Executive, Eastern Limb
Thabile Makgala is an executive at platinum miner Implats with nearly 20 years of experience in the sector. She oversees two operations on the Eastern Limb of the Bushveld Igneous Complex in South Africa, with about 7,000 staff. She is also the chairperson of Women in Mining South Africa.
When you started your career, what attracted you to mining?
I was very interested in engineering in general, but when I delved into the discipline of mining engineering, I realized that only a small number of women were employed in the mining industry, especially in deep-level mines. Essentially, a germ of curiosity led me to this path. I was sponsored by gold producer Gold Fields at the time, and they required a year's worth of on-the-ground training before going to university. So, when they offered that to me, I went and worked underground for a year, which is where my passion for mining was ignited and an awaking of the progress still required to advance the industry.
Since the day I set foot underground, mining is something that I've become passionate about, especially because I've been the first female in most of these operations and in most of the roles I was responsible for. As a result of the struggles I went through – and still continue to experience as a woman in mining – it was incumbent upon me to ensure we highlight these challenges and contribute to progress in the mining industry.
Of the struggles you face, which are most notable?
I encountered numerous obstacles while navigating my mining career path. As the first female mining engineering graduate at Gold Fields' Kloof and Driefontein mines (now Sibanye Gold), I soon realised the industry had not adequately prepared itself to accept women in mining. The industry was not ready. The response to women's needs – infrastructure, personal protective clothing and policies – was slow and very little was in place to address women's issues. In addition, regardless of impeccable qualifications, a solid work ethic and the achievement of production and financial targets, my abilities continued to be questioned and tested.
Even despite your seniority, you feel these same issues still apply?
There are still so many barriers that women have to overcome to reach leadership positions in mining. Yes, absolutely, even at the senior level, because you're still working in a predominantly male-populated industry, and you're still surrounded mostly by men. Certain men in the mining industry have grown up holding a certain views about women – including views on women's capabilities and the role of women in mining. When you work as colleagues, these biases really shine through, so even at the executive level you are still dealing with these issues.
We haven't touched on race. What is that like, having an additional level of noise to work through?
Equal opportunities should be offered to all South Africans, regardless of race and gender. The additional level of noise, initially, was an irritation. Over the years I have learnt that we cannot control how people behave, however we do have control over how we respond. I have deliberately decided to not give it too much attention, although I work through this noise in this industry, make no mistake! And every time you get that next appointment, you're always second-guessed: is she there because of her abilities, or is she there because of her race?
What has assisted me is that I am guided by the career vision I have crafted for myself. In this industry you need to have an internal GPS, be focused and have clarity about what you are working towards, so that even in the midst of all this noise – which will happen – you are directed and deliberate about what you want to achieve and are not easily deterred.
What strategies have you employed for coping with these challenges?
At an operations level, I established and chaired Women in Mining committees at the operations I worked at. If you were part of the committee, you were then able to raise the concerns women were facing and work with management at those operations to effect change. For me, the strategy has really been about involvement, encouraging change from within the operations and being an advocate for women to be heard.
Another strategy has really been about performance, both educationally and in the workplace. People can't denounce your performance, how you've excelled and the results you have demonstrated – excellence and results speak for themselves, regardless of gender, age and race. You just need to keep improving and elevating yourself. However, a lot of grit and gravitas is needed to complement these strategies.
External support structures – such as mentorship, personal coaching and networking – are also crucial to adequately equip women to take on leadership roles in mining. This has assisted me along this journey.
What are the most powerful things companies in the sector could do to improve?
Mining companies do have the power to change the gender balance, and should not rely on legislation alone. Decisions made by a company about workplace diversity are based on the company's beliefs and norms, and it is these norms and thinking that influence how appointments and promotions relating to women in mining organizations are made.
Further, change doesn't start when I enter the workplace as a graduate. For me, change starts when women are still at high school level. We must educate them about the opportunities that exist in the mining industry. We need to walk alongside them as they're going to university – we need to sponsor, support and mentor them. Then, when they enter the workplace, we continue with that sponsorship and mentorship and we are deliberate in our actions as mining organizations.
We need to offer executive coaching to identified talent and continue to support them, because if women are not supported, not enabled, not empowered, then it does become a challenging situation and real, structural change will not take place.
Have you seen changes in the way companies approach diversity in your time in the industry?
The mining industry is transforming. In South Africa, we have what is called the Mining Charter, which stipulates that mining firms must have a certain representation of women in their organizations. So, South African regulation is assisting the industry, to a great extent, in trying to change the landscape of the mining industry. But the legislation does not go far enough and we have a long road ahead of us.
In addition, we should not rely only on legislation to help us focus on the inclusion of women in the industry – it should really be driven by top management. Has there been an improvement? Absolutely. Has it been enough? No. We still lack that talent pipeline of outstanding women within most mining organizations.
Where does mining stand alongside other industries when it comes to diversity and encouraging women's participation?
The mining industry has done fairly well, and legislation has contributed to this success. The challenge for mining is retaining the talent. It's not enough to attract the talent, you need to retain it as well. However, if the environment is not conducive – is not enabling, is not supportive – you will lose that pipeline. So, mining has done well relative to other industries, but if the challenges affecting the progression of women in the organizations are not addressed, the risk is that the industry will lose an already limited pipeline of talented and capable women.
Interview by Mark Pengelly