Homophobic culture permeates mining industry

Illustration by P. Roger.

Lynne Descary has had to endure more than two decades of insults, inappropriate comments about her sexuality and assertions she has taken away jobs from men.

Descary is a nickel miner. She also happens to be a lesbian working in an industry that she describes as “closeted” and culturally homophobic; an industry where it wasn’t out of the ordinary for one of her male colleagues to suggest she come over to his house to “liven up” his sex life with his wife.

“You just hold your head high, do your job to the best of your ability and try not give them any more ammunition to use against you,” Descary told Corporate Knights.

Descary was difficult to find for this story. Not because lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people don’t exist in the mining industry, but because they are generally silent. As long as this silence prevails, workplace experts say, mining companies can pretend like nothing is wrong.

It’s bad business, they say, but particularly misguided for an industry increasingly desperate to gain a social licence to operate, which means proving it can be a forward-thinking, progressive member of society.

Luke Popovich, vice-president of external communications at the U.S.-based National Mining Association, said he hasn’t heard a peep from LGBT employees in over a decade. This doesn’t mean LGBT miners don’t exist, he emphasized.

“To me, the absence of the issue says there isn’t a problem. If people are complaining, let’s take a look. But I haven’t heard anything, and I’ve been here 12 years,” he said.

“He’s delusional,” said Descary, who worked for Vale, the nickel-mining company, for 25 years before becoming a staff representative with the United Steelworkers.

Cory McPhee, a vice-president of corporate affairs at Vale who has also worked in the industry for 25 years, said the mining industry has become less of “an old boys’ club” over time. Even so, he said he was “more disappointed than surprised” to hear about Descary’s experience as a Vale employee.

The company has an anti-discrimination policy in place that includes sexual orientation and gender, but it is not specifically directed at LGBT workers. There is also an ombudsman office where employees can raise concerns they don’t feel comfortable resolving through normal channels.

These normal channels include filing a formal complaint with the company or the union. Descary filed a harassment complaint on one occasion through the United Steelworkers Union, which she said was handled in a timely and sufficient manner.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to prove that you’re telling the truth because derogatory comments are rarely made in front of a group of people, she said.

Descary said her experience as a lesbian woman did not improve during her time working at Vale’s Sudbury, Ontario, operation, and as the only openly gay person she knows of in the industry, she had little support.

It can be an isolating experience, but she said she understands why men in the industry don’t come out.

“Knowing what I go through as a woman, I can’t imagine what it would be like for a man or a transgender person. My heart goes out to them,” she said. “Working in the mines is already tough enough. What kind of man is going to stand up and say, ‘I’m gay?’ It’s just not going to happen,” she added.

Joshua Collins is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas who has studied the experiences of LGBT workers in industries that have been dominated traditionally by men. To him, the silence in the mining industry speaks volumes.

Just because people aren’t complaining or coming out doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, said Collins, adding that the opposite should be assumed. “If there is silence, it likely means that some aspect of the industry’s culture has discouraged speaking out, and that is a serious issue worth addressing.”

The silence reaches beyond individual companies and appears to be the norm across the North American mining industry. The National Mining Association, Mining Association of Canada and Mining Industry Human Resources Council have yet to publish reports, adopt policies or release guidelines that deal explicitly with the rights of LGBT workers.

Popovich said he is not aware of a single company that has a LGBT-specific human resources policy and none of the National Mining Association’s members have ever raised it as an issue.

“While it seems reasonable to think that there are LGBT members of our union, I do not know of any. There is no LGBT group within the union,” said Phil Smith, director of governmental affairs with the United Mine Workers of America.

Even Google is silent on the matter. Search any variations of the terms “LGBT” and “mining” and nothing relevant comes up, aside from occasional chatter on a discussion board – for example, of a gay miner asking if he should come out. One of the only news stories to appear over the past few years is of a gay coal miner who sued Spartan Mining Co., a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., alleging the company’s management didn’t protect him from abusive co-workers.

This year’s Corporate Equality Index, conducted by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), shows that the mining industry is lagging behind other male-dominated industries, such as oil and gas, aerospace and defence, and automotive. It even lags professional sports, if measured by the media coverage of well-known athletes announcing themselves as gay or lesbian.

The index ranks companies based on a number of indicators, such as access to benefits for same-sex partners, transgender-inclusive health insurance, existence of resource groups and diversity councils, positive external relationships with the LGBT community, and so on.

Companies may also be deducted 25 points for “a large-scale official or public anti-LGBT blemish on their recent records.”

Exxon received a score of -25 this year for refusing to adopt protections for its LGBT workers, even though shareholders had been urging the company to do so since 1999. The company adopted a policy last week that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in order to comply with new legislation around federal contracts.

The mining and metals industry is one of the worst in terms of engagement on LGBT issues, said Deena Fidas, director of the workplace equality program at HRC.

One of the reasons the industry is doing so poorly could be because mining companies don’t interact with the public, which means they don’t have the powerful incentive of a consumer market demanding that they be more inclusive, she said.

But McPhee said he thinks this is a cop-out. Vale shouldn’t fall back on its lack of interactions with the public as a reason for not being as progressive as it should be, he added.

As the public becomes increasingly focused on the industry’s every move, mining companies have a lot of catching up to do. “Businesses that are not engaged on LGBT issues are already behind the curve,” said Fidas.

The Corporate Equality Index shows that the majority of Fortune 500 companies offer extensive protections and equal benefits for LGBT employees. This awareness makes sense from a business perspective because laws are constantly changing, which puts companies at risk of costly legal liabilities, she said.

Mining companies are also likely to see their talent pools shrink the longer they ignore LGBT issues, said Fidas. LGBT people are unlikely to apply for jobs in a hostile industry, and so are their parents, friends and allies. There has been an overall shift in society’s attitudes, and the next round of young people entering the workforce is expecting equality to be the norm, she added.

As for people who are already working in the mining industry and thinking about coming out, Descary points out that for every homophobic person at a mining company one more will step forward to be supportive.

If LGBT people are experiencing discrimination in the mining industry, it’s going to require people to speak up – and not just those who are being harassed, said McPhee.

Descary’s own position on the matter is unyielding. “I have a right to a job. I have a right to a work environment that is free of harassment. I have a right to raise my child with a decent living,” she said. “I guess maybe I’m stubborn – I won’t let you win.”

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