Date posted: 1/12/2016 4 min read

Mining through the glass ceiling

Meet the accountant turned mining industry guru on a mission to boost the confidence of women in the workplace

In brief

  • While half of the population of WA are women, its mining industry is male-dominated
  • Despite Australia’s most famous mining CEO being Gina Rinehart, only 2.6 per cent of chief executive officers and 12.3 per cent of key management personnel in the mining industry are women, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency
  • When Warburton was named 2014 Telstra WA Business Woman of the Year (she also won the 2015 NAB Women's Agenda Mentor of the Year title), she took the prize money to create the Steel Heels website

For the 2.6 million people who live in Western Australia, the mining industry has long been the economic engine room of the state, bringing affluence and country-wide power. However, within the WA economy lies an imbalance of equality and diversity.

While half of the population of WA are women, its mining industry is male-dominated. Isolated not just from the rest of the world, but in many ways Australia too, WA has evolved into an amplification of the gender imbalance issues that plague much of the corporate world.

Despite Australia’s most famous mining CEO being Gina Rinehart, only 2.6 per cent of chief executive officers and 12.3 per cent of key management personnel in the mining industry are women, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Tackling this imbalance in WA’s mining industry, and beyond, is a chartered accountant turned multi-role non-executive director for the mining industry, Sharon Warburton FCA.

Raised in the bush land of northwest WA, Warburton juggles four such roles today, being a non-executive director at Fortescue Metals Group, Gold Road Resources and Western Power, alongside being the Chairman at Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF).

While those positions keep Warburton sufficiently busy - she plans to take on another such role next year — it is the role of women in the mining sector, and other male-dominated industries, that draws Warburton’s focus.

“I saw a trend for those women working in an industry dominated by males that after a period in the workplace, the female’s self-confidence was eroding.”

“I spend a lot of my spare time mentoring emerging leaders, especially emerging female leaders,” Warburton told Acuity.

“I saw a trend for those women working in an industry dominated by males that after a period in the workplace, the female’s self-confidence was eroding.”

From these observations, Warburton founded Steel Heels, which is “aimed at increasing the self-confidence in working women”, she says.

“I started the website — steelheels.com.au — as I did not have enough time to face-to-face mentor everyone who was reaching out to me for support.”

When Warburton was named 2014 Telstra WA Business Woman of the Year (she also won the 2015 NAB Women's Agenda Mentor of the Year title), she took the prize money to create the Steel Heels website.

“I created the website so I can instill the same message to more women as I do not have enough hours in the day to see people face-to-face,” Warburton said.

“Steel Heels runs off the smell of an oily rag and I use my speaking engagement fees to fund further development of the site.”

On a day-to-day basis Warburton is generating ideas and stories to share, and encouraging other women to share their stories.

“I want a platform for women to support each other,” Warburton says.

“Every fortnight I share a guest blog that somebody has written about something that has happened in their career. I then write some positive Steel Heel tips on the bottom of that.

“Those blogs are read by thousands of men and women around the world. I regularly get emails from people saying the blogs have inspired them to have a go at something they haven’t tried before, or it has given them some ideas on how to deal with a difficult situation.

“I also write some articles and share interviews about women doing some amazing roles, particularly in male-dominated industries,” she says.

Paid-up members of Steel Heels receive the additional benefit of gaining access to Warburton’s “tool kit”, which features e-magazines she has written to guide women through different situations and offer tips on how she approaches situations.

“For example, information on a networking plan, my interview preparation, preparing for a performance review, and preparing for pay rise discussions.”

Accounting origins

Warburton accredits some of her career success to her bush upbringing. Her father was a tradie, with Warburton spending much of her time in his workshop, meaning such an “environment became very comfortable” to her. It would hold her in good stead for the hard-hat wearing days as a senior player in WA’s mining industry.

Warburton was the child of two hard-working parents, so from a very early age the value of working hard was instilled. This work ethic was then transferred into her studies.

“I was the first in my extended family to complete university,” she says.

“While studying at university, I used to work at Woolworths at the weekends counting cash and calculating wages. The lady who did that job on a full-time basis said I should become an accountant as I was so good with numbers.”

It was that comment alone which encouraged Warburton to go to university and study a Bachelor of Business. After she qualified as a chartered accountant, she saw a job in the mining industry. As a kid who grew up in the northwest of Western Australia, Warburton would often go up to the mining towns for sporting festivals or carnivals.

“So I was excited to work as an accountant in the mining industry,” she says.

“That is what began my career in mining. Having grown up in my Dad’s workshop and seeing my parents work so hard, it did not feel like an unusual thing to do.”

Warburton says it has been pleasing to see the accounting industry grow and change so much since she started out.

“When I first joined the industry it was very much about organisations which specialised in auditing, with some boutique services around tax and financial advice,” she says.

“It is wonderful now to see the accounting industry actually being seen as a broader influence in decision-making in organisations, and applying accounting expertise to a much broader range of functions within our society.”

Warburton says the accounting industry has embraced technology, an area that will continue to provide massive opportunities for the sector.

“That drive of technology will mean the industry will need to continue adapting to change, perhaps even at a greater pace that it has done so far today to continue to be successful.”

Despite Warburton’s transition from accounting into the mining industry, the advent of Steel Heels has produced an element of returning focus to her former profession.

“Steel Heels was originally created for the mining, construction and oil sectors, but what I am discovering is a growing following in the consulting and financial services, accounting and legal professions,” she explains.

“Women in those industries, particularly when they try to strategise how they are going to juggle becoming senior in their organisation with having a family, see the same issues in the erosion of self-confidence.

“I also see the same issues in lacking confidence to having a go at becoming very senior in those firms. We still see quite a drop off in the big consulting and accounting houses in the gender diversity ratios as the role gets closer to partner.”

So what does the future hold for Warburton?

“I’m settling into my new career as a full-time non-executive director, so my plan is to put my head down and focus on those roles, learn as much as I can and certainly with a medium to long-term goal I will secure non-executive director and chairman roles at other large corporations.”

Considering Warburton’s credentials to date, she is unlikely to be short on offers.

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.

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