It’s time for diversity quotas. Here’s why

Diversity quotas that encourage more women into mining are the industry’s best hope for conquering the skills shortage while leveraging the benefits of a diverse workforce.

As mining struggles under the weight of an ongoing skills shortage, there’s a lot of talk about how to encourage more women into the industry. While there are abundant job opportunities, that’s not translating into an abundant uplift in the number of women working in mining. According to Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, mining was Australia’s least diverse sector in 2022, with just 20 per cent of the workforce being women. While that’s more women than ever before (Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show numbers of women employed full-time in mining from 2002 to 2022 rose almost 420 per cent, from 8,700 to 45,000), it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for diversity.

While many mining companies talk the talk on diversity, there is often a strong resistance when it comes to introducing gender-based quotas for recruitment. The argument very quickly becomes about merit. It’s a fascinating topic and one I’ve seen play out firsthand in a hundred different ways, so I wanted to bust a few myths and open up the discussion around quotas and why they’re a tool that mining could benefit from right now.

The trouble with merit

Let’s tackle the alternative to quotas first. The trouble with merit is although it sounds objective, it’s a slippery concept. What does it mean? What does it look like? Who defines it? These things are open to interpretation, and that matters. As Lisa Williams, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of New South Wales, explains: “Merit has to be evaluated, and hence measured against metrics, which themselves are subject to bias. How an individual performs on various metrics is determined not just by their abilities, but also by the opportunities they’ve had to demonstrate and develop those abilities. The problem here is that opportunity isn’t equal across genders. Men and women are ‘tapped on the shoulder’ for different roles, often in accordance with stereotypes”.

Workplace Gender Strategist Dr Jennifer De Vries also explains that while merit sounds like it means “the best person for the job”, in reality it often means “let’s fill the vacancy with someone who looks exactly like the person who was in the role before”.

“When defined by the dominant group,” she says, merit is likely to lead to “the maintenance of the status quo”.

Why diversity matters

Before I move on to discussing quotas, a quick note around why diversity matters. I feel like this is fairly well-known these days, so I won’t dwell on it, but a lack of diversity in a team can lead to:

  • Groupthink, a lack of innovation and missed opportunities for growth
  • A homogenous, and even toxic, culture
  • Limited role models for those of diverse backgrounds
  • Tone-deaf or discriminatory practices or behaviour going unchecked
  • Potential candidates not seeing a place for themselves inside your organisation.

The argument for quotas

Quotas are a way to nudge the recruitment task in a direction that leads to a more diverse workforce, helping avoid and alleviate some of the potential traps above.

In terms of creating opportunities for women, we know they work. Norway introduced a quota of 40 per cent of women on listed company boards in 2005. The country went from 3 per cent of board roles being filled by women in 1992 to 40 per cent in 2009. The Government is now rolling out mandatory quotas for mid- and large-tier private companies, as well. The current proportion of women on boards of private companies? Twenty per cent. The proportion two decades ago? Fifteen per cent. Compare the two data sets and it is clear that quotas make a difference to opportunities for women.

The argument against quotas

The argument I hear most often against introducing quotas is that they are artificial. Well, my view is that almost every decision you make in business is artificial. You set boundaries, parameters and KPIs, and you make decisions based on an ideal or intended outcome. It’s the result that matters. If anything, this article is really a clarion call for our industry to consider the wider context of “the result” of using quotas to get more women into mining.

I’ve seen the benefits of diversity on a board firsthand. Our own board used to be 50-50. Due to circumstances, it has changed over time and for a while there we were 100 per cent male. Currently, we’ve only got one woman on our senior leadership team. So, I’ve seen how innovative and energetic a board can be when there are diverse perspectives around the table and the opposite when there isn’t. It’s something every company can benefit from.

While a quota is an artificial parameter, the potential benefits are very real.

Quotas are the key to unlocking the benefits of diversity

A quota is the key to unlocking the benefits of a diverse workforce.

Consider two candidates, one male (who is rating about a nine on your merit-based criteria) and one female (who is rating a 7.5 on your merit-based criteria). While the male candidate might technically seem the better candidate, the female candidate might also:

  • Provide a new perspective that improves decision-making
  • Help create a more inclusive culture
  • Provide a role model for women elsewhere in the business
  • Encourage female candidates to apply for roles, because they can see a place for themselves in your company.

These are benefits which feel intangible in the recruitment process but very real when the person is in the role and making a positive impact. You’re getting something well beyond technical expertise (as important as that is).

Intelligence is also intangible. Are you talking IQ or EQ?

In my view, the quota might be artificial, but that doesn’t matter if you get a better outcome. In our business, recruitment and search, it is a very KPI driven game; sales calls, interviews conducted, etc, however I know plenty of recruiters who make hundreds of these supposed essential KPIs but are less successful than recruiters who get away with meeting a quarter of the same KPI’s. Why?

  • Is it experience?
  • Is it an enhanced innate ability to truly “hear” the person on the other end of the phone?
  • Is it a higher ability to tune in, eek out objections and deal with them early in the process?


Quotas could be a way forward for many businesses

Norway’s example shows us what can be achieved with quotas. If the industry’s goal is to get more women into mining (and it should be—we’re not going to solve the skills shortage without them), then it’s time we seriously considered quotas as a means of opening opportunities and recruiting the talent we so desperately need. And it’s not just on boards, it’s leading hands, supervisors, managers, GM’s and C suiters. It generally has to start at the top though.

If you need some help putting your team together, come and chat with the Intelligent Recruiters at MPI. We will do whatever you ask us to do, as long as it is ethical, however, we ‘will’ encourage stretch thinking.  

Steve Heather signature
Steve Heather – BAppSc (Mining Engineering) WASM, FRCSA

Managing Director & Principal Executive Search - Mining People International (MPi)

Fellow/National Board Member – Recruitment, Consulting & Staffing Association Aust. & N.Z. (RCSA)

[email protected]