By Rachel Pannett
PORT HEDLAND, Australia -- In this sprawling port in Western Australia's remote Pilbara region, Sammy Petrucco this year swapped managing a dental practice for operating a ship loader that pours tons of iron ore onto awaiting ships.
Some days, she climbs inside a Ferris wheel-size scoop that loads the ore from piles in the stockyard onto a conveyor belt, to clean out the chutes.
"I've been to some really nice hotels and day spas in my life," Ms. Petrucco said, "but changing out of head-to-toe mud and sweat at 3 a.m. and into a clean uniform -- I didn't know luxury until that moment."
Ms. Petrucco is the kind of worker sought by Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton Ltd., one of the world's biggest mining companies, as it aims to achieve a 50%-female workforce by 2025, up from just over 20% now.
A former banker, pharmacist and hairdresser are among more than 1,800 women who have joined BHP in the past year, many leaving jobs in air-conditioned buildings for the dust and heat of the Outback.
At a BHP railcar repair shop outside Port Hedland, women make up 30% of the workforce of around 200, a jump from just 5% in June 2016.
BHP's rivals, including mining giants Vale SA and Rio Tinto PLC, also have diversity hiring programs. At a time when robots and automation have transformed many heavy-lifting jobs into computer-directed tasks, female recruits with science or engineering degrees are proving they are as equipped as men to compete for high-paying mine jobs.
Politicians, investors and organizations like the United Nations have been nudging companies toward greater gender diversity. Since 2012, big companies in Australia have been required by law to provide annual updates on how many women they employ and their pay.
With more women in the workforce, mines perform better and with fewer injuries, said Mike Henry, president of BHP's Australian operations. The company's 10 most-diverse mines outperformed other sites by about 15% over the past three years in output and meeting maintenance schedules, he said.
Rio Tinto's most diverse operation, the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in Mongolia, is one of its safest and has less wear and tear on mining equipment, according to a 2016 company sustainability report. Just over a quarter of the mine's employees are women. Rio didn't respond to requests for comment.
Brazilian mining giant Vale started a gender-equality project in 2011 to bolster the proportion of female workers from 11%. The project, which included mentoring women in Brazil and developing safety glasses to fit women's faces, hardly moved the dial. The percentage of women in Vale's workforce in 2016 was 12%.
Vale said it has been easier to recruit women into office jobs, where they fill about 40% of the 14,000 staff positions in areas such as legal, communications and human resources. Most recently opened positions are in remote locations and in fields historically considered better suited to men, such as mechanic, electrician and welder, according to Desiê Ribeiro, Vale's executive manager of education and talent management.
Globally, men continue to occupy most mining industry jobs at all levels. Women's pay lags behind men's, and a macho culture persists in many mining towns. In the industry's executive ranks, women in 2016 made up 9% of board members at the top 30 mining and metals companies by market capitalization, according to a Ernst & Young report published in July -- well below the average 22% of board members at S&P 500 companies found in an analysis of 2017 proxy statements by Spencer Stuart, an executive-recruitment firm.
Female participation in mining In Australia, a resources superpower feeding China's demand for iron ore, copper and coal, is around 16% of roughly 222,000 workers, up from 14% two years ago. Overall employment in the industry has fallen amid a downturn in commodity prices. While women in the industry earn an average 15% less than their male counterparts, that pay gap is narrower than two years ago when it was 18%, government data show.
Mining isn't an easy sell to many women. The women's health clinic in Port Hedland offers advice on coping with isolation and domestic violence. It runs a needle exchange for drug users. Bikini-clad waitresses serve drinks at one of the handful of local bars.
But change is coming to mining camps, where fly-in, fly-out workers live for weeks on the outskirts of dusty Outback towns. Fences around swimming pools shield bathers from onlookers, fitness facilities have been expanded for women, and companies such as BHP have introduced yoga areas and flexible work schedules.
"For me, it was a bit intimidating to start with because this is, or was, a male environment," said Crystal Samata, 24 years old, who cared for the elderly and disabled before joining a BHP maintenance crew at Whaleback, the world's biggest open-pit iron-ore mine in the Pilbara region. Now, she says, her co-workers are like family: Some days the guys bring in eggs from their backyard flocks. On weekends, they go swimming in remote Outback water holes.
At Port Hedland, the male-female balance is shifting. Some 31% of port production roles -- such as operators of ship loaders -- are held by women, up from 25% in fiscal 2016. Retaining female recruits is another battle: Overall attrition for female workers was around 15.5% in fiscal 2017 versus 9.8% for men, though the gap has narrowed in recent years.
Ms. Petrucco says she has no plans to leave. Her only regret, she said, is that she didn't change careers earlier, "because I just love it."
Write to Rachel Pannett at [email protected]