By Ben Langford
July 3, 2021 - All miners are groundbreakers but Erin Lee has been doing it at each step of her career.
Lee is now the regional manager for Southern Mines Rescue and has been recognised as the "Exceptional Woman" in this year's Women in Mining awards named by the NSW Minerals Council.
Erin Lee says the thing she loved most about coal mining was the camaraderie and teamwork underground.
Picture: Anna Warr
Lee's presence in the industry had been won the hard way - underground from the start.
While roles in human resources and corporate services may be more often the path for women in the resources industry, Ms Lee was underground 15 years ago, while still finishing her degree in mining engineering at the hometown University of Wollongong.
She was permanently underground from 2008 at the Dendrobium mine and has only in recent years emerged.
"Realistically, there were no other females underground at the time," Ms Lee, 34, said of her early days.
"I was a local contractor, working in a distance from the production area, putting up bolts, that's where I started. It was weekend night shift while I was finishing my uni degree, so I actually had some money."
She wasn't the only woman in a mining engineering classroom in those days - "there were two of us", in a graduating class of about 20.
Her award citation said she was the first woman in Illawarra Coal's 53-year history to take on the statutory role of shift undermanager, which she achieved in 2015.
"Four years later, she became one of the first two women in NSW to hold a practising certificate as an underground coal mining engineering manager. Erin is also the first woman to be appointed to a non-administrative role at NSW Mines Rescue," the Minerals Council said.
So why did Lee decide to stay underground?
"I like the camaraderie and the mateship; I liked learning hands-on," she said.
"I'm a very practical sort of person. When you go underground at the start of a shift, you've got a plan and a target, you go underground and you achieve that plan and target and you get a result for the end of the day.
"It takes an enormous amount of teamwork to be able to get that job done."
Of course it hasn't always been easy, in a tough industry, where women are still a significant minority, particularly underground.
"You obviously have your detractors along the way - but it all depends how personally you want to take that," Ms Lee said.
"There'll be people who say 'good on you, you're having a go. There'll be other people that are 'what are you doing here?'.
"I had one guy say to me 'hairdressing's much easier'. I said 'I have kids, have you ever tried to cut hair before?'."