Navigating a career in the traditionally male-dominated mining sector is not for the faint of heart and requires strength and resilience. From her beginnings as an underground miner to her current role as President and Chair of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM), Nicole Brook shares how she overcame obstacles to establish a successful career in the industry.

Despite building an impressive career and passion for the industry, Nicole Brook didn’t always dream of working in the mining and resources sector.

Like many others, Ms Brook didn’t know what she wanted to do when she finished Year 12. Electing to take a general engineering degree at the University of Tasmania, Ms Brook first found out about mining engineering from a friend. Her immense love of learning is what initially drew her to the discipline.

“At the very core of my being is that I love to learn – it’s what I live for. It’s my favourite thing to do.”

Ms Brook said that the appeal of studying mining engineering was that it offered her the chance to learn about not just one engineering discipline, but all of them.

“You learn about geology, surveying, environmental science – it’s such a broad field of study. The breadth of things I could learn about was what attracted me to mining engineering.”

Once she had immersed herself in the world of mining engineering through her university studies, Ms Brook’s first vocational work experience at the Renison tin mine on the West Coast of Tasmania solidified her interest in pursuing a career in the resources industry.

“I loved the application of what I’d been learning at university into what I was doing on the mine site. But even more so, I loved the camaraderie of the people I worked with in underground mines. You’re in that situation where you absolutely need to rely on each other and that’s very inherent in my nature – it really suits the way I like to work.

“I fell in love with it, and decided this is the place for me. Lots of things to do, lots of things to learn and great people to learn them with.”

Women waiting to go underground, 1995. Image: South Blackwater Coal

Women waiting to go underground, 1995. Image: South Blackwater Coal

Starting in the industry

After graduating, Ms Brook’s first few industry roles involved working in underground mines in New South Wales and Queensland. During this time, Ms Brook faced two significant experiences that impacted her deeply on both a personal and professional level, acting as the driving force behind the types of roles she sought out throughout her career.

Tragically, there was a fatality at the underground mine Ms Brook worked at within her first year of work in the sector, which makes her emotional to this day.

“That event really instilled in me an absolute passion for understanding the environment in which we mined and making it safe for everyone. It drove my technical passion to really understand the geology, the geotechnical, the ventilation – all of the things that go into making a mining environment safe. I wanted to learn as much as I could about difficult technical environments.”

Within the same 12-month period, the mine that Ms Brook was working on went bankrupt.

“I saw the impact that had on not only the workforce, but also the management team, the community and the broader suppliers and mining services industry.”

The experience drove her to want to learn more about the business of mining so she could gain the knowledge required to generate opportunities for people and create sustainable mines.

From field to boardroom

Since that time, Ms Brook has worked in a wide variety of roles, ranging from technically challenging positions in remote locations in which she learnt how to best manage the mines, to corporate business development roles in capital cities where she learnt about the business side of mining. Ms Brook has also worked in consultancy roles, which she said are a combination of both.

“It was all of those experiences that I sought, driven by those two early experiences, that developed my skill set and then led me to the roles where I feel I can make the most impact.”

Currently, Ms Brook is a Non Executive Director at Whitehaven Coal and the President and Chair at AusIMM. While the two roles seem quite different – one at an ASX 100 company and the other a not-for-profit association representing professionals in the resources industry – Ms Brook said the roles are really quite similar; both positions require her to harness the experience she’s gained throughout her career to influence outcomes in the resources industry.

“Both roles involve firstly developing a deep understanding of the business. You’re always scanning the horizon for trends that are coming, shaping strategy, making sure that the business has good and sustainable governance practices and helping management to achieve their goals.”

Despite some misconceptions about the mining industry, Ms Brook said it isn’t all about big machines working in remote places, but is instead about the people who are making a positive difference.

“Day to day, I get to interact with passionate, caring people which is absolutely awesome.

“My role is incredibly rewarding. I’m able to see the absolute depth of talent we have here in Australia.”

Career reflections

Reminiscing about her 28-year career in the industry, Ms Brook said that her biggest highlight was during her time at Glencore leading a professional team that, in the space of a few years, transformed the business through mergers and acquisitions, whilst still strengthening and managing the existing business.

Ms Brook said her highlight is not necessarily related to the business outcome, but the way the team operated throughout the process.

“We had a culture of inclusion, respectful debate, collaboration – solving some really complex issues in an extremely stressful environment. I’m incredibly proud of how the team did that.”

Though Ms Brook’s career has been overwhelmingly positive, it has not been without its challenges. Ms Brook said that the biggest challenge she’s encountered is not linked to one event, but the situations throughout her career where her own insecurities got the better of her.

