By Maggie Johnston
While the cultural imagery of mining may still evoke a predominantly male impression, you wouldn’t notice this if you stopped in for a visit or tour at the White Sulphur Springs-Sandfire America office. The female presence is palpable as Black Butte Copper (BBC) continues building steam in an effort to commence development by the end of 2018 with women filling key positions throughout the company. What makes this anomaly even more unique and fascinating is the fact that most of the women employed in the central Montana mining operation are either raised-in-White Sulphur Springs (WSS) residents or come from families rooted in Meagher County.
From Nancy Schlepp (VP of Communications) to Lacey Morrison (Senior Geologist II) and the daughter-mother duo of Chennell Berg (Senior Accountant) and Elizabeth Brewer (Administrative Assistant), and many exceptional others, BBC boasts a talented and educated team of local women. If you ask company management how it came to be that professional positions were filled almost as quickly as they were created with many local women, the response will be one of puzzled amusement and an admission that it happened with a certain degree of good fortune for finding exceptionally talented and well qualified professionals within the rural community—and they just so happened to be female.
For Lacey Morrison, the path to her position was one of intention and she readily concedes that being a geologist likely would have never occurred had it not been for BBC coming to fruition during a time when she was feeling frustration at the lack of economic opportunity in her hometown. Lacey, a 2005 local high school graduate, recalls not being particularly excited about science or math and finishing without a plan other than a vague directive to attend the University of Montana in general studies.
“I never took a single science class; it never crossed my mind,” Morrison reflects about her time in Missoula. She left college after three semesters and, for the next few years, moved between bartending and waitressing jobs. With the growing realization that she was ready to forge a new path, Morrison took a keen interest when discussions of a local mining operation unfolded in 2010, and she seized the opportunity to ask questions about job opportunities. She made a quick decision to return to her education—this time with a clear goal—earning a B.S. in Environmental Science-Geology from the University of Montana-Western.
Morrison is honest and direct in her belief that life experiences from her Meagher County youth made it possible to find success in the field, most notably when working for Coeur Mining in Alaska after graduation. “There’s a lot of opportunity in mining, but a lot of it takes place remotely with almost all men, and it can be hard to figure out how to be confident as a manager in that situation,” she concedes. “But, growing up where you see women working right along with the men, it’s easier to realize gender workforce barriers don’t actually exist because your whole life has been camping, fishing, hunting, and doing everything with the boys; it gives rural women an advantage.”
While visiting with Morrison can easily leave one convinced of her ability to be an effective, confident leader, she confesses to having lacked leadership skills as a youngster. “I wasn’t a leader; it wasn’t something I was comfortable with.” Morrison says she now realizes she had to grow into it and even her time managing bars/restaurants helped develop communication skills. “I think I am a leader now.”
Today, Morrison’s usual work week gives her the opportunity to get involved in the field and at the office. She has been busy working alongside other geologists reviewing resource modelling and updating a log of core samples collected from the field. But her true passion is in the intensive, yet methodical process of blasting and drilling in the field, and she is eager for the time when the mine is fully operational and she can get back to underground production activities.
“There is great opportunity here and it’s pretty special to come to work with all these women I’ve known my whole life and work with them for a company investing in the place we grew up in while hopefully creating economic opportunities for others,” Morrison shared. “I think by being here and doing what I do, I can encourage young people from here and other small towns to think about careers in science, and for young women to see they can be involved. If you’re a young person in a rural high school, you can’t always imagine yourself in a career if you can’t look around and see an example. Maybe you don’t even know it exists. That’s part of what I hope to do, to be an example for someone to think… maybe I could do that, too.”