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Waiting for a paradigm shift

Andrew P.G. Abraham discusses Black underrepresentation in geoscience and the minerals industry

Words by Dr Andrew P.G. Abraham
1 March 2021

The horrific murder of George Floyd, on 25 May 2020 created an unprecedented global change in corporate attitudes.  After decades of silence, several of the world’s corporate leaders, companies and organisations showed vociferous support for Black Lives Matter.  Meanwhile, many in the minerals industry largely remained reticent.

This reticence could stem from a lack of awareness and the underrepresentation of Black geoscientists and corporate leaders in the industry, but ultimately it starts with the education system, which has not yet stepped up to changing its predominantly white complexion.

Changing attitudes
The events that transpired following George Floyd’s murder had never been seen before. Thousands across America and the world took to the streets to demonstrate, and major corporations from almost all global industries showed support for Black Lives Matter.

Several organisations published supportive statements, including the Canadian Geophysical Union, American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), as well as numerous universities. Many did some soul-searching and Imperial College London’s Royal School of Mines departmental society, changed its name to the Imperial College Geology Society to distance itself from De La Beche’s legacy as slaveowner.

The only obvious corporate response I could find was a statement from Trent Mell, president and CEO of First Cobalt.

“Racism is not an America issue.  We must unite against hate as it is not enough to be anti-racist.  You and I will be judged by our words and our actions.”

He also added:

“I am disappointed that we have not seen any public statements from our larger Canadian mining companies.”

Surely, the minerals industry’s corporate leaders are aware that systemic racism is not confined to North America and certain sectors of industry and society?  Were they blind to the significance of what was taking place? I searched for answers but found nothing tangible—no clear proclamations on company websites beyond generic corporate social responsibility statements and diversity, equality and inclusion declarations.

Silence is a form of complicity, and the minerals industry gives the impression that it does not care.

Recognising underrepresentation
The minerals industry and governments are often disconnected from the Black community because they have not recognized that Black geoscientists are underrepresented amongst its workforce and corporate leaders.  Lack of awareness is part of the problem, but another is that predominantly white boardrooms act as an echo chamber insulating them from this reality.

For example, recently published Canadian Government and industry reports give the impression that Black underrepresentation is not seen as an issue in Canada.

In the Mining Association of Canada’s 2018 report, Facts and Figures of the Canadian Mining Industry, while visible minorities were shown to represent just 9% of the mining workforce in 2016, it did not tell us how many were Black.

A 2019 Canadian government report on minerals sector employment discusses workforce diversity, but only mentions indigenous peoples and women.

Black professionals were also omitted in the Mining Industry’s Human Resources Council’s comprehensive 2015 report, Canadian Mining Industry Employment Hiring Requirements and Available Talent – Ten-year Outlook.  This report examined three groups deemed relevant to diversity in the mining industry: Aboriginal peoples, women, and immigrants. Black geoscientists and other workers were not mentioned.

The scarcity of Black geoscientists is not a function of Black students finding geology and the minerals industry uninteresting, it is a function of over 40 years of white geoscientists and corporate leaders content with or unsure of how to change the status quo.

I was not immune to this lack of awareness. I have worked in the mining industry in several countries, and attended conferences and tradeshows globally, yet most of the geologists and engineers that I worked and interacted with were white. Until now, I did not find this unusual.

I asked some Black Canadian geologists about their experiences in the industry.  All of them wished to remain anonymous because they felt that voicing their opinion would lead to retaliation and likely loss of work and future opportunities.

One told me that when he was unable to find work after graduating, the university’s student councillor told him to consider changing his name. He also said, “People like me, Black, watch from the slower lane whilst white employees are fast-tracked to better projects and promotions.”  His experience is similar to another Black geologist who struggled to find work even though he was eminently qualified.  He told me, “Interviewers said I needed more experience or that I was overqualified. I felt this was because I was Black.”  He also said, “When I was hired, I was constantly passed over for promotions and watched white geologists with similar or less qualifications being promoted.”

It is a sad indictment that all of them feel nothing will change, even though they agree attitudes slowly are. They feel that the old-boy network and systemic racism are too strongly entrenched.

The education system
Black underrepresentation in the minerals industry starts with the education system, particularly in primarily white countries where colonial attitudes and systemic racism are ingrained, and where Black underrepresentation is not seen as an issue.

The geosciences are the least diverse discipline within STEM and little to no progress has been made on diversity in the past 40 years. Saying Earth science has a whiteness problem is an understatement, but a 2019 New York Times article succinctly lists some of the issues:  Academia is predominantly a white man’s world with nearly 90% of doctoral-degree recipients being white; Black people are less likely than white people to participate in outdoor activities; public high schools, particularly those in urban areas, lack resources to run Earth science field trips; and the whiteness of conferences is overwhelming and unwelcoming.

Cultural differences and economic background are additional barriers, as is the scarcity of academic role models—Data collected in 2020 by the UK’s Higher Education Statistic Agency revealed that less than 1% of professors in all subjects in the UK are Black.

A 2018 article on diversity in geoscience reported that women and minorities experience “chilly” treatment at conferences, while a 2020 article highlights some of the barriers to diversity in the field, which is “still perceived to be the domain of rugged, heterosexual, white men”.

The must-read article by Kuheli Dutt, Race and racism in the geosciences, makes several important points regarding the issue of diversity. Dutt states, “The less diverse a field, the less welcoming it is to minorities, and the more prevalent implicit biases become” and links this to higher rates of abandoning geoscience, concluding that minorities are driven away from the field because they do not feel they belong.

Changing the status quo
Too many academic institutions, companies and corporations proclaim buy-in through reports, policies and programmes on diversity and inclusivity, yet all the while continuing exclusionary practises.

The minerals industry can attract Black geoscientists by creating and investing in scholarships, bursaries, and internships.

The burden of changing underrepresentation of Black people in geoscience and the minerals industry cannot be left for them to bare.  We, the white majority, need to step up and create a truly inclusive culture—not just increase numbers for statistical purposes and glossy corporate reports.

The minerals industry can attract Black geoscientists by creating and investing in scholarships, bursaries, and internships. We must also nurture Black high school students’ interest in geoscience by providing Black industry mentors and role models.

We must celebrate Black role models, recognize Black student’s abilities and achievements, accept them for who they are, nurture their desires to succeed, and encourage them to become leaders.

Take action

Geology (and all its incredible subfields) is an amazing science to learn.  The integral importance of the minerals industry to global economies should make it a strong choice for developing future careers, yet the field rarely attracts Black students and there are few Black geoscientists or corporate leaders.

The scarcity of Black geoscientists is not a function of Black students finding geology and the minerals industry uninteresting, it is a function of over 40 years of white geoscientists and corporate leaders content with or unsure of how to change the status quo.

Most of us, who are white, have rarely met Black geoscience students, professors, geoscientists, and corporate leaders. We have rarely voiced concern and mostly ignored and accepted the lack of diversity as normal.

It is time for us to go beyond wearing tee-shirts, hashtags, and corporate reports.  We need to take action to create truly diverse and welcoming workplaces in academia and the minerals industry.

Change will not happen overnight, but we can start breaking down barriers with open dialogue on inclusivity and equity.

Dr Andrew P.G. Abraham is an independent consultant who serves as volunteer Director External Engagement for the Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences

This article links to the Viewpoint “We have accepted lack of diversity as normal”


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