Words by Sue Slater
Consultant Geologist and Exceptional Woman
in Exploration Award Winner 2019
As a geologist for almost 40 years now, when people ask me what it’s like to work in a traditionally male-dominated workplace I always say: “Well I love my job and I really enjoy the environment.” I’m down to earth, I’ll say what I think and for the most part, people appreciate that.
And to be honest, it’s all I know.
I’m a firm believer that people should do what they love. When it comes to gender diversity, there’s this idea of needing equal representation, but I think we need to bear in mind that sometimes it might not happen, because it’s only equal representation when it’s something that people equally want.
And we shouldn’t be pushing women into careers they aren’t interested in just for the sake of gender parity.
I wanted to be a geologist as young as six years old. I was mad about rocks. And I do remember at the time getting a lot of comments saying it was “not a girl’s job” and, apart from my parents, there wasn’t a lot of active encouragement at school to pursue something that was seen as a bit eccentric for a girl at the time.
But I did. And the first time I went out to a drilling rig I fell in love with it and I knew this was definitely what I wanted to do.
Passion and equality is the way forward
I believe we need to support people to study what they’re passionate about and engaged in – and focus on that – and then offer genuinely equal opportunity to participate in the workforce and equal opportunity to advance. Positive discrimination doesn’t do anybody any favours – or help the cause, because the best person for the job should get it.
But diversity has certainly improved at the higher education level since I studied geology in 1980, which is probably a natural evolution. There were only three females in my class and, in the years that followed, sometimes only one. I know through the work I do with Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia, we have quite a lot to do with students and we’ve certainly seen the number of women entering the industry on the rise, which is promising.
The reality is that to get parity in the workforce there needs to be parity and equality all the way through the system. And it needs to start in school. We need to show children they can have every opportunity open to them. Boys can be nurses. And girls can be scientists. We need to stop pidgeon-holing people into career paths or choices based on gender. That’s the only way forward.
More options makes balancing work and home easier
The most telling thing that’s changed in the industry over the past 40 years is that there are so many options now. In the late ’80s, after I finished my 12 months of maternity leave, the only choice I had was to come back full time or not come back at all. There was no option to come back part-time or work from home or potentially job-share – all of which are available to people now, which is wonderful.
Of course this is partly facilitated by the rise of computer technology and being able to communicate and work remotely, and still be in a virtual office to engage in the workforce. But it’s also about a change in perceptions and employers being more flexible. That’s probably the biggest improvement I’ve seen.
I remember in my first interviews for work positions when I was straight out of university, I was asked if I wanted to have children. My friends all faced the same question, as women. There’s absolutely no way that would happen today, which is so important. And there should certainly never be assumptions made. It’s a personal choice and a private one at that.
Advice for women in the industry
I’d always planned to be at home until my kids went to school. That’s what I wanted to do. But it’s not what everyone wants to do and that’s absolutely OK. It’s up to each individual to decide and do what’s right for them. I ended up having a much longer break than I had expected due to other circumstances but I don’t regret that.
Through my own experience, I’ve come to understand that if you do take time off work when you have a family, you’re still an engineer or a geologist or whatever career path you’ve chosen. You don’t just stop being that because you’ve stopped working. And don’t put yourself down or feel guilty because you’ve taken a break.
I’m also a big believer in using that time to get involved in other things. For example, I got involved in lots of local committees and sporting organisations and in hindsight, those experiences gave me lots of transferable skills when I returned to the workforce.
It helped me learn to manage people, manage meetings and events, and I was more confident to speak out and say what I thought was right. So you can always be learning new skills and gaining new experiences to bring back into the workforce when you’re ready to return.
And remember, not everyone’s successful career looks the same.
There’s still work to be done
While there have been significant improvements with respect to balancing work and parenting – with flexible work arrangements, maternity and paternity leave to name a few – there is certainly still room for improvement for future generations.
I believe in-company childcare would be a great incentive for many women and men, because often, half the battle is trying to do a full day of work, plus picking up and dropping off the kids and managing the variety of commitments. I believe family-orientated workplaces are probably happier workplaces too.