When Michelle Lawson was in high school, it was illegal for women to work underground in the coal mining industry.
Until 1989 in NSW, mine owners faced fines of up to $500 if women were caught working in underground mines. While the coal mining industry is still predominantly male driven, a lot has changed in 30 years.
Michelle has seen it all from the inside, working as an accountant since 1990 for consulting companies, Bengalla Mining Company and BHP Billiton before moving into roles at Glencore in 2002 including being a Commercial Manager and a Financial Controller and Executive Director.
In her jobs early in her career, Michelle was often not only one of the highest in the room, but usually the only female. She said the men in the boardroom simply “weren’t used to having a female in the boardroom. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I would get asked about coffee or if I could photocopy something!”.
It was those experiences Michelle had that led her to take part in several women in mining initiatives including successfully leading Women in Mining (WIMnet) NSW for the past eight years and being heavily involved in their Mentoring Programs through the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
From a national level, the mentoring program isn’t only for women, men are able to access the service as well. Michelle said it’s been interesting to see the men’s involvement increase over the years – in 2015 there would’ve been one male mentor in the room, but for the last three to four years about half of mentors have been male.
“It is wonderful to see these male champions of change!”
There is one moment that stands out for Michelle as a time when she realised the huge impact her story and mentoring had on local women in mining.
“It still gives me goosebumps to this day. I remember a lady came up to me and said she was in the very same job that I was in when I started in the mining industry. She said she couldn’t thank me enough for helping her believe that she could be a Director in a heavily male dominated industry.
“You can be whatever you want to be with a little bit of hard work and determination,” said Michelle.
Michelle is testament to the fact that you can achieve your dreams. She has been recognised globally in the Top 100 Global Inspirational Women in Mining in 2016, won the NSW Women in Mining award for the Gender Diversity Champion in 2015 and was one of the Queen’s Baton Bearers for the Commonwealth Games in 2018, just to name a few.
In 2021, Michelle decided it was time to semi-retire. In Michelle’s personal life the worries were piling up after she lost her Dad to brain cancer in 2014, her husband and her uncle were both going through heart problems and her sister was diagnosed with MS.
Dealing with all of that, plus long hours at work, was starting to take its toll. Michelle said to herself, “if something happened health wise would I be happy with where I’m at? And ultimately I wouldn’t be,” so she retired from full time work.
Michelle definitely didn’t move into full time retirement, continuing to support women in the industry, just a little more flexibly and only doing things she is truly passionate about.
For Michelle that also includes being an artist.
When she semi-retired, her husband told her she needed a hobby so after trying and disliking pottery, she suddenly remembered she once had a love for painting.
In the space of just two years, Michelle has gone from painting her artworks on a table on the back verandah of her family home in the Hunter, to having one of her paintings shown in a gallery in New York, and on a billboard in Times Square.
She realised that not only was art her “happy place” to escape to, but she was actually really good at it.
Michelle creates abstract paintings with mixed media that are calming, whimsical and energetic. Her passion for women in mining, and every other workforce, shines through her paintings – “Light Overcomes Darkness” is one of Michelle’s artworks created in ode to International Women’s Day.
“It’s a self-reflection of my struggles of being a woman working in multiple male dominated industries. It symbolises three decades starting in the top left quadrant, moving down to the bottom right displaying the many personal challenges I have overcome to climb to the top of my profession,
“The gold highlights the several awards at State, National and International levels I have received for being a role model and champion of change.”
That painting has been recognised internationally including as a finalist in March this year for the virtual Women exhibition at HMVC Gallery in New York. It was that gallery that put Michelle’s artwork “Renewed Beginnings” on a billboard in New York City as part of the Paradise Pink exhibition the gallery did earlier this year.
So, there you have it, if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything.
|You can meet Michelle at a pop-up exhibition at Cessnock on May 6 and 7 at the Masonic Hall in Cessnock. https://www.artbymichellelawson.com/|
|More details on WIMnet: https://www.ausimm.com/communities/networks/women-in-mining-network/|