Cameco vows to improve mine camp life for female employees

After complaints of sexism at its northern uranium mine sites, Cameco says it will work on improving working conditions for female employees.

Former workers at northern uranium mines complain of sexist comments, attitudes on the job

Cameco and Areva co-own the uranium mine at Cigar Lake. It opened in 2015, after numerous delays caused by flooding.

​Cameco's chief operating officer says there are "certainly areas" where she can improve working conditions for female employees.

The uranium giant is fielding a number of complaints about sexist comments and attitudes at its Cigar Lake mine, where men far outnumber women.

"It was just a hard environment to work in," Kari Lentowicz told CBC News last month.

"The men far outnumber the women and as far as mining goes, they really hardwire that gender disparity in there, into their camps."

Lentowicz worked for Cameco for more than a decade before she quit last year.

She and other women in the mining industry told CBC they were initially reluctant to draw attention to sexist behaviour, as they did not want to damage their prospects for promotions.

But Alice Wong, Cameco's chief operating officer, said both men and women are responsible for speaking up when they overhear inappropriate jokes or comments at work.

Kari Lentowicz, left, and Kirstin Foster both say their experiences in the mining industry confirm that sexist attitudes persist. (Photos submitted by Kari Lentowicz and Kirstin Foster)

"Ideally the person who is experiencing it should be able to speak up but also the people around them should speak up and not allow that to happen," said Wong.

She said Cameco is reviewing its programs and policies, reinforcing respectful workplace requirements, and providing specific training on topics such as gender bias and unconscious bias.

Uranium mine site designed primarily for men

"I've talked to more than 400 women in the company, and so I did hear some of those examples," Wong said. "It really is about bringing attention to the issue and then trying to reinforce the right behaviour."

The facilities were designed at a time when there were fewer women at the site.- Alice Wong, Cameco's chief operating officer

She said the company is considering retrofitting or changing some of its work camp facilities. At Cigar Lake, for example, there are 40 lockers for women, and 400 lockers for men. 

"We know there are some challenges out there for sure," said Alice Wong, Cameco's chief operating officer. (Cameco)

"The facilities were designed at a time when there were fewer women at the site so this is a historical issue that we have," said Wong.

The uranium mine at Cigar Lake was designed 34 years ago, but did not officially open until two years ago, after numerous delays caused by flooding.

"We're looking at ways to try to improve and make it more comfortable for our women employees."

The company currently has no "firm timeline" for completing that work, Wong said.

Cameco said women make up about 25 per cent of its workforce. It could not say how many of them work primarily underground. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Sensitivity training a start, but discipline is also an option

Wong said women make up 25 per cent of Cameco's workforce, although she could not say how many of those women spend most of their time working underground.

"We know there are some challenges out there for sure," said Wong. "We're working on trying to ensure that we have a supportive environment for everyone."

Wong called a situation described by Lentowicz where a man said "stripper's here" as she walked by "unacceptable," and urged female colleagues to contact a supervisor or even her directly, when they encounter similar situations.

"That behaviour is unacceptable," said Wong. "Absolutely we start with sensitivity training and respectful workplace training but obviously there is stepped discipline if things like that occur."