Fashion-forward thinkers are making women less invisible in the resources sector, writes Chris Ryan.
Designers change the working lives of women miners
AUSTRALIA’S MINING industry has a proven track record in harnessing the nation’s natural resources but there is one commodity it hasn’t made the most of – its female workforce.
Female participation in the mining sector sits at about 15 per cent. Corporate and government bodies have highlighted the importance of getting more women into the industry, which suffers from skills shortages in boom times. Last October, BHP Billiton announced the ambitious target of having a 50 per cent female workforce by 2025.
While such grand gestures may make a difference in the years ahead, a couple of entrepreneurial women – who launched their respective companies in 2013 – are already making a difference on the ground.
Accountant Kym Clark was attending a leadership meeting at the Foxleigh coalmine in Queensland’s Bowen Basin with her female manager and six men when she had a moment of realisation
that led to her making an unexpected foray into the field of fashion.
“All the men were really comfy in their high-vis – and there was Steph, seven months’ pregnant and she couldn’t do up her work shirt,” recalls Clark. “She was in an open high-vis shirt with a singlet on underneath. It didn’t really [seem] right – we’re in an industry that’s trying to attract more women yet we weren’t providing workwear that caters to everybody, particularly maternity wear.”
In camp at Middlemount mine in the Bowen Basin, Clark met a woman who had to order her own jeans and then sew high-vis tape onto them because none of the company’s workwear suited her petite frame. On buses out to site, she heard women complaining about the cut of their cargo pants.
“I’ve always had an interest in fashion and I love the resources sector so that kind of stuff stood out to me,” says Clark. “I was in the right place to spot the gap in the market.”
Clark’s observations drove her to start She’s Empowered (shes-empowered. com). The high-vis workwear line for women employed in mining, transport, local councils and construction is now available online and in about 100 stores across Australia. The range includes regular work shirts and cargo pants but it’s the Baby Bub maternity shirt that sets this brand apart.
“I often get emails about the maternity shirts,” says Clark, who still does contract work in the mining industry. “Women will say, ‘Thank you – I can do up my shirt and feel like I belong’ and ‘I’m comfortable at work instead of waking up in the morning and not wanting to put on my workwear’; it’s really nice to hear that feedback.”
While Clark’s inspiration came from being in the right place at the right time, Stacey Head, the woman behind She Wear (shewear.com.au), had her light-bulb moment because she was in the wrong place – or at least her foot was. Making a living flipping properties, Head was finishing the deck on a house she was renovating when she stepped on a nail. “It was agonising,” she says. “I had to go to the doctor for a check-up and a tetanus shot.”
“Work isn’t a fashion parade but there is nothing wrong with taking pride in your appearance.”
In a subsequent search for safety boots (better late than never), Head discovered that the women’s boots being sold were, essentially, smaller versions of the men’s. “The safety footwear available was very masculine and ill fitting,” she says. “They had absolutely no style or colour but the biggest issues I found were the weight of the boots and the fit, which was too wide and too bulky around the ankles.”
Head solved the problem by bringing her own boots to market in October 2013; today, more than 60 outlets stock them.
While practicality is paramount in the products created by Clark and Head, style does get a look-in. “I realise work isn’t a fashion parade but there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking pride in your appearance,” says Head. “Workwear and footwear can be safe, compliant, a good fit and stylish.”
Clark echoes this sentiment. “That workwear fits well and is functional so as to ensure safety is No. 1,” she says. “If something’s too big or someone can’t do up their work shirt, as in the maternity instance, the loose material can get caught in [machinery], which is a hazard. And when you have pride in what you wear, you’re more confident and have pride in everything you do. It all ties together.”
For Clark, She’s Empowered provides an opportunity to give something back to an industry she has loved being a part of. “What started it all was that I wanted to see a positive change for women in the industry. I do feel like I have contributed towards that, though we still have a long way to go,” she says. “There are other issues that need to be addressed. We all look at it through different eyes so if you notice something, speak up. That way, we can make progress in creating an inclusive environment.”
When it comes to telling other women about the mining industry, Clark is enthusiastic: “There’s always something new going on; it’s never really the same, day to day. And with the connections and relationships you make, it’s a standout industry to be involved with.”
And for anyone who thinks they might not be a good fit, even if their clothes are? “Jump straight in and don’t be afraid of cold-calling someone in the industry,” she says. “People love to help if someone’s got the guts to reach out so give it a go.”
Perfect fit: high-vis workwear designed by women, for women