'Hey gorgeous': Meet 2 women sick of sexism and discrimination in mining

The kind of crass, sexist attitudes that lead to a camera being planted in the women’s washroom of the Ekati diamond mine doesn’t surprise some women with experience working in the mining industry.

Some women stay silent and endure unwelcome situations, others quit the industry

Kari Lentowicz, left, and Kirstin Foster both say their experiences in the mining industry confirm that the kinds of sexist attitudes that led to a camera being discovered in the women's washroom at the Ekati Diamond mine in the N.W.T. are widespread. (Photos submitted by Kari Lentowicz and Kirstin Foster)

The crass, sexist attitudes that lead to a camera being planted in the women's washroom of the Ekati diamond mine don't surprise some women with experience working in the mining industry.

On July 27, a camera hidden in the women's washroom of the mine was brought to a camp administrator's office for safe-keeping until security could arrive. But by the time they got there it was missing.

Ekati is about 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. Workers live at the mine, typically working shifts of two weeks on and two weeks off.

RCMP and mine security are still investigating the camera incident, but two women with experience in the industry say the conditions that make an episode like this possible are all too common.

Kari Lentowicz worked at a mine in Saskatchewan for more than 12 years before she said she couldn't take it anymore.

"It was just a hard environment to work in," said Lentowicz. "The men far outnumber the women and as far as mining goes, they really hardwire that gender disparity in there, into their camps."

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Demeaning comments, hard to complain

Lentowicz said that even the camp's infrastructure reflected the inequality between men and women: her camp had 40 lockers for women and 400 for men. When she complained about the disparity, she was told that there would never be that many women at the mine site.

"That mindset really puts women back," she said.

But she saw the biggest problems with her peers. Some men would only greet her by saying "hey gorgeous," which she found demeaning.

Lentowicz said lodging a complaint would put women at a risk of losing opportunities, because it strained necessary work relationships.

She's had multiple issues with men making her uncomfortable in the workplace. Including one occasion where a man said "stripper's here" about Lentowicz as she walked by.

But it's not just men that are making work difficult. Lentowicz said women at mine sites became very competitive and viewed each other as threats.

"It's not ideal for women working up there," said Lentowicz. She left the mining industry altogether, "because some of the fights that you were fighting weren't worth the stress."

She's not surprised that someone hid a camera in the washroom at Ekati mine, saying it's an easy thing to do.

An aerial view of the Ekati mine, 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. (Dominion Diamond Corporation)

Camps are supposed to be a worker's home

Kristin Foster has worked as a mining engineer since 2010, and has worked in two northern mines. She said she wasn't surprised to hear about the camera either, but she does find it concerning.

"Camps are your home for the duration of your time at work," said Foster. "It makes you wary of wanting to go to work and use the facilities because you don't know what's going to happen."

Foster has had difficulties being a woman in the mining industry as well. She said it first hit her when she realized she was the only female working underground at a mine north of Thunder Bay.

"All the other girls were in accounting and HR."

Getting training was an issue as well. Foster didn't get to partake in some training that included physical labour because her supervisor didn't want her to get hurt.

But all the men were allowed to do the training, and Foster said some of the men were smaller than her. "That was hard on me."

Time to speak out

Foster and Lentowicz are speaking out after responding to a LinkedIn article by Anne Belanger. Belanger wrote about her experience as a woman in the mining industry and how sexism led her to quit.

Both women said they saw a lot of their own experiences reflected in the article. Lentowicz said it's important for women to start speaking out about their experiences, but she did have to leave the industry before she felt comfortable talking about it publicly.

Foster said she would discuss her discomfort with other women at the mine, but she didn't know who could help fix the problem. Because "it was just a general feeling of being uncomfortable," and there was no specific complaint Foster felt she could bring to human resources.

Lentowicz wants to see more women in the mining industry, and wants more women to speak up about their experiences.