By Rebecca Todesco, Editor, Mining Magazine
Increasing women’s participation in mining is a priority across the industry. However, with a lot of companies focused on the big picture issues and barriers they can remove, it’s easy to overlook the smaller obstacles dissuading women’s participation – sometimes it’s as simple as the clothes on women’s backs.
Mine worker, business owner, fashion designer; why not all three? Kym O’Leary was working on a mine site in Queensland when she saw an opportunity to eliminate a barrier that was preventing women from reaching their full potential in the mining workforce.
Ms O’Leary started at Anglo American onsite in Middlemount, Queensland, as a Commercial Graduate. As part of the graduate program, participants are rotated around different commercial functions and then at the conclusion of the program are offered a role in one of those areas.
“I was most interested in management accounting on site. I secured the role at Foxleigh Mine in Middlemount as a management accountant,” Ms O’Leary said.
“That mine is quite small. My manager was pregnant at the time and being quite a small mine, they hadn’t got a replacement in.”
Ms O’Leary’s manager asked her to come along to meetings, to sit in the back and take notes and use the opportunity for professional development. It was during one such meeting that something clicked for Ms O’Leary.
“I went along to this leadership team, sat in the back corner. I noticed that there were all the men – there were about seven sitting really comfortably in their high-vis – and there was Steph, very pregnant, wearing an open hi-vis shirt with a singlet underneath.
“She just didn’t look comfortable, but she was making do because there were no options. Then the conversation started, and it was about having women in industry and how do we attract more? We were trying to get more women into the industry and then the penny just dropped for me.
“I was like, why are we not offering women workwear that’s suitable for all of women’s life stages?
“We wanted to have more women in the industry, but we weren’t providing them with workwear, for instance, when they were pregnant. There was that sub-message coming through that we want you, but again, if you come along there’ll be no workwear for you.
“That just didn’t sit right for me.”
Later that night when she returned home, Ms O’Leary turned to the internet to locate a comfortable uniform option for her manager, quickly finding out that there was nothing available worldwide.
Seeing the opportunity present itself, Ms O’Leary seized it.
Taking things into her own hands
Witnessing her manager being pregnant onsite created an opportunity for Ms O’Leary to merge her passions for mining and fashion, creating her dream career.
“I’d always wanted to have my own business and I was always interested in fashion, but just never thought I’d cut it on the catwalk sort of thing – I never considered myself creative enough for a career in it.
“When the opportunity came up to have a clothing brand, it ticked all the boxes for me. I still really loved the mining industry, I loved fashion – let’s merge the two. And that’s how I got started.”
Ms O’Leary embarked on her mission, determined to create a comprehensive line of women’s workwear that could cater to those with different needs.
The COgear range is a small but considered workwear range made with the company’s mantra in mind – women should never be uncomfortable at work – and every garment undergoes onsite trials.
As well as women’s pants, COgear offers two style options of maternity pants (over tummy and under tummy), maternity shirts and a four-in-one jacket with removable fleece vest which can be converted to a maternity fit by adding an extension piece. The range also offers hard hat liners that are designed to prevent hair breakage when wearing a hard hat.
A decade on
Reflecting on the past decade, Ms O’Leary said there was no clear roadmap that she followed in launching CO gear, admitting to making numerous mistakes along the way and often learning through difficult and costly experiences.
“Our approach nowadays is to release a new style only after it’s been field tested and we have a customer for the style. This lesson was learned the hard way. When we initially launched our first maternity garment, we did so without validating the design in an industry setting which resulted in poor sales.”
Despite these mistakes, Ms O’Leary said the first maternity design served the purpose of raising awareness about the lack of maternity hi-vis options for women.
“I like to believe that I contributed to shedding light on this broader issue, even if it came at a cost,” she said.
An especially difficult situation that served as a turning point for Ms O’Leary was when she was travelling across the countryside visiting workwear retail stores to promote COgear’s maternity shirts .
“On this specific day, while I was on the Sunshine Coast, I was explaining our range and the importance of maternity hi-vis gear. The man I was speaking with burst into laughter, questioning why a pregnant person would ever be on a mine site.
“In response, I shared that I had personally worked onsite and that my manager was pregnant.”
Ms O’Leary said that although this encounter was emotionally challenging , upon reflection, it highlighted the substantial education required throughout the industry and the need for inclusive products and workwear.
Ms O’Leary reflected that when COgear started more than a decade ago it was slightly ahead of the industry’s readiness for a women-only hi-vis brand.
“This presented challenges, including lower sales in the initial five years. However, the early start allowed me a decade to establish connections with women, gain insights into their needs, and determine how we could provide assistance.”
From the workers’ mouth
Over the years, COgear’s range has worked its way onto mine sites around Australia, with women in the industry quick to share their feedback on the range with the team at COgear.
A customer of the cargo pants said they are her go-to workwear, and that they’re not “repurposed, boxy men’s cargos. They’re intentionally designed to complement a woman’s frame, without sacrificing the functionality of work pants.”
Another wearer said they love the fit and feel of the cargo pants, citing her previous difficulty finding pants a small size – “I’ve never had women’s pants that fit so well for my no hips.”
About the four-in-one jacket, one testimonial said, “The arms are long enough but not too long that they get in the way of work.”
Ms O’Leary said that COgear was built on the foundation of listening to its customers, and this is something she said won’t change.
“We’ll continue to engage with our customers to understand their evolving needs, making sure our workwear solutions stay true to our beliefs that women should never feel uncomfortable at work.”
Listening to the needs of the brand’s customers led to Cogear’s latest clothing innovation – HMZ.
“COgear had received requests to offer women’s pants in multiple lengths. However, as a small business, we couldn’t afford to hold additional stock due to cash-flow constraints. This prompted me to explore an alternative approach – could we meet the demand for different leg lengths more intelligently?
“After brainstorming with my husband one evening over dinner, I began experimenting with the notion of an adjustable hem, inspired by a bag of chook feed – a memory from our upbringing on farms.
“I had to think outside the box and this is how HMZ was born,” Ms O’Leary said.
HMZ – pronounced ‘hems’ – allows individuals to adjust the length of their pants through patented tear-away hems.
“HMZ offers a convenient way for individuals to tailor their workwear, aligning with COgear’s mission to ensure women are always comfortable at work.”
HMZ is patent-pending and also offers an expanded range of size options from 12 to 48, providing customers with more fit choices.
Increasing the participation of women in the mining industry is an ongoing project, and ensuring they are comfortable in the gear they’re wearing can go a long way in eliminating these barriers.