Dr Francesca Maclean

Senior Consultant, Arup

If you want to increase diversity in the engineering industry, stop serving cupcakes at International Women’s Day events and start addressing the structural barriers that limit female participation in STEM.

That’s the advice of Dr Francesca Maclean, senior consultant at Arup and co-founder of Fifty50, a student-led organisation promoting gender equity in STEM at her alma mater, ANU.

“People tend to say it’s a pipeline issue, but it’s a societal issue,” Maclean said.

“We have systematically designed these barriers into our systems and now they are unconsciously maintained as the status quo. If businesses, universities and schools are taking diversity seriously, they will do an audit not only of their systems and processes, but also of their cultures.”

“If we can get men exposed to inclusive, supportive environments at university through our programs, that’s a bonus for everyone.”

Dr Francesca Maclean

As a leading diversity and inclusion advocate, Maclean is working to break down the barriers she experienced as an engineering undergraduate and to encourage the broader industry to create a world where access and opportunity are equal for all.

She was awarded ACT Young Woman of the Year in 2017 and ANU Postgraduate Student of the Year in 2018. In 2019, she completed the Victorian Government’s Joan Kirner Young Women Leaders Program and founded The Fortem Project to deliver resources to help teams and organisations better understand gender equity in STEM.

Fifty50, which Maclean co-founded in 2015, aims to develop an equitable STEM pipeline, from university to industry and academia. It includes mentoring and career development programs and works to increase the visibility of female engineering role models, as well as engage the wider community in STEM gender equity. Corporate partners have included the Department of Defence, EY and Commonwealth Bank.

Maclean explains Fifty50 is not just for women.

“If we can get men exposed to inclusive, supportive environments at university through our programs, that’s a bonus for everyone,” she said.

“It means that they don’t then adapt to that toxic, masculine, competition culture that exists.”

Maclean was first exposed to this culture when she moved to Canberra from Darwin in 2009 to study engineering and science at ANU. That year, approximately 13 per cent of engineering enrolees were female and only about 40 per cent of them went on to graduate. Those figures have improved, yet Maclean says there is still much to be done.

While completing her PhD in tissue engineering for brain repair, she began to reflect on the systemic inequality she had experienced as an undergraduate.

Male peers would rarely make eye contact with her in tutorials or dismissed her high academic achievements as favouritism because she was one of so few women in the department. She recalls a time when a male lecturer told her to “go and make me a sandwich”.

Many systems designed to encourage female participation in STEM are also flawed, said Maclean.

“I got a scholarship to ANU because I was a high-performing woman, but no one ever checked in with me,” she said

“These kinds of mechanisms don’t mean anything unless we actually support women, and make sure that they’re going into a culture that’s designed for them.”

As a senior consultant at Arup, the firm she joined in 2017 after completing her PhD, Maclean has worked with clients in the federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development and the water sector. A recent career highlight was leading a project for Victoria Walks to develop an economic case for walking.

“We applied a people-focused, intersectional lens to walking and creating infrastructure to make our streets safe for walking – for women, young people, older people and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is a unique approach,” she said.

Maclean is passionate about designing inclusive and accessible cities for all. She is Arup’s Australasian Diversity & Inclusion Executive Disability Leader, building Arup’s capacity as a disability-confident organisation.

Her ultimate goal is to see organisations regard diversity and inclusion as “business critical issues”.

“At the moment, they are put in with HR, or people and culture,” