At her first summer mining job, while an engineering student at the University of Toronto, Samantha Espley was one of four women—of 10 students—hired on at Falconbridge’s Keno Gold Mine in Val d’Or, Que. It wasn’t until later that it dawned on her how unique it was to work with that many other women.
“I didn’t really think much of it at the time until after I realized how few women there really were to choose from,” said Sudbury-based Espley, who was the only woman in her engineering class. “So it was quite a neat experience.”
After graduating, Stan Bharti, who would later bestow Laurentian University’s engineering school with a $10-million endowment, interviewed Espley for her position at Falconbridge, where she remained for a few years before hiring on at Inco (now Vale). Since then, she’s worked in research, been a general foreman underground, acted as superintendent of business systems, and served as manager of nickel services for mining operations. She’s currently the general manager for mines and technical services.
In March, in recognition of her achievements, Espley was awarded the second annual National Trailblazer Award from Women in Mining Canada, an organization that focuses on advancing the interests of women in the minerals exploration and mining sector.
Of the roles she’s held during her 25-year career, Espley said her favourite remains hard-rock mining, for the challenge of the technical work and the evolving nature of the business.
“We’re always mining and depleting the ore zone and we’re chasing to the next zone, so it’s always changing,” she said. “It’s something new every day and you have the ability to make decisions to make things better. You have the ability to influence what happens every day, and in a positive way—the safety, the production. You feel a very strong sense of reward at the end of every shift.”
She’s often found herself the only woman in a group of men, but Espley said her experience in the industry has been overwhelmingly positive. Often she had to overcome her own anxieties about the job she was doing: was she being assertive enough? Was she being too soft?
“I really haven’t had any role models that are women in my field, so it’s been difficult to find my way,” Epsley said. “But there have been a number of men in the business who have been extremely supportive as formal mentors, and who have really been helpful in working through some of those personal anxieties that I’ve had.”
Advancements in the industry have made mining a more attractive career option for women, Espley said. She points to Vale’s progressive policies surrounding parental leave, top-ups to benefits and recruitment efforts as examples of how companies are recognizing the value of women in the workplace.
With the introduction of better mechanized equipment, even the physical demands associated with mining have changed.
“So you’re able to work underground now, because you’re driving trucks; you’re not having to pick up a 120-pound jackleg drill,” she said. “There are definitely roles that the women can do as much as the men. That’s been a steady improvement over the last 20 years.”
Up-and-coming female workers should be aware of the variety of roles open to them, Espley said. Whether they work directly in mining, or for a service and supply company, women can find meaningful work without hitting a glass ceiling. And their presence can be a great contribution.
“I think that women offer a different perspective and they bring different approaches to problem-solving,” Espley said. “They look at the needs of the business in different ways than the men do and just add a diversity that brings about better solutions to our problems. I would say that it’s a great industry for a woman to consider.”
It helps to have a support network, through friends, family and organizations like Women in Science and Engineering, Women in Mining, or the Canadian Institute of Mining.
Perhaps Espley’s best counsel came from a former colleague at Vale who advised her to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
They’re words she’s tried to live by and ones she passes on to the next generation.
“Push your limits, and try different things to get out of your comfort zone; grow as a person and pursue different opportunities at the end of the day,” Espley said. “You’ll be amazed at the satisfaction you’ll have personally and that of your team.”