Making Her Mark in a Male-Dominated Industry
By Brian McCullough
As she types away at her Masters thesis at the University of British Columbia’s Mineral Deposit Research Unit in Vancouver, or works out of a remote field camp in Chile’s Atacama Desert searching for clues to hidden deposits of copper deep below the earth’s surface, Ally Brown ’09 knows she is doing her part to normalize the presence of women in a mining industry dominated by men.
It hasn’t always been an easy path to navigate, but thanks to what she took away from her years at Elmwood in terms of self-confidence, and the strong encouragement she receives today from a mentor in the industry—another Elmwood Old Girl—Ally perseveres in the face of whatever hurdles she must overcome to claim her space. To her, it is her right to be in a career of her own choosing.
“There are times when you feel like perhaps you aren’t as welcome as a male would be,” she said, “but you have to believe that you are allowed to be here, that you are supposed to be here. You can’t doubt yourself. Seeing more women in the industry will normalize things, and that’s how we’ll move forward.”
It’s hard to imagine, listening to her, that she was ever shy about expressing an opinion. Ally joined Wilson House as a quiet, shy girl for the start of Grade 7 in 2003, but by her senior year was a confident, outgoing young woman who would be appointed the school’s Senior Prefect.
Ally’s transition to Elmwood from the public school system was very good for her, she said. Her two older sisters, Virginia (’06) and Hilary (’08), had made the same journey themselves, so she had some inkling as to what to expect.
“It was different from public school,” she said. “Elmwood looked like a house, not a blocky school building, and you could see that it had a lot of history. I thought, ‘this is Hogwarts.’ I like it. It felt like you were part of a nice tradition.”
Beginning in 2006, Ally would join summer wilderness trips with PaddleFoot Inc, a canoe-tripping camp she said was formative in helping her discover her capacity to assess risk. Ally said by the time she left Elmwood in 2009, she knew what she was capable of doing in an academic setting, and what she was capable of dealing with in life.
“That was the thing about Elmwood,” she said. “Being there for years instilled confidence about who I was and who I wanted to be. The small class sizes made it an inclusive atmosphere, so if you made a mistake it wasn’t the end of your life. Without boys in the class, I was more confident to put my hand up and say what I thought. I wasn’t scared to be myself, and people were okay with that, which is important for young women at that stage.”
Ally’s journey toward a burgeoning career in mineral exploration began at Queen’s University in Kingston. Both of her parents are lawyers, but her interests lay in the sciences. When it came time to choose a program in her second year, an older cousin doing a BSc program in geology at Queen’s told her about some of the courses she was taking, and so Ally said she “took a leap of faith and signed up for geological science.”
She loved it, and graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in 2013. In January 2014 Ally moved to Vancouver to look for work in mining exploration, only to discover that the industry markets had slumped and there were no jobs available. It was a hard lesson to learn, she said. She decided to take some time off, and then apply to UBC to begin a master’s program in the fall of 2015.
For her program, Ally was offered work with the university’s Mineral Deposit Research Unit on a funded mineral exploration geochemistry initiative, looking specifically at new methods for finding copper deposits in the Atacama Desert. Using mapping, geophysics and surface sampling, Ally examines the desert floor for telltale signs of ancient groundwater brought hundreds of metres up to the surface by seismic forces, potentially transporting traces of hidden metals with it.
“What’s new about my method is being able to identify what the gravel looks like after this groundwater has been shot up onto the surface,” she said. “The dry desert preserves it. It was a totally accidental discovery.”
Ally Brown said she would encourage the girls at Elmwood to be confident about finding their own career opportunities, especially if what they want is different than what’s in that “classic box” of lawyer, doctor, engineer. “You just have to work hard and go for it,” she said. “It is completely attainable.”
An important mentor of hers today in Vancouver is Elmwood alumna and mining industry financial executive Margaret Brodie ’96, who Ally met through her own friend and roommate, Anne Pigott ’08. The women get together to talk every couple of months, and Ally says the support she receives from Margaret has been instrumental in helping her find her way as a young woman in a male-dominated industry.
“She is the most confident person I know,” Ally said. “She encourages us to make our mark, and to have the confidence to keep going. Being exposed to women who have done it themselves just naturally instills confidence in yourself that you can do it too.”