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Diana Benz - WGC director

How did you decide on pursuing your degree(s)? Did you know about geology before you entered university?

My decision to pursue a degree in geology came after working in a heavy mineral processing lab during my last year of undergraduate studies in biology. I had always thought that geology was about immutable materials that had lacked the intricacies of biological systems until I started working as a GIS technician in the “war room” where all the exploration plans were created. In that “war room” I learned about the complexities of the interactions between geological processes and the challenge of finding the ore deposit.

Describe your career progression since finishing undergrad.

After finishing a B.Sc. degree in biology, I continued to work at the lab until a downturn in the exploration industry. I then did temp work for the BC Ministry of Environment, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore so I returned to the lab when the industry started its upswing again. I then set out to learn everything about geology by working in various areas in the lab and began coursework for an undergraduate degree in geology. Everything was going well, I would work nights and take classes during the day but two areas eluded me: the manual labour portion of lab work and field work.

Occasionally, the guys who did the initial prep on the samples (the manual labour) would be sent around the world to help collect the samples. Not only did they get to make more money in the field, they visited amazing places very few humans, if any, have walked before and they significantly contributed to finding the ore by collecting the samples that could lead to a discovery. After being refused by management, multiple times, for not “looking” physically strong enough, I was eventually hired by the lab’s owner for field work in the Northwest Territories, then Greenland and Ontario, looking for diamonds. Apparently, I was the first “small” female hired for field work in the company, the second female hired for field work in its history, and my field boss enjoyed the logistics of being able to carry a few more samples in the helicopter as well as having more space in the front seat (I was usually assigned to the front middle seat of the helicopter).

After finishing a few semesters doing undergrad courses for a geology degree, one of my professors suggested I skip ahead to a Master’s degree working with his colleague at the University of Windsor. Following my Master’s, I did a winter drill program in the Northwest Territories then landed a full-time job in a new department within a consulting company. The department didn’t manage to survive the next downturn in exploration so I went back to grad school to pursue a Ph.D. degree to work on the theory of finding ore deposits. After finishing my Ph.D. course work, I spent a summer in the Yukon looking for gold and, after the contract ended, I started a consulting company. I have been running my company for the past eight years and graduated with a Ph.D. in 2017.

If you could go back to your first year in undergrad, would you pick the same degree and career trajectory? Why/why not?

Yes, I would travel along the same path I took over 20 years ago. I believe my education and experiences have given me a unique outlook on mineral exploration where vegetation and till cover are not hindrances to exploration but are another tool to be used, where placating local interest groups and following environmental policies are not a hurdle but working with them and exceeding guidelines are necessities for a sustainable industry, and where “seeing the forest for the trees” has distinct advantages – geology tends to be taught from a detail-oriented point-of-view where the detailed parts creates the model (e.g., individual mineral/rock element values, detailed structure and lithological mapping put together with petrography studies define the final models), whereas biology is more system-oriented with the system’s dynamics creating the model (e.g., putting together the geological setting, mineral/rock geochemistry {not just individual element values}, regional structures and local details).

The one thing I would change, however, would have been to continue with pursuing a B.Sc. in geology rather than skipping ahead to a Master’s degree, but that only has to do with how the local professional association is currently set-up with regards to educational background.

What are the three best things about your job/career? What are three things you would change?

Travel, solving puzzles and working within a team in remote places are the three best aspects of my career. Three things I would like to change are improved safety, expanded social/environmental awareness and increased operational transparency.

Why did you become involved with WGC as a director?

I grew up in the 80’s and was a young adult in the 90’s. I had thought that gender bias was a thing of the past because I saw women had and could pursue their chosen career. When I encountered situations that didn’t seem quite right, I thought those were just the rules we had to follow. I had thought that the difficulty finding work, the extra work with the lack of promotions and the anger encountered when I didn’t fall in line after I didn’t agree with something were just a part of the cyclical mineral exploration industry and some peoples’ misinterpretation that I am not the meek, quiet female I appear the be.

It wasn’t until recently when some off-hand comments from a couple of male co-workers that they had never had difficulty finding work, one with over 20 years’ experience and another with around 5 years’ experience, that it hit home that maybe my struggles were actually a result of the system. I looked back over my 20+ year career to find I’ve had unpaid time while the ‘guys’ were sent out to camp to build a ‘ladies’ shower that the lead geologist insisted upon, I’ve had male friends approached at conferences offering them work but I’m effectively ignored or stared at when I interjected that I am available too, I’ve been mistaken for a kitchen worker in larger camps and was often are housed with the camp cooks enforcing that idea, support staff have told management that I shouldn’t be living under such harsh conditions in camp with their only reason being that I’m a lady, people have tried to bully or harass me into doing things I didn’t think were professional or scientifically sound, I’ve been overlooked for management positions forcing me to start-over elsewhere and I’ve never been hired by a woman (I was re-hired once, by a woman, for a position I had held before). The list goes on.

I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve encountered. I love my chosen career and I don’t want to give it up. I don’t want anyone to have to choose between something they love to do and their financial or spiritual well-being. I also want women to advocate for each other. There is no reason we should feel we’re in competition with each other and there is room at the table for more than 1 token female.

Why is gender balance in mineral exploration important to you?

Gender balance will happen naturally when equal opportunities are given to all. When I am at work, I don’t think of myself as female and my co-workers as male. I look at us as a team working towards a common goal and when you remove biases it is amazing what a diverse team can accomplish in a short period of time.

Why should it be important for everyone?

There is a big difference between a diverse team and a team composed of similar individuals. Diverse teams may feel less comfortable, at first, but they are better able to deal with situations due to their varied backgrounds and experiences. A homogenous team may feel more comfortable but is less equipped to deal with adversities and provide novel solutions. Dealing with adversities and providing novel solutions are essential to mineral exploration, particularly when operating in remote areas.

What advice would you give to young women starting a career in mineral exploration?

Always be professional. An exploration camp is not an appropriate environment to begin or have a romance. It not only decreases the respect people have for you but for every woman who enters that camp.

Speak up for yourself and others when something doesn’t seem quite right and be diplomatic about it. Be mindful that most people will be ignorant that some situations may make other people uncomfortable and try to ask yourself if you would feel this uncomfortable in an office situation versus a remote work site. Working in a remote area can make some people feel more vulnerable and sometimes others will put themselves out there more to try to make a connection. For example, if an older man is saying good morning to you every day then ask him about his family over breakfast. It’s possible you remind him of a teenage daughter at home or he wants to try to make you feel more welcome because he has a female relative also working in remote areas. It’s also possible that he may think that what happens in camp, stays in camp in which case you have an opportunity to shut him down and a definite reason to talk to peers and management. If a situation makes you feel uncomfortable tell someone. It’s likely that you are not alone and I have found that my peers, the people I work with daily, are the best advocates.

Stay where you are wanted and respected. If your ideas are dismissed, your hard-work is taken for granted and you’re stuck doing the same job because “you are good at it” then move on to the next position. They don’t deserve you.

What motivates you and keeps you busy outside of mineral exploration?

I do a lot of unpaid work in the form of Research & Development to improve ore targeting and, more recently, green mining practices. When I’m not pursuing research I run a small hobby farm complete with a big garden, chickens, dogs, a cat, some fish and a lots of wildlife. I also like vegan cooking and modifying recipes into healthier versions with less refined fats and sugar. Occasionally, I do have some time to explore on my 2009 Honda CFR 230M motorbike or tackle some back roads with my little family in our Jeep.

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