ZACATECAS, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–Cony Solis, 26, an industrial engineer, is the only female administrator at the Penasquito mine in Zacatecas, a state in north-central Mexico with a long mining tradition. Many other women work down in the mines.
"Our presence has been growing in this industry," she says.
Solis says that 10 percent of the 3,000 employees in this deposit, where an enormous desert guards some 13 million ounces of gold, silver and zinc, are women. She calls her work a "labor conquest" because it took so long for women to be accepted into this traditionally male industry. She is a second-generation "mining woman," as her mother operates a giant truck at the mine.
The major reason the industry opened up to women is the male labor shortage in Mexico that has resulted from many men continuing to migrate to the United States in search of better wages and employment opportunities.
Mexico has become one of the largest exporters of labor in the world, according to the National Population Council.
Solis says that many of the women in mining today had fathers or brothers who also worked in the industry.
"But in many cases, those men went to United States and someone had to work and to maintain the family," she says.
Industry officials and employees also attribute women’s inclusion in mining to new technology and industrial and personal protection systems, which have modernized Mexican and transnational mining businesses.
Mining jobs used to require extraordinary physical strength, says Sergio Almazan, director of the Mining Chamber of Mexico, CAMIMEX, a lobbying group.
"Today, thanks to the machines and the professionalization, things are different," he says.
He says women are even working throughout the industry as geologists, engineers, researchers and executives.
Physically Trying Profession
Still, the mining industry remains one of the most physically trying of the labor professions, especially for mothers.
"In any case, the work is hard and here there are many mothers who have to leave their children to come to cover their shifts," says Solis, who, with an administrative position, is not subject to the same schedules as the operators.
Many companies make mining more viable for women by constructing "bedroom communities" or "dormitory towns" near the mining deposits, where workers stay for their 14 workdays of up to 15-hour shifts, followed by seven rest days. The "mining cities" also have basic and emergency services, such as a medical clinic, a doctor, ambulances and fire trucks.
A university graduate, Solis entered the mining industry by choice. But the majority of the mining women in Mexico – and in other Latin American countries – entered the industry because they had few other options to support their families. Nevertheless, their presence has prompted positive changes.
Mining is the third most important industry in Mexico, after petroleum and tourism, according to official sources. The number of employees in the mining industry has risen to almost 286,000, according to the Mexican Social Security Institute’s latest data. Industry officials say they don’t know how many of these workers are female, but that their numbers are undoubtedly increasing.
"There are some businesses that staff up to 40 percent of their plants with female personnel, and this is without a doubt increasing," Almazan says.
In Chile, Bolivia and Peru, local unions now represent more than 2,000 women. Various countries in Latin America also hold Women in Mining Congresses to discuss issues such as women’s dual jobs in mines and at home as mothers and housewives. But Mexico has been slow to adapt in this respect.
Superstitions Fuel Exclusion
Women’s traditional exclusion from the industry in Mexico was supported by a widespread superstition that said the land refused to deliver its treasures to women, and if any woman dared to enter the mine, it would become jealous and close, causing cave-ins and hiding its wealth.
"I always listened to the saying that if a woman entered, the mine closed," Solis says.
Almazan says that Mexico is not the only country that has welcomed women into the mining industry but that it is one of the pioneers.
"Without a doubt Mexico has been the spearhead for the inclusion of the women in the mining industry," Almazan says.
And Almazan says the women have proved themselves.
"The inclusion of the women in the mining industry has been a total success – a true discovery for an industry that was 100 percent destined for men," Almazan says.
He says they have made labor relations more respectful and harmonic.
"The businesses have also discovered that the women are a lot more careful with the teams they handle, they are responsible, they do not fall into problems of alcoholism or of work absenteeism," he says.
"It is true that we are not as strong as the men, but I believe that we are more resistant to adverse conditions, such as the cold or to spending many hours working," she says.
Joana Moreno, 24, one of 16 women working in another gold deposit, "El Sauzal," in Chihuahua, a state north of Zacatecas that also has a long mining tradition, says the masculine environment takes getting used to.
"You live in an environment of men and you have to adapt," Moreno says.
Driving a large truck, Moreno says she is used to her new job and happy here.
The mining women say they receive equal pay with their male counterparts. Moreno makes $760 a month and Solis’ mother earns $840 a month as operators of the trucks. An administrator and a professional, Solis makes $1,175 a month.
But Solis says that some supervisors are still confronting negative reactions from some men. Various industry insiders say that hundreds of years of sexist tradition will not be forgotten in a few years.
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Cristina Avila-Zesatti joined Global Press Institute in 2010 and considers herself to be a "peace correspondent."