Mr Salisbury said requiring 10 years of experience when recruiting for a new role precluded many women from applying, as they might have taken time out of the workforce to have children.
“He scratched his head, and said ‘I get it,’” Mr Salisbury said.
“It’s about the systems that may have bias towards selecting people like me.”
Mr Salisbury has become Western Australia’s fourth mining boss member of CEOs for Gender Equity, joining executives from Fortescue Metals Group, South32 and BHP.
He said the group aligned with Rio Tinto’s values, but diversity was important to him personally.
“I’m married and I have two daughters and I am aware of some frankly poor behaviour that goes on outside my industry,” he said.
“But what I like to think about more is what’s positive.”
There is plenty to celebrate. While starting from an extremely male-dominated base, Rio Tinto joined Male Champions for Change in previous years and has some runs on the board.
It’s so far achieved a target to increase women in senior management by 2 per cent annually, increasing from 19 per cent in 2016 to 22.6 per cent in 2018.
Its executive committee went from 20 per cent women to 25 per cent between 2016-18.
Graduate intake has fluctuated – 41 per cent women in 2017, 36 per cent in 2018 – but 2019 figures released in coming weeks will see Rio finally hit its 50 per cent target.
Annual pay gap audits saw a 3 per cent equal pay gap (the measure of like-for-like jobs) improve to 2 per cent from 2017-18.
Mr Salisbury said mining had for too long focused on engineering qualifications at the expense of skills. Recruiters needed to recognise that focusing only on qualifications in a discipline in which women were already under-represented would exacerbate inequality.
And he hoped Rio’s work in automation would help attract more young women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields.
“It’s not just about wielding pickaxes in remote locations anymore,” he said.
“Our operating centre employs 400 people and a lot of that work used to happen at remote sites but having a more tech-enabled business increases the scope and opportunity for different genders and backgrounds to participate.
“If we explain that story better to young people we should be able to boost the number of women in STEM subjects.”
Mr Salisbury has worked at Rio Tinto for more than 30 years and said recent changes had made senior teams stronger and more cohesive. They had richer discussions and made better decisions.
“A team made up of predominantly males will always be biased in making decisions that affect people,” he said.
“Engagement, as we call it – the measure of how engaged employees are with their company – is measured very closely.
“Apart from the factors of how they get paid and where they work, people are looking for purpose. Does the company have a purpose they can align to, do its culture and values play out in everyday life?”
And more employees were taking advantage of Rio’s gender-neutral parental leave and flexible work policies.
“It’s about lifting those policies off the paper and into practice,” Mr Salisbury said.
“In the last couple of years we have seen senior men taking parental leave. It’s been a great symbol, it’s generated great positive discussion.”
But challenges remain.
Two women retired from the board last year. With replacements yet to be announced, the board is back down to a single woman.
And the overall workforce was still only 17.7 per cent women in 2018, down from 18 per cent in 2017.
“We still have a high rate of attrition, particularly for mothers having children,” Mr Salisbury said.
“You hear all the excuses, about FIFO rosters and so on, but that is just excuses.
“We have to continue to look at how we can make our work meet the needs of people with young families.
“And the more we have this dialogue playing in every corner of society, the better off we will be.”
CEOs for Gender Equity director Tania Cecconi said mining was often blamed for WA’s poor performance in a nationwide context, but mining companies were in fact leaders.
“Once the CEO or leader of that business turns their mind to increasing the numbers they make it happen. So it’s so important for leaders of these male-dominated businesses to normalise the conversation in WA,” she said.
She said after Workplace Gender Equity Agency figures late last year sparked reports that WA had gone backwards in terms of equity, this had not accounted for an overall increase in the number of companies reporting.
In fact, WA could celebrate some major achievements.
“Yes, WA still has got some way to go in catching up to the rest of Australia,” she said.
“But we are moving in the right direction, thanks to our CEOs who know that the commitment to gender equity starts at the top and that it starts with them.”
Emma Young covers breaking news with a focus on science and environment, health and social justice for WAtoday.