Article first published for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Inside the Perth airport departures lounge, it’s the second call for the 7am flight into the Pilbara, the beating heart of Australia’s fly-in fly-out mining industry. Today’s destination: the desert town of Newman, 400 kilometres inland, where red dust coats everything.

Not far from the boarding gate, a young couple are saying goodbye. The man is in jeans and a low-slung T-shirt; the woman is dressed in reflective orange work wear. She stands on the tips of her boots for a final embrace. “See you in two weeks,” she tells him, and pulls a backpack over her shoulder. They part ways and the woman disappears, into the long queue of co-workers wearing orange, yellow and navy.

Mining is Australia’s most male-dominated workforce, so a scene like this, even in 2018, remains a twist on the typical. At last count, women held just 16 per cent of the 220,000 mining jobs nationally. And in “front-line” positions in the industry, the numbers were even worse. Five per cent of technicians, 11 per cent of machinery operators and 13 per cent of labourers were female.

“In the early 2000s, I reckon I would probably have seen one in 100 female applicants for hands-on production or maintenance jobs,” says Emanuel Gherardi, a WA-based recruiter and mining workforce consultant of 20 years. “It’s a lot better now, but it’s still pretty grim.”

Gender balance is a growing focus for businesses everywhere both because of increased pressure to stamp out discrimination and a mounting pile of evidence that diversity improves any number of business outcomes. Nearly three-quarters of Australian employers with 100 staff or more now have gender-equality policies in place.

But in the mining world – from the boardrooms to the pits – progress has been slow, and the industry has faced criticism for failing to enact meaningful changes. So when BHP, the world’s biggest mining group, set itself an ambitious target two years ago for women to make up 50 per cent of its workforce by 2025, the global media and business communities sat up and took note.

So far, female representation among BHP’s 27,161 direct employees has risen from 17 to 22 per cent. But in order to hit the target, the miner says, female numbers need to lift by three percentage points a year. When the rate rose just 1.9 percentage points last year, alarm bells sounded among some members of the boardroom, frustrated and concerned that the target they had set may not be attainable in the timeframe.

The company concedes its push for gender balance has been “bumpy” with a “lot more work ahead”. Its progress is being closely watched.

“It’s not something anyone in the industry has been able to crack yet,” an executive at another mining company says of the gender problem. “But it’s something we are all working on.”

Tuesday is the start of a new roster cycle for the mostly BHP workers boarding the Qantas flight to Newman, and the plane is almost full. The composition of the cabin today suggests the push over the past two years from BHP and rival resources companies for greater gender diversity is gathering some steam. In an informal headcount of the 180 seats, at least one in three passengers is female.

You were literally the only woman on that flight except for the hostess.

“We’re not a protected species anymore,” says Jeab Risk, a 40-year-old BHP employee. Such a ratio is a far cry from her first fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) posting in the Pilbara at the age of 21, when she was one of just three women. “Every time you’d jump onto the plane to get onto site, you were literally the only woman on that flight except for the hostess,” she says.

This time of year in Newman, hot winds blow off the Great Sandy Desert and temperatures soar above 40°C. An epicentre of Australia’s resource wealth, the small town is home to 5000 residents – mainly BHP staff and their families – and, in any given week, there are almost as many FIFO workers living in camps nearby.

In the area around Newman, iron ore is king. Three of BHP’s biggest ore mines are found here: Mount Whaleback, Eastern Ridge and Jimblebar. Forty kilometres up the road is Rio Tinto’s Hope Downs mine, and further north again is Fortescue’s Christmas Creek.

East of town, at Jimblebar, a motor howls and hand rails rattle as Nicole O’Keefe traverses the narrow platform several metres above the ground. The newly qualified electrician is atop a long, rotating boom, lurching counter-clockwise, beeping every few seconds. At the tip of the boom is a Ferris wheel-shaped “bucket wheel”, which spins and scoops through a mountainous stockpile of crushed iron ore, shovels it onto a conveyor belt and then onto a freight train bound for the port.

“This is definitely one my favourite machines,” yells O’Keefe, over the noise, “as long as it’s not hot and dusty and there’s something wrong with the bucket wheel, that is.”

I feel like I could do your job, she’d often think to herself.

Yet even today, in a sizzling 42C degrees, O’Keefe, who works in the maintenance team, looks more than comfortable – a skyward gaze, beaming smile, not a lick of sweat to be seen.

O’Keefe, 34, in her past life, was a human-resources adviser in the industry, mainly hiring for blue-collar trades positions, mainly hiring men. “I feel like I could do your job,” she’d often think to herself during the selection process, and she developed an unshakable fascination of the intricacies of mining.

At 29, she took her career on a “sharp turn”, and enrolled in an electrical apprenticeship. The decision confined her to a classroom for 12 months and came with a 55 per cent pay cut. For the second year, however, she was able to continue the apprenticeship onsite at Jimblebar, which she completed three years later. “And here I am,” she says, grinning.

In TAFE, O’Keefe was regularly the only female, and, today, she’s one of just a handful working in the traditionally male domain of mine-site maintenance. “In the trades space, it’s really difficult to find females,” she says. “I’m still a minority.”

Trades-based occupations including maintenance, which accounts for nearly 25 per cent of BHP’s workforce, present perhaps the biggest challenge for the company to overcome if it is to achieve gender balance. “One of the most difficult areas to crack,” says Mike Henry, BHP’s head of Australian mining operations.

