Forging a path for gender equity and much more

Profiling Dr Francesca Maclean, Senior Consultant at Arup and co-founder of Fifty50 at ANU

Francesca Maclean

Study at doctorate level necessarily involves lots of jugglingstudy, research, work, life, any partner or family commitments and more.

If you’re a woman studying for a PhD in a STEM discipline, there’s the added pressure of being a minority in a key academic field along with all the entrenched barriers, difficulties and hoops that you need to jump through as well.

So it’s unlikely that you would want to take on even more work to further the cause of gender equity.

That is, unless you happen to be Dr Francesca Maclean.

Tough and challenging

Dr Maclean now works at Arup in Melbourne as Senior Consultant in its City Economics and Planning team, but back in 2015 she was studying for a PhD at the Australian National University (ANU).

Her PhD project focused on developing biomaterials to control the scarring process after traumatic brain injury, but she found studying a STEM subject at doctorate level hard going.

“I found it really tough and challenging and at the 18-month mark I looked around and was surrounded by male academics. There were women in the laboratory, but no women academic role models for me to go to for advice or support,” Dr Maclean said.

Over her time studying and working at ANU she realised that some women had worked their way up through the academic levels to the top and done well, but by the time the next woman came along the path was totally overgrown again.

“New women coming in had to start from scratch and make a whole new path for themselves.”

A lifesaver and a positive project

“So I decided I needed to do something about it and I think it was also a distraction and a bit of a lifesaver for me, as it gave me a project to be positive about.”

“I wanted to make studying and being at university a much better experience for women, so they are more likely to complete their studies and stay on,” she said.

So in 2015, Dr Maclean co-founded Fifty50 with Emily Campbell at ANU.

A student-led organisation which promotes gender equity in STEM within ANU, Fifty50 strives to close the gender gap in STEM at universities.

Ultimately it aims to achieve gender equity through a strengths-based approach that includes mentoring programs, increasing the visibility of role models, engaging the wider community in STEM gender equity, and advocating for policy change.

An equitable STEM pipeline

“Fifty50’s mission is to develop an equitable STEM pipeline—from university to industry to academia—inclusive of all students regardless of gender,” she said.

Initially, the Fifty50 first-year mentoring program was only for women but quite quickly they decided to offer the program to men as well.

“We realised that what we were offering would change everyone for the better and that we needed to fix the system, not the women, so including men was crucial,” she said.

Originally the initiative was for engineering students only but by 2017 it had broadened out to include all STEM students at ANU. Fifty50 has been operating successfully for nearly five years and has industry partners including EY, Commbank and Department of Defence.

But, not surprisingly, Dr Maclean’s diversity and inclusion work didn’t stop there.

More diversity and inclusion …

In her current role at Arup she is Australasian Disability Leader and Diversity and Inclusion Leader for the Melbourne office.

“I want to refresh Arup’s approach to diversity and inclusion—a new local office approach that can feed into the regional strategy,” said Dr Maclean.

“We are currently looking at inclusive design that benefits everyone and it is really good to see staff really thinking about this.”

“One member of staff suggested to me that the lifts should have a voice telling you which floor you had reached as well as buttons that lit up—it’s so good to see people’s thinking changing and expanding about diversity and inclusion and to be driving that,” she said.

So how did someone who studied a PhD in biomaterials end up working for Arup?

Arup is an international independent engineering firm that works across every aspect of the built environment … not somewhere you might expect to find someone who specialises in tissue engineering.

Adding skills to her portfolio

“I think by the end of my PhD I’d decided that what I studied wasn’t going to be what I would do for work,” she said.

At ANU she also worked as a tutor, receiving a Vice-Chancellor’s Excellence in Tutoring Award, and in 2017 she won ACT Young Woman of the Year for her gender equity work with Fifty50.

Adding further to her skills portfolio, she became one of Science & Technology Australia’s inaugural Superstars of STEM and also ended up giving talks for the Male Champions of Change initiative.

Building up a broad range of transferable skills helped Dr Maclean in her job search.

“After my PhD, I applied for quite a few jobs but didn’t have any success. I ended up being offered a job by Arup through one of Fifty50’s advisors,” she said.

“Arup’s former CEO, Professor Robert Care AM, said that I had the skills and experience that would make a great consultant—those skills are systems thinking from my PhD, communication and relationships from tutoring, and stakeholder management and problem-solving from Fifty50.”

“It’s interesting to see the range of skills that helped me get the job at Arup, not just my qualifications and work CV but also other experience and soft skills as well.”

The Fortem Project

Dr Maclean is currently completing the Victorian Government’s 2018-19 Joan Kirner Young and Emerging Women Leaders program to amplify her impact as a gender equity champion.

At the start of 2019 she founded The Fortem Project (‘fortem’ is the Latin word for brave).

“The Fortem Project is a destination to help people better understand gender equity in STEM—through lived experiences, best-practice research, and a critical yet thoughtful lens, always focused on driving change,” she said.

Via its website the project features a range of resources: weekly articles, women-only scholarships, podcasts, information on unconscious bias, allies and leadership, and more.

“It’s still a work in progress and I’m hoping to add accessible videos to the mix later this year,” Dr Maclean said.

Achievements, annoying people and smashing problems

From feeling disillusioned 18 months into her PhD to her role at Arup and the Fortem Project, she has achieved a remarkable amount in her 27 years.

“In some ways I think I really annoy senior people with the way I just start doing something to change things, rather than accepting the status quo,” she said.

“But I’ve experienced gender inequity in STEM myself, I know what it is like and how defeated you can feel by it. My lived experience can be shared face-to-face and can change things and have a real impact.”

On the homepage of The Fortem Project website there is a quote from Dr Maclean: “Gender inequity is a gender problem—not a women’s problem.”

With the way Dr Maclean approaches problems—from setting up Fifty50 to changing career direction—there’s no doubt she is going to be instrumental in smashing the gender inequity problem, too.