Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TechnoratiSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn

By Virginia Heffernan

Elsa Nielsen, a 33-year-old gold miner, wants more women to join her on the front line. The Timmins native worked summers underground to finance her fine arts degree, then experimented with a career in high finance. But mining life was a powerful familial draw. What she didn’t expect was the resistance she would encounter from men underground.

Rather than serve as a deterrent, though, the tiresome questions and comments about her sexual orientation, ability to conceive and attractiveness ("you’re pretty, you know, you don’t have to do this") just made her more determined. After junior co-workers leapfrogged over her for the job of narrow vein production miner, she entered herself in a jackleg drilling competition in her northern Ontario community. She placed 7th, beating more than half of the experienced men. Despite more pushback, she was eventually trained and certified as a production miner eligible to earn up to $110 per hour (including production bonuses). For the most part, her male co-workers have grown to respect her.

Elsa is now advocating for change in the 19th century underground culture so other women will not have to endure what she did. She recently spoke to the Women in Mining’s Toronto branch about how it can help. I caught up with Elsa after her presentation:

Q: What was your previous work and what attracted you back to the mining life?

A: I had graduated from York University with a fine arts degree but found myself working outside of my field in high finance, eventually as an offshore investment accountant. My work was high pressure and fast paced, but it wasn't satisfying at all. I'm a creative individual and I was stuck in a number-crunching job. At the time, if you were to ask what my all-time favourite job was, my answer would have been my summer student jobs in the mines up north.

Q: Why did you persevere given how difficult you found the environment?

A: I love the work. The job uses all of the tactile skills I find satisfying. From an artist's point of view, a driller is essentially a sculptor. You have to be a visual thinker, imagining where the collar of a hole is compared to where the toe of the hole will be, how all of your drill holes will line up, and how the rock will blast. I love the physical aspect of my work. I love being able to look back at my heading and see what I've accomplished. I love the work-life balance with five days off at a time, two weekends off a month, and awesome pay. But furthermore, I persevered in my struggles to become a female driller because someone had to. It's far too easy to believe "she can't do it" or "she's not strong enough". I wanted to be a firsthand example that contradicts those views.

Q: Why do you think there is such a disconnect between head office intentions of gender equality and the reality on the front line?

A: I have full faith that, on a corporate level, the development of women is a priority. But the bottom line is that corporate managers lack front-line experience. They don't know the challenges because they've never worked underground and most of them are not women. The work culture in an office environment is very different from the front line and the tools used to change the culture in an office are not useful enough.

Q: What recommendations do you have for mining companies hoping to improve working conditions for women underground?

A: The solution is multi faceted but, for starters, there is a difference between giving a woman permission to be underground and pursuing her for the job. Make the work environment hospitable to women if you are serious about having them as long-term employees. Provide the necessary sanitary products. Provide proper soaps and shampoos in the locker rooms that don't burn a woman's skin. Provide solutions for bathroom breaks such as feminine urination devices (that allow women to stand while urinating). Stress the importance of hydration; dehydration is not a solution for the lack of bathroom facilities. Spread awareness to your front-line supervisors of what unconscious bias is. Train them to make good decisions.

Q: What advice do you have for young women pursuing a career underground?

A: Don't let politics get in the way of a job that you love. Work hard – men on the front line will always respect hard work regardless of gender. Have a good sense of humour because underground can be a really fun place full of camaraderie. Pick your battles, no one likes someone with a constant chip on their shoulder. But above all, take notes. Document everything so you can be your own advocate.

More gems from Virginia:

Virginia Heffernan is a former exploration geologist who met her Welsh husband when they were both working on a gold project in Namibia. They live in Toronto with their teenage son. Virginia mostly stays put these days (she's now a freelance writer and member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada), but Roger continues on his global quest for the next big ore deposit. To check out Virginia's work, visit