Historically, maintenance roles like diesel-fitting have been physically taxing. Much of the work processes and hiring practices, therefore, have been geared to workers who are taller, larger, with more muscle mass. Once such practices are ingrained, says Henry, it can be very difficult to break away from them. “Unless you’re very deliberate about it,” he says, “those things just find a means of propagating.”

So “deliberate” became the name of the game, and the dial has started to shift. In two years, female representation in maintenance has gone from 4.6 per cent to 10.4 per cent.

I always thought you either had kids or pursued your career. But that hasn’t been the case at all.

To break the gender barrier, says Henry, BHP abandoned a requirement for specific work experience in a range of frontline roles, and, instead, now considers job candidates’ other skills and capabilities. As well, across the workforce, there’s been a focus on embedding flexible work conditions, making them the norm rather than the exception.

Part-time work, shorter shifts, varied rosters – as of this year, 46 per cent of BHP staff have a flexibility arrangement, even in operational areas where they previously seldom existed. The move is particularly aimed at new parents returning from parental leave.

“I always thought it was that choice – you either had kids or pursued your career,” says Toni McMahon, who supervises a maintenance team in Port Hedland and has adapted her roster around school drop-offs and pick-ups. “But that hasn’t been the case at all.”

Too many women, however, are still leaving. According to the company’s internal statistics, the female attrition rate is around 12 per cent compared to 7 per cent for men. Flexibility alone, it seems, is not a silver bullet. “For some [women], they feel the environment is not an environment they want to work in,” says Henry.

We’ve got further to go.

The company has committed to a fresh focus on fixing “legacy” cultural problems that persist in male-heavy workplaces, such as stamping out discrimination, disrespectful behaviour and harassment of female workers. “We’ve got further to go,” he says.

Since Henry joined the company in 2003, fixing the gender imbalance had always been a priority for BHP, but until 2016, he concedes, “we’d made relatively little progress”. What mining and engineering types needed, it was realised, was a concrete goal to work towards.

“One of the things we are very good at as a company is when we put a very firm goal in place, it mobilises a level of creativity, focus and urgency that you don’t see when all we are trying to do is get a little bit better year in, year out ,” he says. “By putting the stake in the sand out there in the mid-2020s … people are actually getting in there and figuring out how to solve the challenges.”

In setting a gender target, BHP is no outlier among top Australian companies trying to reverse male dominance. NAB has said its gender split would be no greater than 40 per cent by 2020, while airline Virgin Australia has set a gender target for the recruitment of cadet pilots.

“I believe voluntary targets are the most effective mechanism for achieving cultural change,” says Libby Lyons, director of the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency. She praises BHP for its decision and progress so far, even if it fell below its annual target last year. “Reaching 1.9 per cent of a 3 per cent target is actually a pretty good result, and BHP should be commended for it,” she says.

I’ve always believed that the best person should get the job.

But not everyone at BHP is convinced that a 50:50 target is the right way forward. Among some staff, even women, opinions are mixed.

“I understand what they’re trying to achieve as a business,” one female employee says. “But I’ve always believed that the best person should get the job. As a female, if you get a promotion, you might kind of be questioning whether you really deserved it or not.”

Others believe gender targets foster resentment and suspicion towards females who are chosen for jobs or promotions.

O’Keefe admits she has copped some backlash from male co-workers as a result – “off-the-cuff comments … ‘You got [the job] because you’re a girl’,” she says. She considers the target a “bold move”, but one that “someone in the industry had to come out with”.

Every day, enormous freight trains snake through the sun-beaten Pilbara. They stretch as long as 2.5 kilometres each, hauling iron ore bound for Port Hedland. BHP’s fleet alone runs to 176 locomotives and nearly 10,000 ore cars.

When ore cars need repairing, they are taken to one of five workshops. One of them is the Mooka Ore Car Repair Shop, and, in BHP’s gender diversity experiment, it’s considered something of a success story.

Many of the staff had never picked up a spanner before starting here.

Mooka is autonomous, meaning much of the trade-related, labour-intensive work is handled by machines. Moving platforms ferry the cars from station to station, where robots inspect and replace components. For the manual work that remains, tools are suspended from the ceiling, which helps eliminate much of the grunt.

“What this has changed is the ability to source from a much wider pool of people,” says Warren Wellbeloved, manager of rolling-stock maintenance.

Women at Mooka now make up an impressive 37 per cent of the workforce, up from 5 per cent in 2016. And many of the staff had never picked up a spanner before starting here.

“We’ve got about 24 production technicians and their backgrounds vary from school teachers to hairdressers and all various sorts of non-traditional mining backgrounds,” says Emma Grundy, a team leader. “Fitters, boilermakers, machinists … we still have those roles but to a much lesser degree.”

One of the quirks in this tale is that there are women at the top in mining. Of course, there is Gina Rinehart who has her own empire but there is also Elizabeth Gaines, chief executive of Fortescue Metals Group and Rio Tinto’s Australian managing director is Joanne Farrell.

BHP’s high-profile Olympic Dam is run by a woman, Laura Tyler, who was preceded by a woman. In fact, at management level, WGEA statistics suggest the industry’s record is positive.

For those focused on females in mining, such as Emanuel Gherardi, of recruitment consultancy Energy & Mining Group, a common refrain is that, industry-wide, the past two years have seen more impactful change than the past 15 years combined.

But he believes the biggest hurdle to hitting 50:50 will be that the pipeline of female candidates for many roles is just too thin. The industry’s effort to shake its reputation as “boy’s club, dirty, archaic”, and attract talented females to consider working in it, could take some time yet.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “that’s the perception that we are trying to turn around.”