When Sophie Bergeron began her career in the diamond industry, she was often the odd—or only—woman out.
“I was the only [female member] of my team,” says Bergeron, who started as a junior engineer in Northern Canada. “In fact, I was often the only woman in the whole building.” Now the Vice President of Health, Safety, Environment, and Social for Rio Tinto’s Energy and Minerals department, Bergeron is part of a trailblazing team of female leaders who are integral to the success and integrity of the industry itself. “We can offer so much to women,” Bergeron adds. “There’s a beautiful aspect to working with diamonds in the most responsible way.”
That “responsible way” of respecting people and the planet is a hallmark of Rio Tinto’s remarkable organization, which is helmed by a group of women (including a female president and chief executive) at the forefront of physics and earth sciences. In the past decade, Rio Tinto’s Diavik Diamond Mine has gained fame for its “cold climate technology,” which harnesses wind power even when temperatures hit -40 degrees. Through that kind of conservation work, Diavik has saved over 43 million litres of fossil fuel, curbing over 105,000 tonnes of carbon before it hits the atmosphere—and it’s saved with women supervising every step.
What’s the secret to their success? Diavik CEO of Minerals Sinead Kaufman believes that cultivating trust from the (under)ground up is the foundation for future excellence. “Leadership for me is about finding the right team,” she says, “and giving them every chance to succeed, both individually and as a group.”Adds Diavik president Angela Bigg, it all comes down to leading with respect—for the environment, for her colleagues, and the region as a whole. “The overall diamond industry is experiencing rapidly changing expectations as new generations heed the call to live more thoughtfully to protect the long-term future of our planet,” Bigg says, noting that as the industry has grown to have a more holistic view of its role in conservation, her leadership style has shifted from a task-based perspective to “one that’s more people-centric… Inclusive growth, innovation and collaboration are shown to build more successful and diverse workforces.”
Indeed, studies prove that the more women succeed at work, the bigger the gains for that industry itself—something Kaufman fosters through “demonstrating behaviors I value every day” while keeping an open door for questions, feedback, and even pushback when necessary. “No one is perfect,” she shares, “so I appreciate when I get support from my team on what I can do better.”
To be sure, women have always been part of the diamond world’s success, all the way back to pioneering prospectors like Larisa Popugayeva in the 19th century. The difference now is that women aren’t just outliers in the field, but part of the general industry of leaders and trainees that makes up 30% of the entire industry. And unlike Popugayeva—whose diamond mine discovery wasn’t recognized until decades after her work—the female scientists, supervisors, and executives are able to experience recognition and inclusion in real time.
“It feels like we have a more significant sense of community,” says Patricia Stancheff, one of Rio Tinto’s planning engineers, who notes that women lead the way not just in the office, but also in the laboratories and fields “. I was pleasantly surprised when I joined Rio Tinto to encounter more women in the engineering department,” she says—especially since Diavik itself is an “engineering marvel” thanks to its constant stream of scientific innovation. Safety Advisor Stephanie Graziani adds that her colleagues contribute to a true “sense of purpose” on site because ultimately, her job is to ensure Diavik’s people are even more guarded than the site’s incredible diamonds.
For those who want to explore a career in the diamond arena, Kaufman advises leading with your strengths and interests. “I have always loved science, and understanding the origin of things has always fascinated me,” she explains. “I did some field exploration when at school as work experienced and was hooked from that day forward.” She also encourages learning about current issues and goals in the mining world today, especially those around sustainability and decarbonization, “in order to remain relevant to our customers, demonstrate a low carbon footprint, and an excellent record in environmental and social credentials.”
For those angling for a corner office, Bigg suggests learning your leadership style from the very beginning of your working life. “My first job was delivering junk mail in Australia,” she says. “Although it didn’t teach me about mining, it taught me my most valuable lesson: You can’t expect people to read every piece of paper you put in front of them…The junk mail showed me the value face-to-face conversations provide!” Bergeron agrees, adding, “Respect is the first thing I learned to master. As a young underground shift boss, when I was 27, I didn’t have much experience and knowledge to impress a team of 25 miners. I took the approach of respecting them and building collaborations with my colleagues. I learned so much! It still serves me today and for the future.”
And the rewards of being a woman working at the cutting edge of diamonds? Besides being a part of creating, in Bigg’s words, “the most beautiful and special product from a beautiful and special place,” there’s an opportunity to help develop incredible advances in the fields of physics, geology, conservation, and energy renewal. Says Stancheff, “Working in STEM has confirmed my view that anyone can accomplish what they are curious and passionate about. Success is a combination of unapologetic determination and taking (or making!) every opportunity you get to do what fulfills you. It also has provided me with a unique identity unrelated to gender or age.” Adds Kaufman, “There is such a strong connection for people who work in diamond mines to the product… It is very special to work at a mine where everyone and often their family members also love what we create.”
And as Graziani notes, it’s never boring. “Where else can you be in a boardroom, underground, or on a piece of heavy mining equipment – all on the same day?!”