This study explores the life stories of eight women in the South African mining industry; four older women in senior managerial positions and four younger women who have recently acquired a technical mining-related qualification that should place them on the path to management. A major goal was to understand how the women came to their careers in mining, the field being a non-traditional choice for women. The study also aimed to explore how working in a male-dominated industry affected their current life experiences and future aspirations. Life story interviews were conducted to trace the journeys they took to their present positions. The stories collected were then analysed using qualitative thematic analysis through Atlas.ti, to derive patterns in the accounts collected, as well as any differences that may exist between the two groups of women.
The results indicate that each woman’s life story is unique. However, significant patterns were found during the analysis. Both the younger and older women were raised in nuclear family structures, consisting of two parents and one or more siblings. Both groups of women also displayed a high affinity towards academics and performed well throughout their basic education years, while displaying a specific interest in the scientific- and technically-related fields. This was then followed by attendance of a higher education institution, with continued high performance. At this point most of the women entered the mining industry, through a bursary from a mining company requiring them to work back the bursary as an employee of the company. The participants all have a high level of ambition and desire to succeed in their respective professions. The results provided insight on how early life and other influences shaped the women’s career choices.
Although the participants were diverse in their method of entry into the mining industry and the motivations or factors that have thus far kept them there, their workplace experiences have been similar, even though their reactions to them varied. They faced challenges related to being respected professionals despite their gender, career delays, sacrificing femininity to conform to a masculine environment, and exposure to overt sexual harassment. These challenges and experiences have been a source of growth for some, mainly in the older cohort, and a signal to exit the industry for others, mainly in the younger cohort. This explains to an extent why the technically qualified women-miner statistics have remained stagnant, since half the women are leaving the industry as fast as they are entering. Overall, the results of the research paint a bleak picture of the leadership and professional pipeline for women in mining. The implications of these findings for research and organisations in South Africa are discussed.