Three mines, 1400 employees, two kids: All a day’s work for Sinead Kaufman

Sinead Kaufman is often referred to as the ‘mayor’ of Tom Price: a Western Australia mining town of 4500 residents with a Coles supermarket and a post office, and temperatures that regularly hover around the 38 degree mark.

She’s that involved in the day-to-day operations of the growing Pilbara-based town – including supporting family-based facilities such as the childcare centre and two primary schools – that she’s earned a reputation as keeping the place in order.

“It’s a standing joke with my boss and peers that I’ve become the ‘mayor’ of Tom Price,” she says. “The town is run by the local Shire, but I spend a lot of time on these issues.”

It’s all part of the job for Kaufman, who oversees three mines in the region as general manager of the Tom Price and Marandoo Operations for Rio Tinto, managing 1400 staff and producing 40 million tonnes of iron ore a year. But not quite what she imagined studying geology at university 20 years ago. :I had a hugely romantic view of being off in a Land Rover somewhere exploring huge mines! It was highly romantic, in my mind.”

Last week, Kaufman was named one of Chief Executive Women’s seven education scholarship winners and the recipient of a $55,000 prize to attend a month-long Advanced Executive Program at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. With very few women at the top of mining, Kaufman sees the win as an opportunity prove women can take the next step up, and find the time to pursue training and development.

Working 12-hour shifts and travelling extensively between the three mines, Kaufman’s responsible for overall operations issues at the mines and dealing with the various employee and township issues that come up. With more than 90% of the houses in Tom Price own by Rio Tinto, that means dealing with everything from allocating houses to managing community issues and supporting the development of relevant facilities. She’s also on the board of the Tom Price Primary School, the Nintirri Community Centre and leads the Rio Tinto Iron Ore Mental health working group, supporting the health and wellbeing of miners across the state.

It’s a tough place to live, Kaufman concedes, but an interesting place to be. There are plenty of activities and facilities for the kids and some unique hobbies to explore on the ‘off’ days, such as gold prospering which Kaufman does with her husband and a metal detector whenever they get the chance.

She believes finding local, relevant hobbies is essential for getting involved in the local community and learning about a new town. In the far North Queensland where she was last posted, she took up fishing.

Meanwhile, having been flung far from her Irish upbringing to some of the globe’s most off-beat locations, including the Australian outback and underground copper mines in South Africa – she believes a close life partner and help at home are key to managing such a unique career. Her husband left the British Army to follow her mining career around the world, ultimately landing his own job with Rio Tinto.

Raising two children, ages two and six, the two have become a Rio Tinto “husband and wife team” by both sharing parental leave and flexible work arrangements. Kaufman took the first six months off when they hand their last child, while her husband followed it up by taking a further 18 months and continues to work flexibly and in line with school hours to manage the childcare and school drop-offs.

Kaufman also takes great pride in supporting minority groups across the employee base – such as the 20% of the workforce that is female, and Rio Tinto’s Aboriginal employees. “We do spend plenty of time putting in support mechanisms for these different groups,” she says. “The joke often is, is there anything for the white males to do?”

Angela Priestley is the editor of Women’s Agenda, where this article originally appeared.

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