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The New Face of Mining: Vicki Seppala

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The New Face of Mining: Vicki Seppala

May 14, 2013
Mine Manager in Chile Lends New Meaning to Change Management

Vicki Seppala was working as a business manager at a technology startup and attending classes at a community college in Phoenix, Ariz.  Every day on her way to class, the newly single mom passed by a brochure pinned to the wall, and every day it caught her eye, until finally the brochure demanded Seppala’s attention. It was about the University of Arizona’s mining and geological engineering program.

Women are persevering; change is happening.

Mining is still seen as a quintessential male domain in many respects. But women the world over toil as miners, and more and more female mining and geological engineers are entering the industry, putting their mark on technological, environmental, corporate  and social advancements.

The University of Arizona is dedicated to helping fill the much-needed pipeline of mining and geological engineers. In part, that means making sure women continue to take their place in an industry expected to need 128,000 skilled workers by the end of the decade.

"When I was growing up, I heard more about what careers women couldn’t have than what careers they could have," said UA Distinguished Professor Mary Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources and head of the mining and geological engineering department. "Today it is a different world.  Women can access any career they want. Now the challenge is what you can do, not who you are."

Young women just entering the profession feel they have a world of opportunity awaiting them, and those well into their careers and nearing retirement say they have had the ride of a lifetime.

They are the new face of mining. And these are their stories.

Seppala didn’t see herself advancing much further in her job, and with a young son to support, she decided it was time for a change.

"I liked the idea of traipsing around the countryside mapping things and getting paid for it," she said.

Seppala packed up her fourth-grader, left their friends and family, and moved to Tucson to get on with becoming a geological engineer. The UA mining and geological engineering program was exceptional, the University supported her well, and the small, family-like department suited her.

"We lived a simple but really good life in those years," said Seppala, who graduated in 1994, just 2½ years after enrolling in the program. "I didn’t have the same distractions or social activities more traditional students had."

Seppala’s graduating class of about a dozen, in which she was the only woman, was apprehensive about the future.

"The industry was in a down cycle at the time," she said, "and we were not sure what the market was going to hold for us."

It held plenty.

Seppala has been with the same tight-knit mining company, now named Freeport-McMoRan, for 18 years, making her way from geotechnical engineer in Sahuarita, Ariz., to first female mine manager in Chile, and back to Arizona.

Foreign assignments come with the territory for mining engineers on a management track. But that was little consolation for Seppala’s family when she headed off to Chile.

"As far as my mother was concerned," said Seppala, "I might as well have been transferring to Mars. She thought I was going to the end of the galaxy."

When Seppala stepped onto Chilean ground eight years ago, indeed she felt a little as though she had entered another world. She was met by men with looks of pure horror on their faces, men who took quite seriously the notion that it was taboo to have women in mines.

"They were not ready for me, and frankly I probably was not quite ready for them," said Seppala.

Seppala was a stranger in a machista culture taking on a management position in an industry that was rapidly changing with respect to women in nontraditional roles, and she became a part of that change.

"People eventually begin to see you for the work you do rather than your gender," said Seppala, who helped introduce women haul truck drivers in Chile.

Those women not only were accepted, Seppala said, but they were respected for doing a good job and appreciated by the maintenance crews who felt women were easier on the equipment than men.

Now women make up more than seven percent of Chile’s mining workforce, representing all levels of the industry, and are on target to reach 10 percent by 2015, according to the state-owned Corporación del Cobre, or CODELCO, the world's top copper producer.

Despite her accomplishments, and like most women in the industry, Seppala prefers not to make a fuss about the fact that she is a woman. She says she wants to be recognized for doing a good job, not for the number of X chromosomes she has.