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Rio Tinto’s toxic culture should be a wake-up call for business

Anyone who has sat through the speeches at the Melbourne Mining Club dinner gets a sense of the prevailing culture in the mining world: inordinately blokey, with occasional undertones of outright sexism.

What a stream of sporting references and the odd questionable joke can translate into on a remote mine site, worlds away from the black tie event in London, was laid bare in Rio Tinto’s report this week into its workplace culture.

The report by former Australian sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick was thorough and damning: it found systemic bullying, experienced by almost half the 10,000 survey respondents, widespread sexism and racism, high rates of sexual harassment, multiple instances of sexual assault including rape, a “culture of silence” and lack of consequences when abuse of women, minorities and LGBTIQ+ employees was reported.

In other words, an uncomfortable and unsafe environment for those who didn’t fit into what Broderick called the “hypermasculine norms and culture”. This is a report that should be read widely.

What’s notable is that it was commissioned because Rio went actively looking for problems and that the company then, commendably, chose to publish the results in full. The miner is undergoing a cultural purge under chief executive Jakob Stausholm, who became boss in January 2021, after its destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia.

It’s fanciful to think that these problems are isolated to Rio, or Australia, or indeed to mining: for a start, the report landed on the same day as one raising some similar issues about conduct in the Metropolitan Police at London’s Charing Cross police station. Broderick found issues globally. Rival miner BHP, which was mocked by some when in 2015 it set a target of gender balance by 2025, said last year it had fired 48 workers since 2019 for sexual assault and harassment as part of an industry-wide probe into the treatment of women in fly-in, fly-out roles in Western Australia.

Increasing female representation is part of the solution here. But it’s hardly sufficient: who feels comforted by the fact that 60 per cent of Rio’s graduate recruits are women, into a place where Broderick found women between the ages of 25 and 34 reported the highest prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment in the past five years, at 57 per cent and 39 per cent respectively?

And the idea that the mining sector needs a cultural shift akin to the one that happened around safety a couple of decades ago is both right and revealing. Miners once treated fatalities as a cost of doing business. Now the safety figures are at the top of every presentation and it is a point of pride that Rio has had three zero-fatality years.

But that only serves to show that these aren’t lightly managed, wild-west operations. Certain types of behaviour have been overlooked, tolerated and excused, even as standards and oversight were tightened elsewhere. The mining industry also broadly realised that killing people was bad for business. The idea that diversity, inclusivity and psychological wellbeing are important for productive, efficient operations is accepted in some parts of the sector (and indeed the business world) but by no means across the board.

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Rio’s findings demonstrate the potential gulf for any company between warm words in the boardroom and grubby reality on the ground — and the emptiness of ESG investing that relies on assessing paper pledges rather than operational implementation.

Sure, mining — which wants to badge itself the socially responsible producer of commodities for the energy transition — has some particular challenges: remote, shift-based operations or company-created mining towns around the world where the mine manager doubles as quasi-mayor and civic leader as well as the guy in charge of hitting production targets.

But the risk factors highlighted by Broderick should resonate elsewhere: a hierarchical, male-dominated workplace; a culture of sexual bravado or posturing; low appreciation of the challenges of balancing work and family life; a highly performance-driven culture. Others point to a technically minded approach prone to focusing on processes rather than people.

Big investors, who presumably know that successfully tackling this will mean further challenges as reporting and enforcement improve, haven’t rushed to share their view. What they should be doing is examining their portfolios and thinking about which companies should be producing a similar piece of work, around the mining industry and beyond.

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