Every year, the 11th of February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. With more than 105,000 events organised worldwide and supported by 163 member states, the spotlight is firmly directed to the role of current and future female scientists. But how much empowerment work is actually still needed to be done? Is gender discrimination even still an issue in present-day working environment? Argentina Correspondent Verónica Lutri decided to take a deep dive into this topic in relation to the geology sector in her home country.
First Encounter with Gender Bias: A Journey to the Heart of Patagonia
This story, however, starts over a decade ago, when memorable field trip intended for a comprehensive exploration of Patagonia, stretching from the Andes to the Atlantic Coast, marked the beginning of an educational journey fraught with unexpected lessons for a group of ambitious geology students. The destination was a globally significant iron mining project in the province of Rio Negro, an experience that promised to bring the underground world they had only seen in books and photographs to vivid reality.
The excitement among the students was palpable. For many, this would be their first encounter with an underground mine, a remarkable opportunity to witness first-hand the subterranean processes, exploitation methods, and mineral veins that had until then been mere theoretical concepts.
Upon arrival at the mining project, they were welcomed into a meeting hall where the history, evolution, and operational methods of the mine were discussed, along with introductions to the personnel who worked there.
"However, the anticipation quickly turned to disbelief when they were informed of a disheartening policy: only men were permitted to descend into the mine."
The news was met with incredulous blinks and expressions of disappointment and suspicion among the women in the group. The reason behind this exclusion was both archaic and perplexing, rooted in legend and superstition. It was said that the presence of women in the mine would incite jealousy in Pachamama (Mother Earth), leading to accidents.
At least half of the group was made up of women. And after this bad news, we realised that our capacity to protest was limited. This refusal stemmed from ancient legends deeply ingrained among the miners, most of whom hailed from the northern regions of Argentina and Bolivia. In these areas, the worship of Pachamama is a way of life. These were the rules of the game, and we had to accept them.
Among those women, who were denied access to the mine, was me. And this incident marked a profound and unsettling introduction to the realities faced by women in geological work. While standing there, waiting for the men to return from their descent into the mine, one question kept circling inside my mind: Will this gender-based barrier be a recurring obstacle in my future career?
Historically disadvantaged, discouraged, or denied
Embarking on this project to re-evaluate the role of women in the geological sciences, I was met with conflicting viewpoints... Some confronted me, arguing that men and women are inherently different, possessing distinct abilities, and it was unrealistic to expect women to undertake the same physical tasks as men. It's indeed undeniable that we have different physical capabilities. However, if this would be the sole reason behind the disbalance, how come that in areas where physical strength is not a requirement at all, namely decision-making roles, women still find themselves heavily underrepresented?
In search of information related to the topic, I stumbled upon an article highly recommended, published in 2021 by the Argentine Geological Association, edited by Guereschi, Martino, and Ramos. This piece compiles 17 stories of pioneering women in Argentina and Chile who made their mark in the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries. These women were dedicated to teaching and research, as well as fieldwork.
All the articles underscore that from the outset, women's roles in the field were minimal, as they were almost exclusively reserved for men. One story, about María Casanova, who worked at the Fiscal Oil Fields in the late 1920s, immediately caught my attention. In a letter to the administrator of the Comodoro Rivadavia field, María's hiring is mentioned, highlighting a comment that strays from the professional realm:
"We have hired, upon the geologist Dr. Fossa Mancini's recommendation, two new geologists and one petrographer (the latter, fortunately, as the recommender informs me, is unattractive enough to work in the field without causing major discomforts), staff that he has recommended as they are individuals he knows to be very competent and suitable for the tasks we assign them."
This story made me understand that workplace discrimination against women stems from a complex sexism past, but it also prompted several questions. Does this historical type of discrimination still underlie today's practices? Are there specific branches of geology more prone to discriminating against women? If these disparities exist, are they evident from the start of one’s career? Do they dissipate as one asserts their presence in their field of work? Furthermore, what is the situation in the upper echelons of organisations? In decision-making realms of companies and institutions where physical strength is not a prerequisite, do women have equal representation?