“Like many women, I’ve had imposter syndrome at certain times. If I have regrets, they would be learning afterwards that someone else felt the same way I did and that we might have achieved a better outcome if there’d been a broader discussion, or left a legacy for the next person.”

Industry improvements: slowly but surely

Ms Brook began working as an underground miner only four years after New South Wales had lifted its legislative ban on women working underground.

As a result of this, many of the men that Ms Brook worked with had never worked with a woman underground before.

“That sounds as if it would throw up a whole heap of challenges – and it did – but actually, my lasting memories of that time are overwhelmingly good. And they’re good because of those men.”

Despite her largely positive experiences, Ms Brook acknowledged that there are barriers to overcome when working in a male-dominated industry like the mining and resources sector. For Ms Brook, a big hurdle has been the assumptions – both large and small – people made about her because of her gender.

An example of this that Ms Brook was able to pinpoint is her experiences being the only woman in the room and it being automatically assumed that she would be the one to take notes.

“It sounds like a tiny little thing, something that’s just nice to do as part of the team. But actually, it means that you’re not participating in the conversation.”

Another clear example that sticks in Ms Brook’s mind is an occasion in which her team had worked really hard to acquire a particular mine, but when it came time to visit the mine and meet the team, it was assumed that she wouldn’t want to participate.

“The people who decided that I didn’t need to go were doing it out of a good motivation as they knew I was very busy and so assumed that I couldn’t make the time.

“They wouldn’t assume that of a man.”

Overcoming barriers and opening doors

Since her days as an underground miner, Ms Brook said the overall level of functional infrastructure onsite has improved.

“When I started, there wasn’t a bathhouse for women. I had to use the manager’s personal shower, which was accessed through and adjacent to his office. Thankfully, things have changed in that respect.”

Ms Brook said that there is now a much greater awareness of and acceptance that a diverse workforce leads to better outcomes.

“There’s also many more role models for women, which I think is incredibly important and is something I touched on in my closing remarks at the AusIMM International Women’s Day Event.

“They’re all really positive advancements from where we’ve come.

“There’s more to be done. But it’s certainly nice to not be the only woman in the room anymore.”

Nicole Brook at AusIMM 2024 International Women's Day event. Image: AusIMM

Nicole Brook at AusIMM 2024 International Women’s Day event. Image: AusIMM

Inspiring the next generation

In 2018, Ms Brook was named Exceptional Woman in New South Wales Mining and was also selected for the 100 Global Inspirational Women in Mining.

Ms Brook said this recognition was incredibly humbling and also goes out to all of her hidden support systems.

“It’s easy to think that you’re out there doing it yourself, but it’s just not the case.

“Without my husband, my mum, my friends – without my colleagues, who always managed to effectively manage me up – I couldn’t have done what I’ve done throughout my career,” Ms Brook said.

“It was an incredibly proud moment for me, but I was also really proud for them.”

When asked what kind of message she would like to pass on to other women in the industry or young women considering a career in the resources sector, Ms Brook said the first step is to “throw out what you think being a leader in the mining industry is”.

“If you think about the personal attributes you need to influence, it’s not about being the loudest, or the strongest, or the smartest, or anything like that. It’s about emotional intelligence. It’s about adaptability, self-awareness, active listening and intuition,” Ms Brook said.

“Those are not skills that are exclusive to men. Women are strong in a lot of those skills.

“Throw out what you think that model of a leader is, take your skills and then combine them with a bit of self confidence.

“You do that, and you’ll be that leader who takes us into the future.”

To advocate for women in the industry, Ms Brook emphasised that it is essential that women understand there are multiple models of success.

“I would hate to think that any woman thought that she couldn’t be a part of or do a role in the mining industry just because she’d never seen anyone do it.”

Ms Brook said it all comes back to the adage: you can’t be what you can’t see.

“We need people to share their stories. We need to share challenges and successes. The more diverse storytelling we have that we can shine a light on, the more chance we have that it’s going to resonate with someone.”

Looking to the future

To ensure women’s participation and confidence in the industry continues to increase, Ms Brook highlighted the importance of senior female leaders leading by example, demonstrating the type of leader that the industry needs.

“There is so much opportunity for women and their skills. We need to continue the good work we’ve done on providing infrastructure and support systems that enable women to participate.

“We’ve seen job sharing at the highest levels and women promoted during maternity leave,” Ms Brook said.

“It can be done. We just need to lean into it and highlight the examples of good practice.”

Featured image: Nicole Brook underground. Image: Oaky Creek Coal

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