Sam Walsh, CEO, Wants More Women At Rio Tinto

9-7-15I wrote this post for LinkedIn Pulse during the week and had women phone me and email me personally so I am reproducing it here. I heard from one woman in the mining industry who could not respond publicly but who validated the concerns I express in my post. Women’s confidence is not the problem. The very masculine culture of the mining industry demands that women be more male than the males.


Rio Tinto is a leading global mining group with a 60,000 strong workforce across 40 countries. 82% of its workforce  is male. Sam Walsh, the CEO, wants to change that. In an article in The Australian Financial Review (3/7/15) he says he wants to boost women’s ranks in his organisation.  The reason this hasn’t happened to date he places firmly in the court of women themselves.

He says that women lack the confidence to take on the roles available to them. He says that when men are offered promotions and opportunities, they jump at them. Women, he says, will make comments like: “I’ve never done that before,” or “That would be a big stretch for me,” and they decline it.

There is some truth in that and we women have to acknowledge a failing in that area. It is well known that men will apply for positions when they only have 20-30% of the requirements for the position. Women won’t apply unless they have 80-90%. We do have to be more confident in our own talents and abilities.

Walsh’s message to us women, and he is very right, is that “you need to have more confidence in your ability to adapt, your ability to be resilient, your ability to be flexible and responsive to a new challenge and you need to take a risk.” Women do all those things in their personal lives. They are resilient, flexible and adaptable. Having children makes you that way. Grappling with gender issues in our society makes you that way. So why are they not as good at all those things in the workplace?

But maybe there is more to this? I want to come back to Sam Walsh with a question. How female friendly is his organisation where 82% of its workforce is male? Has he and Rio Tinto looked internally at what might be stopping women from taking on bigger roles within the organisation? What kind of support would there be for women in such an organisation?  Would they have to be women acting like men? Is the culture of Rio Tinto very masculine? Does it enhance the pathways and opportunities for men with gold and those for women with great rocks over which they have to scramble, bruising and bleeding on the way?

It is recognised that until 20% of an organisation’s senior people are female, the organisation’s culture will be very oriented towards the masculine. 20% seems to be the tipping point where organisations can become much more gender complementary.

Talented  women have spoken over and over about the challenge of being a leader in an organisation whose culture is very masculine, where networking happens after work at the pub or the club, where playing golf is essential to rising through the ranks, where leadership meetings happen at 7 a.m., where there is an expectation that they will still be at work at 8 p.m.

Is it any wonder that women hesitate to move on and up in these kinds of organisations? Maybe, they are not lacking confidence in their own ability. Maybe they are questioning whether they can integrate a leadership role in Rio Tinto with their other important roles – that of wife, mother, friend, sister and daughter, whether they want to compromise the other important things in their lives.


Leave a Comment