Gender gaps in the mining and energy sector in Colombia

Gender gaps in the mining and energy sector in Colombia

*By Gastón Siroit and Irene Irazábal B.

Let us imagine that we are in a boat in the middle of a huge river. We need to move forward. In fact, it is a matter of life or death. We recently had a misfortune – we went through some rapids, which wreaked havoc and delayed us enormously. We had to stop everything to attend to that emergency. We’re still dealing with the damage to the boat, but luckily, we’re already making progress again. We know that after that episode, we’re going to have to row a lot harder if we want to pick up the pace. To move, we use various instruments. The ones that drive the boat the most are the oars. But there is a catch: it turns out that we only give oars to half of the crew – and not necessarily to the best rowers. Absurd, right?

Now let’s imagine that our boat is a country and our oars, the industries that contribute the most to boosting it in economic terms. The energy mining sector represents approximately 2.1% of the Gross Domestic Product for Colombia and contributes around $2.5 Billion[1] pesos in royalties; This is how in times of economic reactivation, mining is consolidated as a priority activity that contributes to national economic development and whose economic results are growing year after year. According to the Ministry of Labor, the sector has more than 150,000 jobs[2] direct and that number will continue to grow, due to the demand of the global climate agenda. Colombia produces essential minerals for clean energy technologies, such as nickel, iron and copper. The decarbonization commitments of the countries will generate an increase in the demand for these materials, multiplying foreign investment in the country and the development potential that derives from a more dynamic economy.[3]. The truth is that, in addition to all these benefits, it is an industry that has historically involved great socio-environmental challenges. One of them is that it has given the opportunities to “row” almost exclusively to men.

A development priority

Leaving metaphors aside, most of the benefits of the sector in the labor market are absorbed by men, while women are in a situation of greater vulnerability to the negative impacts of this industry. This is not news to those who know the sector: we have always known that there are very few women in the industry, even fewer in leadership positions, and that without responsible management, it becomes an environment prone to various forms of violence, both in the environment work, as well as in the areas of influence of the operations. All of this is consistent with the context in other Latin American and Caribbean countries. But the dimension of the problem at the national level is just beginning to become clear. Fortunately, The Colombian mining-energy sector recognizes that gender equity is a public policy priority with implications both in terms of rights and productivity[4]. As such, he has taken action on the matter.

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Since 2018, the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MME) has led a paradigm shift, hand in hand with the unions, the private sector, with the support of the IDB and the firms Insuco and Corewoman. A first step was the incorporation of a differential and gender approach in the Human Rights Policy of the Energy Mining Sector. Next, the Public Policy Guidelines with a gender focus for the sector were defined.

A fundamental milestone to put theory into practice and begin the implementation of these guidelines was to quantify the situation. The Gender Equity Sector Study for the mining-energy sector was a starting point that provided figures and a precise diagnosis of the situation of women and gender gaps in the sector. This research became the gender baseline at the sector level and identified indicators to measure progress in meeting the gender guidelines previously defined by the MME. Knowing where we are, understanding the panorama, also made it possible to identify the main challenges and establish goals and an action plan to achieve them. Thus, the findings became concrete commitments to transform the sector based on evidence of real and up-to-date needs.

Some interesting finds

  1. more words than actions. At the time of the study, most companies and unions had already issued some type of commitment supporting gender equality. 65% of the organizations surveyed stated that they have a gender approach. However, there was a lack of corporate policies and action plans with a budget to operationalize this commitment, only 24% reported having them. Just as we monitor the productivity goals of a business, efforts for gender equality require actionable and measurable indicators to be effective.
  2. It is not evident for those who do not live it. In general, men underestimated the dimension of inequality shown by the data. In other words, the people with the most authority and capacity to lead the necessary changes and balance the playing field in the sector did not have the perception that the situation was so unequal. Therefore, it was necessary to socialize the results among decision makers and other interested parties.
  3. If you want to go far, go together. Addressing such a complex problem, with cultural, economic, social and governance issues, requires a multi-stakeholder approach. The group #EnergyThatTransforms was established to facilitate the coordination and implementation of gender priorities in the sector. With 30 actors represented, to date it is the space to exchange experiences, contextualize the challenges of each organization and adopt common commitments. There, thematic working groups were formed to address challenges on recruitment, hiring and actions for non-discrimination; professional development with equity; relationship with the environment and local supply; and work-life balance.

what’s next

Resolving gender gaps, especially in such a masculinized sector, implies a long-term structural change and a fine articulation with other sectors of the State. The consolidation of a baseline and the first phase of implementation of the gender guidelines are fundamental steps to build a more responsible and inclusive mining-energy sector. This, in turn, can make it a more competitive and resilient sector.[5].

In a second phase of implementation, the MME is focusing on expanding this methodology to a territorial level, adding municipal actors and addressing the differentiated impacts that the sector has when we focus on SMEs instead of large industry. The women who subsist from small-scale, artisanal and informal mining face other types of challenges – and, by the way, they are probably more than those who participate in the big industry.[6].

The IDB will continue to provide technical assistance to countries rich in natural resources to address gender gaps at the sector level, including the differentiated impacts that the pandemic had on women. We will also continue to spread knowledge and spaces for mutual learning to leverage the lessons learned in other contexts. We have already contributed with initiatives similar to the Colombian one in Chile, Argentina and Peru. Each one of these experiences can share the barriers and opportunities found, so that other sectoral actors that begin this journey can take advantage of them and finally, we build a region where women have the same opportunities to “paddle” for the sustainable development of their countries.

* Irene Irazabal: Irene is an independent consultant on issues of peace and sustainable development. Her work focuses on governance and consensus building for responsible supply chains. Irene has designed and managed multi-stakeholder programs in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, which has enabled partnerships and joint public policies. Her contributions to the IDB’s Infrastructure and Energy sector have focused on the social sustainability dimensions of mining, hydrocarbon, and geothermal energy projects. A lawyer with a master’s degree in international studies from Peace, Irene believes that clear and measurable social performance strategies that promote human rights and prioritize diversity and inclusion are good for business.

[1] Mining done right, a ‘jewel’ for the Colombian economy, Portafolio Newspaper, Economy Section, Editor Édmer Tovar Martínez, February 25, 2019


[3] In this regard, see: IDB (2022) Leveraging the growth in demand for minerals and metals due to the transition to a low-carbon economy

[4] Oueda, S. Why diversity and inclusion are good for business? IDB (2020)

[5] Women’s Empowerment Principles: Global Trends Report 2018. The United Nations Global Compact, UN Women, IDB Invest, IDB Lab.

[6] Giza, L. Small mining in Colombia: An activity not so small. Dyna, Medellin (2013)

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