HISTORICALLY a male-dominated industry, the mining sector is slowly opening up to women.
The skills and competence levels of women have not only put them at par with their male counterparts in the last few years, but mining companies and the government have recognised the importance of gender equality in the sector.
The industry has been the bedrock of Namibia's economy since the turn of the century, and according to statistics from the Chamber of Mines of Namibia, the mining industry generated N$18,52 billion in 2012 and N$20,93 billion in 2013.
According to Inge Zaamwani-Kamwi, the Namdeb chief executive officer, the greatest challenge women in the mining sector face is the lack of female role models.
Perhaps the first female to enter the industry at senior management level, Zaamwani-Kamwi said she was initially given a hard time by some of her male colleagues as they considered her to be an 'outsider.'
"Traditionally, the practice was that you rose through the hierarchy to senior levels, and being part of the "inner circle" qualified you to be considered for the most senior position," she said. "Not having followed the traditional way, I was therefore seen as an unwelcome outsider who was to be kept isolated and only given what was deemed as necessary information for me to fulfill my role and only upon request."
Zaamwani-Kamwi said the real discussions would take place behind the scenes in her absence.
"I however decided to tackle the challenge head-on by advising some of my colleagues privately that I wanted us to work as a team and if they felt uncomfortable with my presence within the team, they had a choice to leave."
She said after the suspicion and mistrust were removed, mutual respect set in and they became a great team pulling in one direction.
Given the nature of the industry, Zaamwani-Kamwi said certain policies and procedures were biased against women but things are much more different now.
"The industry has become more open and accommodative," she stated. "Most mining companies are going the extra mile to make graduates entering the sector feel welcome by creating a conducive and enriching environment which adequately complements their career aspirations."
Zaamwai-Kamwi said although the gender profile within the mining sector is still predominantly male, they continue to seek out young and qualified women to work for Namdeb.
"Of course, one must not do so at the expense of qualified and competent men but where one has two candidates with equal competencies and energy, we would give preference to the woman in line with the Affirmative Action legislation," she said.
Zaamwani-Kamwi said Namdeb understands that inclusion and diversity in the fullest sense of the words can add value to business.
"We identified the gap and seized the opportunity to promote the fields of metallurgy, mining and geology as we realised that there were few women in these disciplines," she said.
The mining sector, she said, is an exciting industry that "gives us the opportunity to unearth the potential that lies deep within mother earth with which the country builds infrastructure as part of our socio-economic agenda".
To do so, she added, the mining sector needs more women so that it can have a more balanced approach and bring a touch of femininity to it.
"It provides a great career development opportunity that stretches us to our full potential," said Zaamwani-Kamwi.
She encouraged female graduates and young professionals to assert themselves and not be intimidated, while at the same time avoid adopting masculine characters contrary to their femininity.
"Be the woman you are meant to be and work hard to put your mark everywhere you get assigned to," she said.
Charnelle Fortuin, a senior metallurgist at Elizabeth Bay Mine, said professionalism and the contribution to the development of the mining sector should be the focus in the industry and not an individual's gender.
Fortuin, who started her career with Namdeb in 2012, said she has always been fascinated by the sector.
"I have never been fond of looking at anything and not understanding how it works or how it was calculated or determined. During high school studying science, I'd often come across the phrase 'as designed by scientists and engineers', and I always thought to myself, 'who are these people?'. I came to realise that they are the ones responsible for having such colossal impact on the world.
"I wanted to be like them by being involved with complex projects which had a tangible benefit. I knew at a very young age that mining was a major contributor to the Namibian economy, and a career in mining would therefore be relevant," she stated.
Fortuin said the options and opportunities in the mining sector are endless. "Daily exposure includes the most technical to the other end of the spectrum of resource management and leadership."
She said within the mining sector, one can work either as production manager or mine manager, but there are many other options available.
"This career choice also does not confine you to the mining industry as engineers are increasingly being employed in other sectors such as banking," stated Fortuin.
She started her career with Namdeb as a fresh graduate in 2012 after completing a Bachelor's degree in Materials Science & Metallurgical Engineering and an Honours degree in the same subjects at the University of Pretoria.
For Fortuin, the pressure of a career choice in the mining sector came at an early age, when at 12, she went to the Rossing Uranium Mine on a group tour and years later, as a Grade 11 pupil.
"During breaks at school, I was frantically paging through a career book, detailing careers from A-Z. Nothing struck my interest until I came across metallurgical engineering. What a big word, I thought. After reading the description, I was sold. I closed the book, not paging any further and a few weeks later saw bursary advertisements in a local newspaper. I applied and the rest is history," she said.
Erenstine Endjala, a plant metallurgist at the Red Area Complex - Namdeb's new state-of-the-art recovery unit - has been working in mining for eight years.
She says having to prove herself as being capable of doing what is generally done by male metallurgists is one of the most challenging aspects of her work.
Asked what encouraged her to join the mining industry, Endjala who has a BTech in Extractive Metallurgy, says she is generally intrigued by the unknown.
"It was something new for me that I wanted to explore and every day I continue to find it interesting," she explained.
There is a huge challenge in the mining industry to introduce and ensure full incorporation of women with companies such as Swakop Uranium, the company that runs the Husab Mine.
According to Husab Mine chief executive officer Keping Zheng, "preference in terms of jobs in this male-dominated industry is given to women".
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