Not your average girl
Reflecting on all these questions, I first turned inwards and reflected on my own path towards becoming a geologist. I never fit the stereotype society imposes on women, being feminine and proper. I was always disheveled and barefoot, playing in the mud and collecting stones. I could never keep a dress clean or maintain a neat appearance. My life was about chasing the wind, the earth, the water. How did I choose to study Geology? I don’t quite remember, but I suppose I was drawn to Earth’s most striking and provocative features: volcanoes, earthquakes, gold and silver deposits, dinosaurs.
Then, I came across a degree at the National University of Río Cuarto, something I had never heard of before. I didn’t know any professionals who could enlighten me about the field; it was a mystery, yet it captivated me without even knowing it. But, in the end, they were a reflection of my inclinations towards nature since I was young. There, I met my classmates, with whom I shared and grew together on this journey. From day one of starting Geology, I fell completely in love, even though the beginning was a tumultuous relationship with calculus, chemistry, and physics. Geology… it was a balm... I could spend hours talking about volcanoes... Rocks, minerals, and processes, rivers, and glaciers... It was endless!! A dream come true. But that wasn’t all, and I was about to immerse myself even more in this incredible world.
By my fourth year in the programme, I had already tackled subjects like sedimentology, mineralogy, and petrology, but it was then that I encountered water. The classes on Hydrogeology overwhelmed me. Discovering a hidden world of water was too beautiful to overlook. Understanding how groundwater is studied (fig. 2) brought me immense joy. In rivers, seas, and lagoons, one has access to their object of study, but here ‘it’s all a mystery! And that’s where I found myself completely. The water! The blue of the Earth. Something so simple...and yet so complex. Water signifies life, it carries evolution. Water is involved in all of Earth’s processes, water that can also pose problems: flooding, inundations, contamination. What a great path lay ahead of me.
And that was for a substantial part, thanks to the enabling environment. I realise that I was lucky enough to be welcomed and taught by a remarkable group led by women, who have generated knowledge on groundwater in the province of Córdoba and even in international projects to train individuals working on the topic. Female role models like Mónica Blarasin, Edel Matteoda, and Adriana Cabrera. They have been immersed in this journey of studying groundwater for over 40 years, sharing their knowledge with impeccable dedication.
Students side of the story
This helped me finding my place in the geological sciences and it reinforced my belief that indeed, women have played, are playing, and will continue to play a prominent role in the geological sciences. However, it made me wonder if this vision also resonates with young female students or if they hold a different perspective, and if they encountered any gender-related issues.
With this in mind, I decided to seize an opportunity where I was invited to give a lecture: the "15th Argentine Congress of Geology Students" (CADEG). It was there that I developed a questionnaire, which I shared and requested to be disseminated, aiming to gather information and create an approximate statistic regarding the role of women in the Geological Sciences, from the perspective of students in these fields who have not yet entered the workforce.
Half of the respondents believe that women face greater difficulties in securing jobs in geology, while 14% disagree, 32.4% say it depends on the area of application. “I believe it is not harder to get a job, but it is harder to reach higher positions as a woman”, says one of the respondents. In this regard, nearly 55% of responses suggest that women are more likely to find employment in the academic/scientific field and teaching than in the private sector.
When being asked about the branches of geological sciences that are considered to have more job opportunities, nearly 82% of the respondents indicated that extractive tasks, such as mining, oil, and lithium, will dominate the professional outlook for the future. However, there was a notable shift in percentages when asking which of these branches are assumed to offer greater access and retention for women. The same respondents believe that tasks like research in public institutes and teaching at universities are where women have greater access and retention, accounting for 69% of the responses, followed by work in hydrogeology (12.7%) and environmental studies (9.9%). Extractive activities, the ones that are believed to have best future job prospects in general, was only by 4.2% considered as a work environment that offers opportunities to women.
Also related to family planning, women reported being treated unfairly. “I'm almost 30 years old, and during interviews, I'm always asked if I plan to have children, a question that is not posed to any of my male colleagues” says one respondent. And job applications were in general a reoccurring issue in this study. “I was not selected because of doubts about my ability to spend days on campaign and my strength for fieldwork”, one says, while another gave an even more blatantly gender discriminative reason for turning her down. “I was told that the mining company did not have a section of the camp 'for women' enabled”. There were also those who felt undervalued by some of their professors. “As a student, I can't speak about the workplace, but there is a clear preference from professors towards male students, especially regarding opportunities for fieldwork and work experiences” adding that “It's something I discuss with almost all my female classmates, and we all have similar experiences".
