It’s probably not too surprising that Karen (Miles) Field (1965) enjoyed a highly successful career in the resources industry. After all, she was right at home playing in the red dirt of Kalgoorlie as a little girl.
But this determined woman took her career to the next level, shattering the glass ceiling when she became the first Australian woman to head up a major mining operation – in Argentina no less!
For more than three decades, Karen worked tirelessly in the mining industry and, while now retired, she's no less driven.
In 2016, she became Chair of the Perth College Foundation, which helps with the long-term financial security of the School, and its assets are flourishing.
What years did you attend Perth College and what was your school experience like?
I attended as a boarder through years 1962 to 65. I cried solidly for the first week, but soon enjoyed everything that the School had to offer. As a young girl from a small mining community, my eyes were opened to a world of opportunity. For me, it was more than that though – it taught me independence, socialisation and a sense of community. In short, my period at Perth College helped define me as a person and the friends I made there will remain with me forever.
Did PC prepare you for the ‘real world’?
As a boarder in those days, one needed to be fairly resilient (those who lived remotely went home only three times a year with rare telephone contact and no internet!) I therefore suspect that it was good preparation for the real world, as one had to make many decisions without reference to others.
What was your first job and how did your career blossom from there?
Early in my Economics undergraduate studies at UWA, I had extended my subject reach into Politics and Industrial Relations. With this background, I secured my first job with (then) Western Mining Corporation. Like most of my contemporaries, I worked until I had saved my fare to Europe and then spent three years working and travelling extensively… and mostly having lots of fun! On returning home, I went firstly into the newly developing iron ore industry. Over the next two decades, I then worked in executive roles in a range of organisations in the nickel, gold and base metals sectors across Australia, culminating in my 1998 appointment as President of Minera Alumbrera – the huge copper/ gold joint venture project in Argentina.
Please tell us about your experience in South America.
When I was offered the chief executive role, I realised it would be a herculean task especially given that it was the first large-scale mining project in the country. Inevitably, there were a myriad of bumps in the road, but I am enormously proud that in a relatively short time, we had become internationally competitive. Most of all however, I am proudest that we were able to bring greater prosperity to the north-western provinces and especially to the families of our workforce.
On a lighter note, when I first arrived in Buenos Aires, I was told by an Argentine (with humour, of course) that I needed to understand that the Argentine people were essentially a bunch of Italians who spoke Spanish, wanted to be English and live in France.
With that sort of national personality profile, at least life wasn’t going to be boring! I had also been warned that Argentina was still a really “machismo” society so I capitalised on the shock value for as long as I could, but everyone got used to my presence very quickly of course! And all these years on, the most enduring memories are of the fascinating people, the stunning country and the wonderfully diverse culture. The experience was fantastic and I always encourage young people to leap at any opportunity to work offshore as it is truly enriching.
You have been on boards for a long time – has the make-up of boards changed over the years? I’m hoping with more women!
Yes, thankfully. When I first took up directorships, I was often the only female presence. However, by the time I left my last ASX50 board, I was delighted that we had three female non-executive directors – each of whom chaired a board committee and added valuable expertise and experience to the business, as one would expect!
Do you mentor or support other females to pursue board roles?
Of course! I also try to encourage women in senior management to take on a variety of roles rather than being confined to a professional niche. In the mining and allied industries, operational experience is also very important, so I am constantly encouraging young female professionals to apply for management roles outside their comfort zones and be prepared to move to secure breadth and depth of experience.
How important is philanthropy for the School, and in general, to have that spirit in the wider community?
Philanthropy is critical for the long-term sustainability of our school and we need to encourage our community to continue to “Live Generously” and support our Foundation. With so many pressures in our broader society, it is also my personal view that “those who can, should”. In other words, those of us who have enjoyed significant advantages through education and upbringing need to give back.
What advice would you give to young women starting their careers or wanting to step up?
Essentially, believe in yourself, continuously broaden your skills base and optimise every opportunity that comes your way.
On a personal level, can you tell us about your family life?
My wonderful husband of (then) ten years died unexpectedly when I was in my mid 30s and it was, of course, a devastating event for me and our families. Sadly, we had not had children and I was immensely grateful that I was able to throw myself into my work, which at least gave me some focus. However, family is everything to me and I am so lucky that my only brother and his family include me in all their lives. I also view my supportive band of friends as my special family.
What an incredible life, Karen. The stories you must have! Also, thank you for all the work you do with the Perth College Foundation. We truly appreciate it.