Samantha Espley, general manager of mines and mills technical services with Vale's Ontario operations, said it is important to inform young girls and women about the career opportunities.
Women represent only 16 per cent of Canada's mining workforce – the lowest proportion for any sector in the country.
Most women who work in the mining industry do not have technical roles, but occupy traditional office jobs in administration and human resources departments.
Women in Mining Northern Ontario hopes to eventually increase female representation in the industry to 50 per cent.
Espley, who earned her engineering degree from the University of Toronto in 1988, said the industry has progressed a lot for women since she first started her career.
“Our facilities have changed,” Espley said about Vale. “We never had change rooms for women, now all of our sites have infrastructure for women.”
Espley said attitudes around women in the industry have also improved.
When she first started, some of her male colleagues told her it was bad luck for a woman to be working with them underground.
She also found it difficult to form social bonds with some of the other male workers, because leisure after work often meant going to the bar or playing poker with the boys.
“I kind of felt on display,” Espley said.
But simply increasing the number of women in the industry has helped dispel those attitudes, she said.
When Espley started with Inco in the early 1990s, there were about 20 female engineers with the company's Sudbury operations, she said.
At Thursday's inaugural event, there were more than 100 women from the industry present, and a large number work for Vale, Espley said.
Charmaine Gazdic, president of Women in Mining Northern Ontario, said she started the organization to promote the mining industry's opportunities for women.
“My father once said, 'if you don't go to school and get an education you're going to be a miner.' Now women are getting an education to become miners,” Gazdic said.
In a recent report, the Mining Association of Canada said companies in the mining sector will need to hire 145,000 people over the next decade to replace retirees and fill new positions.
Gazdic said the industry will need to diversify to meet that demand, and women could play a large role in filling the new positions.
Karin Clyke, a third-year geology student at Laurentian University, and president of the school's Women in Mining Northern Ontario student chapter, said women represent about half the students in her program.
Clyke's grandfather, the first Afro-Canadian miner in Sudbury, inspired her to enter the mining industry at a young age.
After she graduates, she said she hopes to work for an exploration company.
She said she started a student chapter for Women in Mining Northern Ontario to encourage her peers to consider the industry, and improve on the 16-per-cent female representation in the sector.
“That (number is) mindblowing to me,” Clyke said. “It really encourages me to try and send the message across that women can be a part of this industry.”