All the responses point in the same direction, one in which, even today, there exists a type of discrimination that is invisible yet palpable across the professional field of geology, especially in extractive activities. And the female students who are studying to become future geologists are seeing and feeling it.
The respondents of the questionnaire were predominantly students, without much working experience. A logical next step in my quest was to interview a geologist who has already been working in mining for over 8 years, to test if she would confirm these views.
Sole woman among 100 miners
As freshly graduated geologist, Deborah started her career in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. In a town, 2,000 kilometres away from home, she joined a gold and silver exploration project, where she was responsible for field mapping, drilling core mapping, trench mapping, sections, and interpreting results.
The distance from her home, her family and friends was, however, not the only challenge that she had to face. During the early stages of her career, being the sole woman among a group of 100 (!) individuals in a project left her with a sense of unwelcomeness.
“I encountered instances of symbolic gender-based violence, particularly when a colleague, aware of my dislike for bats, deliberately placed a dead specimen at my workstation”, Deborah recalls.
Also after the incident had happened, she felt somewhat isolated at first. “Despite seeking support from colleagues, I found it challenging to directly address the individual responsible for this ‘prank’”, she admits.
Nevertheless, this lack of support did not stop her from speaking out against what makes her feel uncomfortable. “With the backing of colleagues, I developed the resilience to address and transform the attitudes of specific men towards me”, Deborah explains. “I confronted and established boundaries with men who routinely made inappropriate comments, instigating changes in their behaviour to avert similar incidents.” Deborah also notices that the generational gap plays a role in this regard. “I hold the view that the lingering ‘machismo’ is more pronounced in older generations, and despite the advancements, the battle for equality must persist.”
Gradual, but noticeable improvements
Despite these bad experiences and the constant challenge, Deborah also notices considerable, positive, change in the working environment. These positive changes have also affected her personally. “For more than 5 years, I have been employed in Chile as a Senior Project Geologist, specialised in copper and molybdenum, and I've had the opportunity to progress towards Team Leader within this company that champions a culture of continuous improvement”, she says proudly. Meanwhile, she states that her company also embraces policies that actively involve women in the mining sector, which in turn has a positive effect on the position of women in the workplace “With an increasing number of women joining, both the company and peer support expand, enriching perspectives on conflict resolution in demanding scenarios.”
When being asked about any advice she would give to girls that consider pursuing a career in science in general, and geology in specific, Deborah says: “Focus on enhancing your emotional intelligence. It is essential for all students in the geosciences to be instructed or motivated to integrate, alongside their technical geoscience skills, values such as respect for diversity, mutual support, and empathy.” She considers that for women, a geosciences career serves as a platform for empowerment, the cultivation of self-esteem, and comprehensive professional and personal development. “Be courageous in overcoming fears, embracing challenges, and refining conflict resolution abilities. Acknowledge that, akin to any profession, confronting challenges might seem daunting, but with well-defined objectives, one can advance and flourish both in their career and personal life”, she concludes.
Last, but not Least
In terms of woman empowerment, we have come a long way since María Casanova, who in the late 1920s, was deemed ‘unattractive enough to work in the field without causing major discomforts’. And honestly, the presence of women in the various branches of the geological sciences can only continue to grow. The excuse concerning the physical differences and abilities of women and men may hold some validity in physically demanding operations is an argument that loses all relevance in the higher echelons of organisations and institutions where physical exertion is not required. It is imperative to persist, to not give up, and to recognise that although it is difficult, it is not impossible to achieve equity and respect in this field or any other where gender discrimination exists. Today, women demand, claim, and assume their significant role in their workplaces, seeking the recognition they deserve.
But although much progress was made, it remains crucial to promote equality and break down gender stereotypes in all work environments, including geology. What remains is to continue supporting each other and not to take even a single step back. Happy International Day of Women and Girls in Science!