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WA mining industry on cusp of a new era

31/08/2022. By Carmelle Wilkinson.

Marnie Finlayson.

From a young age Curtin graduate (Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) 1997) and head of Rio Tinto’s Battery Materials, Marnie Finlayson wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.

Whether she was working on her family’s sheep station in Jeedamya, about 200km north of Kalgoorlie, or shovelling rocks under the crusher at her uncle’s gold mine near Leonora, Marnie was happiest working in a team.

Being in the outback, with the fresh air and wide-open spaces was fuel to her soul and nothing gave her greater joy than camping under the stars.

Growing up in the Goldfields, its rich association with gold mining and exploration piqued her interest, but it was Marnie’s deep appreciation for Country and strong work-ethic that saw her drawn to a career in the resource and mining sector.

Graduating from the WA School of Mines in 1997 as a minerals processing engineer, she has enjoyed an impressive mining career spanning over 25 years.

Working in a number of leadership and operational roles across a range of commodities including salt, iron ore, diamonds and coal, Marnie recently returned from a three-year stint working in Serbia with her husband and two children as Rio’s Managing Director of Battery Materials.

A strong advocate for unlocking the potential within her team, Marnie leads with care and likes to achieve results through others.

Passionate about mining and making a difference, she believes in a future where the value of natural resources is respected, and the environmental impact of all mining activities is prioritised to minimise energy use and carbon emissions.

As the world turns its attention toward lithium in a bid to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, Marnie is proud to be at the forefront of change and lead her team towards a safer and greener future.

As demand for lithium increases exponentially, it is starting to look a lot like iron ore of 20 years ago. How does it feel to be on the cusp of history?

It’s exciting. My current role is to build a battery materials business for Rio Tinto, and we want it to be an industry leading business.

When I look at Rio today, we are very much iron ore heavy, which is great, and it’s been fantastic. A lot of people benefited from that, and we’re now poised to do the same with lithium which is incredibly exciting.

If you think about it, iron ore was around industrialisation and feeding growth and infrastructure, and it brought many people out of poverty in the 1960’s, it’s a fantastic story.

With our attention turning to decarbonisation, I’m excited to be at the forefront of change for my children’s future.

That’s why I’ve recruited a team that are passionate about changing the world and making sure that we mine these materials sustainably.

We’ve got such an entrepreneurial spirit at Rio, and we’ve accomplished so much in our 150 years, I’m looking forward to ensuring this new pillar for the future will assist the world to take the next step to decarbonisation.

What attracted you to pursue a future in mining?

For me I fell in love with the outback when I was young.

Growing up in the Goldfields I saw a lot of mines going up around the place and my uncles Peter and Chris Lalor owned Sons of Gwalia gold mine near Leonora, where I worked during my gap year.

I was quite young, only 18, and the only woman, so I had to prove myself, but I loved it. It was here while shovelling rocks under the crusher and admiring my work at the end of the day that I knew this industry was for me.

I also loved the practicality of studying at the WA School of Mines. We could be learning something in the classroom one day and then the next we are on a mine site seeing first hand what we had just learnt.

With a love for chemistry, physics and maths at school, I considered studying mechanical engineering so I could make artificial joints for people who had lost limbs, but my interest in mining was too strong.

What I love about my job is the sense of team and working with some great people.

Would you like to see more females explore this exciting and rewarding career path?

I would absolutely love to see more girls join mining and this all starts with creating a workplace culture that is good for women.

While I have always felt respected and supported, I know there are other women who have sadly not had the same experience and that needs to change. We need to change the way people view the industry and this is something I am quite passionate about.

Even though the industry has changed drastically over the years, from a sort of let’s just mine, to how do we engage with local communities and Traditional Owners? And how do we make sure we do this sustainably and manage our waste? More can always be done.

When people are considering future careers, I always tell them mining is a great industry to work in because we are doing something that’s actually really important to the planet.

And I think people miss that connection.

If you think about it, in my world, lithium and nickel are two big things that you need in order to get an electric vehicle and you can only get those by mining.

Our job is to make sure we do this as sustainably as possible and with good social connections and good governance.

Recent news headlines exposed shocking stories about women feeling unsafe in the industry and it’s just terrible.

I was incredibly saddened to hear about these women’s experiences. We should all work in a company or organisation where you feel supported, listened to and cared for.

And this starts with creating a work environment where everyone feels respected.

For our girls to feel safe we need to change the culture and stigma of the industry.

How do we achieve this?

Last year March, Rio commissioned a report to have a look at our workplace culture and it exposed some confronting truths about bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

The results were really upsetting and disturbing. It took me about four times to read the report. There were some horrific stories and some of them went straight to my heart, I couldn’t believe this was happening and that people felt this way.

It really made me realise that even though it would take some time, that culture needed to change.

And it all starts with being a leader in this space not a bystander.

If you see or hear something, call that person out. Don’t accept sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.

When the report went public I had so many people ask ‘why is Rio airing their dirty laundry?” but you know what? I’m proud of Rio for doing that, because it aligns with our values of courage, care and curiosity.

Following feedback from more than 10,000 of our employees who took part in the report, Rio has set a plan of action to prevent and respond to harmful behaviours, which over time, will contribute to a more safe, respectful and inclusive work environment.

I think it’s really courageous to share this information and hold ourselves accountable. And I don’t think we are isolated here, but even if we are, we are doing something about it.

Well, that’s promising. I think just that alone will change the conversation and encourage more youngsters, particularly girls to consider joining the industry. Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for someone considering a career in mining?

Absolutely.

The thing that I’ve always felt, and, and I have been lucky in that sense, is that I’ve always felt I can bring something unique.

And that’s not because I’m female, it’s because I’m Marnie.

I always tell people considering joining the industry to bring their whole self to work and bring your unique self because that’s what makes you special.

It’s the value you bring to conversations that makes a workplace great, and we want to create a space where people feel comfortable to do that.

The other thing I tell people is to be open to the many possibilities mining can bring. My husband and I have moved house 16 times since we’ve been together, and I’ve worked in some beautiful parts of WA and the world.

Our kids grew up in the Pilbara enjoying the great outdoors and camping and we got to explore Europe during Covid, while we were living in Serbia, much to the envy of our family and friends back home in Australia.

Mining can bring so many wonderful experiences, you just need to go for it.

While you’re at university, take every opportunity you can, and if there’s an opportunity to gets hands on experience through vacation work or work experience go for it.

Really own your career.

Build your networks, get guidance and attend industry events.

And when you land your first job, just try everything, and say no to nothing.

___

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