Curtin alumna Alex Atkins was part of the first wave of mining women in Australia. She was the first female District Inspector of Mines at the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum, and the first female mining engineer to work at an underground mine in Papua New Guinea. Her competence, courage, positivity and dogged determination have seen her reach the top of her field, and become an inspiration for women everywhere.
Until 1986, women were not legally permitted to work in underground mines in Western Australia and Queensland, so when Atkins graduated from Curtin WA School of Mines in January 1990 with a Bachelor of Engineering in mineral exploration and mining geology, she faced a male-dominated industry with many barriers.
Now Director of The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM), and Manager of Risk Advisory Services at Deloitte, as well as a mother of two children, Atkins’ experience in the industry can only be described as rich, extensive, adventurous and challenging.
“Women were not legally permitted in underground mines until 1986 in WA and Queensland, and were still not legally permitted to work underground in PNG in the mid-nineties, so there were a lot of concrete obstacles and superstitious attitudes to overcome when I worked underground in these locations. I basically never gave up,” says Atkins.
Atkins’ can-do attitude saw her overcome myriad moments throughout her career where the entrenched views of her co-workers threatened to stifle her progression.
“On one occasion in 1987, I turned up at a remote mining town to work for my Christmas break after having been hired as a vacation student (thanks to having a boy’s name).
“When I turned up at the office, the manager tried to put me back on the bus saying there was nowhere for me to stay as they only had ‘single men’s quarters’ (SMQ). I promptly located the local parish priest, who found me a local family who offered me a bed in their garden shed for the summer holidays – and my job was secured!”
Atkins first discovered her passion for geology through her high school science teacher who taught the class about volcanoes, and an inspirational visit from WA School of Mines student, Steve Norregard, with whom Atkins is still a friend.
“[Norregard] made us aware of the opportunities to study [at WA School of Mines] in geology, mining engineering, metallurgy or surveying,” says Atkins. “I was really looking forward to leaving home and felt the need to spread my wings and be independent.”
After she finished her degree in mining geology, Atkins worked for two years as a mine and exploration geologist in Queensland. She then returned to university at the University of Queensland (UQ) to study mining engineering (Atkins wanted to study at WA School of Mines but was knocked back by the then principal).
Shortly after graduating from UQ, Atkins was offered a position to work as an underground mining engineer at Porgera Mine in Papua New Guinea. The experience transformed Atkins’ understanding of the industry and also cemented her values of social justice and sustainability.
“I required ministerial approval to work underground in the New Guinea highlands, which I later learnt was taboo,” explains Atkins.
“As their first female underground mining engineer, I saw the best and the worst of our industry and how it operates in third world countries. I saw the aftermath of army raids, village riots, murder, rape and other forms of stone-age violence. Through my experiences I discovered my values; feeling physically sick when my values were stomped on.”
While working in Papua New Guinea, Atkins decided to obtain her First Class Mine Manager’s Certificate (FCMMC), but was told by a colleague that she would never be a mine manager.
“This was a red flag to a bull and gave me a great deal of determination to press on. In order to get [the required amount of] underground time as a miner, I had to return to Australia, as the minister wasn’t prepared to set a precedent [by] allowing me to labour underground and [potentially] open the flood gates for all women in PNG to work underground,” recalls Atkins.
Returning to Australia, she undertook 18 months of “hard yakka” to fulfil the labour requirement of the FCMMC, starting at Osborne Mine in Queensland on mobile equipment, then moved to Mount Morgans mine in WA to work as an airleg miner seconded to HWE contractors.
Atkins enjoyed the challenging work and developed close bonds with several of her colleagues, particularly the airleg miners, who she remains friends with today. When she finished working at the Mount Morgans Mine, Atkins’ shift boss wrote her a glowing reference letter, saying she had “completely turned him around to supporting women working in underground mines.”
“Overall, I think I made a positive difference for those coming behind me wherever I worked,” says Atkins on how she helped transform the attitudes of her co-workers towards women in mining.
She believes the industry has greatly improved for today’s female graduates, as the sentiment that existed pre 1986 towards women in mining has mostly dissipated. In 2015, women made up 12.9 per cent of the mining workforce.
“Today you can go to a mine site and find women performing roles like mine managers, supervisors, drillers, plant operators and shot firers,” she says.
The number of women in mining engineering may be rising, however, raising a family while working in mining still remains a challenge.
“The mining industry is still based on the ‘male model of work’ (long hours and travel). It’s necessary to be very flexible, agile and hard working to stay in the game,” she says.
Atkins’ says her parents have been her lifeline and helped her to balance family and work responsibilities.
“My family have been my biggest supporters, helping me to continue to aim high, remaining dogged in my determination not to give up and do something easier.”
The Australian government recently recognised the need to vastly improve the balance of gender within many STEM-related industries (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As part of its National Innovation and Science Agenda, the federal government has invested $13 million over the next five years to encourage women to take up and stay within STEM-related careers.
“I would like to see our leaders create authentically inclusive cultures,” comments Atkins. “Unconscious bias training often helps us realise we all have ‘mind-bugs’ based on generations of social conditioning, which we need to correct.
“Research shows inclusive heterogeneous teams are more likely than homogenous teams to make better decisions and avoid ‘groupthink’.”
There is no doubt that Atkins is one woman who has already made a significant contribution to changing attitudes and ideas about women’s abilities to be mining engineers and managers, and indeed to perform any job not traditionally performed by women.
“Being in the first wave of mining women, I was and still am a pioneer, a rebel with a cause,” smiles Atkins. “I have had to overcome lots of obstacles, make sacrifices and occasionally go into battle. I chose to do things the hard way because I had a point to make: women can do it too. Was it worth it? When I look into my children’s eyes, especially my daughter’s, yes it was.”