What it's like for Alice at Helensburgh mine

Mining engineer Alice Sila  at Helensburgh’s Metropolitan mine. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Mining engineer Alice Sila at Helensburgh’s Metropolitan mine. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Mining engineer Alice Sila is doing it for the girls. She received an award from the NSW Women in Mining group for her efforts in the traditionally male-dominated industry. She spoke to  EMMA SPILLETT from Peabody Energy’s Helensburgh mine.

For Alice Sila, the deep underground crevices of Helensburgh's Metropolitan mine immediately felt like home.

The 24-year-old has never feared spending hours in a dark, dirty space with limited ventilation and dozens of smelly blokes, admitting she gets a sense of peace below the surface.

"I've always felt like I was in my element down there," she said.

"I was never nervous about it - I loved it from the first time I went down there on a field trip while I was at university ... as soon as I went under, I knew that's where I wanted to be."

Alice is one of only a handful of women working in the Australian mining industry, despite ongoing attempts to make the sector more female-friendly.

'Mum loves telling people her son studied hotel management while her daughter studied mining.'

While shifts in traditional attitudes about "male" and "female" jobs have penetrated many workplaces, mines continue to be male-dominated, mainly attracting workers who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty.

After six years at an all-girls school in Sydney, the chance to rough it with the boys was appealing to a teenage Alice.

She had studied maths and science at school and was keen to find a degree that combined her education with practical experience.

"Not many other girls at school were interested in engineering but I'd always had it in the back of my mind," she said.

"I remember going to the University of NSW (UNSW) careers' fair - I stood in the hall near the engineering section and I was trying to look for something that might suit my personality and desire to do hands-on, physical work.

A conveyor belt carries the coal to the stockpile where it is then loaded on to trucks at Metropolitan Colliery, Helensburgh.  Picture: MICHELE MOSSOP

A conveyor belt carries the coal to the stockpile where it is then loaded on to trucks at Metropolitan Colliery, Helensburgh. Picture: MICHELE MOSSOP

"I was approached by a lecturer from the school of mining who talked to me about the industry and from that point on, it was what I wanted to do."

Her parents, who both work in hospitality, were initially surprised by their daughter's decision, picturing their little girl moving to a dusty mine in the middle of nowhere.

"We didn't have any family or friends with a connection to mining so it was a bit of a shock when I told them what I'd decided to study," she laughed.

"It was a bit hard on mum at first - she was worried about me going underground and having to move away but she soon came to see it was what I wanted to do.

"Now, they're really proud - mum loves telling people her son studied hotel management while her daughter studied mining."

Alice enrolled in a mining engineering degree, along with a bachelor of science, at UNSW, entering the course as one of only five women in a class of 30.

 Alice Sila with miner Ian Moore. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Alice Sila with miner Ian Moore. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

When she graduated, she was one of just three women who received their degree.

"Everyone knows the stereotypes of the industry being very male-dominated and I knew that going in," she said.

"I wasn't quite sure what sort of [male to female] ratio to expect [but apparently] there was more females in my class than there had been in previous years."

Despite the gender divide, Alice said the male students never treated her differently and she made it clear she could mix it with the boys.

"I was part of the Australian Airforce cadets so that sort of started me off in a male-dominated environment, I think there were four females in our class of 25," she said.

"It really helped me adapt - the boys were sort of like our 'big brothers' in the course; they were very protective but we were all protective of each other; we were such a small cohort that we ended up being like a family."

Alice witnessed that sense of community firsthand during her training positions at mines across the country.

After a stint at a Donaldson Coal mine in Newcastle, the then 20-year-old was swiftly jilted out of her comfort zone when she joined Peabody's graduate program and was sent to work at its North Goonyella mine in central Queensland.

A far cry from her parents' comfortable Bexley home, Alice walked off the plane at Mackay Airport into a camp-style mine, kilometres away from civilisation.

"I remember driving out to the camp and seeing it and realising it was going to be an eye-opener," she said.

"I'd lived with my parents all my life and suddenly I had to be independent, at a drive-in, drive-out mine site; it was totally different to anything I'd ever seen before."

After adjusting to the weather ("it was 43 degrees in the shade and 95 per cent humidity)", Alice soon relished the chance to get underground, as well as brush up on her surface skills.

"I think when I was in Newcastle, it was pretty early in my studies so I didn't know enough about what I wanted and what I wanted to take away from the experience," she said.

"Goonyella was completely new to me but I really enjoyed it.

"Leading up to it, I'd done all this study without having full-on exposure to the industry and I remember thinking: 'I hope I like this' - that trip really cemented that point, I knew I could see myself doing it for the rest of my life."

She decided to test her management skills during a training round at Peabody's Wambo mine in the Hunter Valley, overseeing a crew.

Despite leading an all-male team, some nearly 40 years her senior, Alice said she never faced any resistance, especially after she demonstrated she was willing to pitch in.

"Everywhere I've gone, I've always gone in with a very hands-on approach," she said.

"I want to try to do everything and when I lead a group of people, I want to experience what they've done - I believe to succeed you have to work from the bottom up.

"I think the guys saw that I was willing to do what they were doing; there are a lot of stereotypes about girls not wanting to get their hands dirty but I proved I was willing to do it."

Alice has been at the Helensburgh mine since June last year, often working nearly 12-hour days, filled with a flurry of underground work, shift meetings and crew briefings.

But it's the underground time that the mining engineer really loves, particularly the camaraderie below the dirt.

"There is that sense of mateship, of everyone looking after one another, no matter who you are or what you think," she said.

"Sometimes I feel like a lot of the older guys take a father stance with me - it's great because they have children, they know the best approach to teach things and I think I've really benefited from that."

This month, Alice received the Rising Star Award from the NSW Women in Mining group, recognising exceptional achievement by a woman who has been working in the industry for up to five years.

While the award came as a shock, Alice said she was happy to be a spokeswoman for her gender, hitting home that women can do just as well as their male counterparts in the industry.

"The award was a reminder that just by being here, by taking part in the daily operation of the mine, I'm challenging these stereotypes [and] showing other people women can succeed in mining," she said.

"There really are no limits for women in this industry - it just depends on your drive and what you want to achieve.

"I think there is this stereotype that women in mining have to be tomboys - I wouldn't call myself a girly girl but I do like to wear high heels on my day off and all the guys [in the mine] know that too."

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