TARKWA, Ghana (WOMENSENEWS)--Victoria Elorn Asamoah was partway through her undergraduate program in mineral engineering when she was placed in a six-week internship with a mining company.
As one of just three women in her classroom of 25, Asamoah was used to being a minority at Ghana's University of Mines and Technology. But she says she'd never been made to feel anything less than equal to her male peers, until the internship when she was placed with a male student.
"They weren't giving me work like how they gave work to the guy," the 26-year-old said. Asamoah and the other student were supposed to be trained on mining machinery, but when it came time to actually use it, she was sent back to the office to do paperwork while her male counterpart was allowed to try it out.
She watched other people at work and shadowed them when she saw them doing something interesting, like examining soil samples. She eventually earned responsibility to use the heavy machinery that her male counterpart had been using.
"I had to force to do something," she said, "when I realized they weren't going to give me any work to do."
First Female Post-Grad
Asamoah graduated and became the first female post-grad student at UMaT, which is nestled on the outskirts of Tarkwa, a bustling town in Ghana's mining-rich Western Region. She is currently polishing her thesis.
Each year, more and more young Ghanaian women are following Asamoah to the university, getting educated in a field where just a few decades ago it was illegal for women to enter. The school is the main institution for in-country mining studies.
Currently 71 women are enrolled at the school, which has a total student population of 959. While women's numbers are still low, they are significantly up from around 50 last year.
"We have really made a concerted effort to try to get ladies into the institution," said Daniel Mireku-Gyimah, the university's vice chancellor.
More women are drawn to the field because of the diversity of jobs available in the growing industry, he said. From the office to the field, the mining industry employs engineers, planners, surveyors, researchers, miners and a variety of office staff. An industry of subsidiary companies has cropped up, too, providing services and machinery to the mines. Other grads go on to work in civil service, including the government's Chamber of Mines, the Minerals Commission or the overseeing ministry.
Ghana's gold mining sector represents about 5 percent of this West African nation's gross domestic product and is roughly equivalent to its other main export, cocoa. With increasing investments from foreign mining companies, Ghana has become the No. 2 gold producer on the African continent, behind South Africa. As mining companies have faced stiffer environmental regulations and higher production costs in industrialized nations, operations in developing countries have boomed.
While a handful of female graduates now work in the mines or other positions out in the field such as surveying, many are using their mining education as a springboard to steady white-collar jobs in the offices of mining companies and subsidiary industries, Mireku-Gyimah said.
Female Applicants Slow
Inducing women to apply to the school hasn't been an easy task, the vice chancellor said. There are plenty of beliefs about the mining sector that keep women from applying.
"They think it's too manual, you need sheer physical strength to be a mining engineer," Mireku-Gyimah said. But he's quick to note that a small number of women--including UMaT grads--work side by side in the pits with men.
Asamoah said many women have been hesitant to leave their families and go to remote male-dominated mining sites.
With a laugh, she says she enrolled at UMaT by mistake. When she enrolled in mineral engineering, Asamoah--who grew up in the eastern end of Ghana, far from the mine-rich west--thought she would be studying jewelry.
In her first week at school, her class took a field trip to a mine and Asamoah realized what she had gotten into. But instead of dropping out, she stuck with it.
"I was fascinated about everything," she said.
To attract female students the school about six years ago began giving female applicants the edge over male applicants if their grades were the same. He traces the school's initial interest in affirmative action for women to 1986 when Ghana signed on to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW, which was inconsistent with laws barring women from mine work.
The school enrolled its first female student in the early 1990s and sends female students to secondary schools across the country to promote mining studies to women.
"Every institution, every country is also singing with the same voice: give the ladies a chance," Mireku-Gyimah said.
On a Monday morning, students flow in a steady stream from their tiny dorm rooms to classroom halls for exams. Female students mingle with male friends, chatting, laughing and sharing last minute study notes in the humid morning air that is standard in this lush green part of West Africa.
Second-year student Gladys Obotey, 20, said being in such a minority isn't always easy for female students.
"There are some ladies who are unable to click with the guys so they feel isolated," Obotey said, but quickly adds that she enjoys the situation.
"The guys feel they do the hardest courses and they think they're tough," she said with a laugh. "They want to be very competitive."
For 22-year-old Lordina Taylor, it was the lure of the precious metal that drew her to UMaT.
Ghanaian gold is the ornate symbol of the legendary Ashanti kingdom, whose ruler--called Asantehene--is still highly revered by several million ethnic Ashanti Ghanaians. The symbol of the Asantehene is a stool cast in solid gold and during pre-colonial time many Ashantis grew rich trading in gold mined in the area.
"I like the color, I like everything about it," said Taylor, who plans to continue with her post-graduate education at the school.
Taylor also says that studying in a male-dominated field gives her a sense of pride.
"It's been realizing we can actually do what men do," she said. "It's not so difficult."
Emily Bowers is a freelance journalist in Accra, Ghana.
This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.