Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Santiago — Latin America’s top mining exposition kicked off with a seminar on promoting gender equality. Meanwhile, at the exhibition centre a few kilometres away, women in tight dresses and high heels posed next to mining tool booths and strip-club promoters at the entrance offered two-for-one drink coupons to attendees.

The week-long Expomin event in Chile offered a glimpse at both how far the industry has come — and how far it has to go. The last time the event was held, in 2016, Chile’s then mining minister Aurora Williams called for an end to the use of women as a commercial hook and set a 10% target of female participation in the sector for 2018. The industry hasn’t yet met that goal.

As a symbol of its commitment, Expomin opened with its Women and Mining panel. About half of the speakers at the session were women, a marked contrast with the overall event. About 85% of speaking slots were awarded to men. "We’re not doing this to look good in a picture," Joaquin Villarino, president of Chile’s Mining Council, told an audience of mostly women.

The official picture didn’t look that good — a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the event featured no women, with Chilean mining minister Baldo Prokurica and some of the nation’s top mining executives smiling for the commemorative photo.

Meanwhile in the exhibition hall, hostesses known as "promotoras" stand next to mining tools, heavy machinery and large posters advertising engineering solutions. They hand out bags with merchandising, lure visitors into booths and strike up a conversation. Then a male employee typically takes over.

Employing scantily clad women isn’t unusual at trade shows. The scenes at Expomin are not too different from those at its Peruvian equivalent, Perumin. But gradually, the practice is becoming less common. So-called booth babes were gone at the latest edition of a car show in Geneva in February, while there are no such scenes at PDAC in Toronto, the world’s largest mining show.

Expomin gives companies broad rules on how stands should be set up, including employing workers that know the product well, executive director Carlos Parada said. Following University of Chile recommendations, the organisation reminds exhibitors that women working in booths should reflect the employer’s values towards women. It doesn’t give a specific dress code.

"It’s difficult to set a limit on that and it’s difficult to control — we’d need to have a squadron of inspectors out there," Parada said by telephone.

At the expo entrance, women dressed in tight overalls hand out invitations to local strip clubs, where free drinks are available to those with an Expomin badge. They use the event’s logo — without permission, Parada says — along with pictures of semi-naked women wearing mining helmets and holding picks.

A 2015 survey of 500 mining companies by PWC found that 7.9% of corporate directors were female. While that proportion edged higher over the previous three years, at that rate of gain it would take until 2039 for the 100 largest publicly listed mining companies to reach 30% representation of women on their boards.

As of late 2017, women made up 7.9% of mining employees in Chile, lower than 13.2% in Australia and 19.6% in Canada, according to Chile’s mining council.

As copper prices recover, organisers said the biennial event features more exhibitors than last time. For now, those departing the venue received adverts like this one from the women outside: "The best gentlemen’s club in Santiago is at Expomin 2018. We send our limousine to your hotel or restaurant."