more ‘public rooms’ for her and her female colleagues and for those to be dedicated to women.[10]  She states that most rock faces or underground sections do not have separate toilet facilities.

In the rush to bring women into underground operations to comply with mining charter targets, companies seem to have lagged behind in an obvious respect; separate ablution facilities. Besides the one-piece overall, Sello’s other complaint was that toilets underground are unisex.  Privacy is limited and ‘you don’t know who is behind you.’  There is thus a psychological downside to the entry of women into mining operations.  At present, female employees must adjust their sense of privacy considerably.  The same is probably true of male employees too socialized to expect privacy in respect of members of the opposite sex. This would however seem to be an aspect easily addressed by the employer.

Mines are no places for pregnant women, especially those operating heavy machinery. This is why pregnant (and lactating) women are moved to the surface to perform work there.  However, since this risk of a foetus detaching from the uterus is highest in the first trimester of a pregnancy, the damage may already be done before an employee knows that she was pregnant.  One response by mining employers was to recruit women who are not of child-bearing age.  This solution carries with it the serious limitation that older employees, are generally, not as strong.  Sello says that most women recruited to work underground throughout the Platinum industry are of child-bearing age.  It seems reasonable then that companies subjecting women to activities that could cause a pregnancy to terminate should bear the cost of early-pregnancy testing for those employees wishing to make use of this service.  In addition detailed birth-control advice should be provided.

Social Expectation to Submit to Work

The IFC Women in Mining study acknowledges that the imperative to transform means that a premium may have to be paid to attract female employees.  This is likely to apply only in job categories where there is a shortage of skills.  Nevertheless, even for entry level jobs women are given preference over and equally situated men.  This has a distorting effect on local labour markets especially around mines situated at a distance from big towns or cities in locations with relatively few inhabitants.

With mines very actively seeking, training, recruiting and preferring female employees, the mine overseer interviewee reported an impression that needs further research.  This is that social pressure is now applied by husbands, siblings, parents for female family members to submit themselves for underground work where this expectation never existed before.  ‘Now you can be told you are lazy’, she comments. She continues: ‘We do these jobs because of the money, poverty. No-one wants to do them but now the company is attracting ladies. If you don’t also go, your boyfriend who is not working, he looks at you funny.’

Patriarchal attitudes excluded women from mining work in the past on the basis that this kind of work was not suited to their sex.  Women who wished to work in this sector were thus discriminatorily kept out.  The laudable push for transformation has seen mines recently place a premium on female employees who are ‘like gold.’  A possible unintended consequence is that a sort of reverse social engineering could remove from some women a protection from which they benefited.  This is the social idea that some tasks were not fitting a woman’s status is society, regardless of her physical capacity to do it.

The well-advertised, progressive idea that mining is open to women could have repercussions for those women who do not wish to subject themselves to mining work because it feels unsuited to their gender, maternal duties and tolerance for risk.  This is that they will face increasing pressure to nevertheless do so.  It has been said that in capitalism’s progressive sweep, the fixed, frozen relations of patriarchy with its ‘train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away.’ Might it be that some of these opinions benefited at least some women from having to partake of certain objectively horrible working conditions?

It is easy to dismiss ideas like these, even if held by women themselves, as anti-feminist, conservative or outdated.  However something seems amiss when a government, through legislation, encourages women to take up objectively harsh work in mines but does not also simultaneously provide them with a proper social wage for their role in reproducing society, thus enabling their refusal of such work.  The result could well be that yet another task is added to their long list: mother, domestic and miner.

Although the cure of communism is in significant doubt, there appears to be something still of value in Marx’s assessment of the disease: ‘The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and woman is at last compelled to face with sober senses her real conditions of life, and her relations with her kind.’[11]

Thandi Dlamini is an independent African journalist and writer. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications in Europe and across the continent.


[1] See Lambert, J, “The Homestead Economy in Colonial Natal”, in South Africa’s Environmental History, eds Dovers and Edgecombe, Ohio University Press, 2002

[2] see Smith, C, Preaching as Weeping: Confession and Resistance, John Knox Press, 1992, p120

[3] Interview 7 January 2016, Siesta Single Quarters, Rustenburg.

[4] Schutte, P.C., Edwards, A., and Milanzi, L.A. 2012. How hard do mineworkers work? An assessment of workplace stress associated with routine mining activities.

[5] Telephone interview, 13 January 2016

[6] IFC, Women in Mining, A Guide to Integrating Women Into the Workforce,

[7] see Botha, D, Occupational Health and Safety Considerations for Women Employed in Core Mining Operations, South African Human Resource Management Journal, 2015,

[8] Botha, D and Crinje J, The physical ability of women in mining: Can they show muscle?,

[10] 7 January 2016, Siesta Single Quarters, Rustenburg. The interviewee requested that her name not be used.

[11] Gender changed in quote.

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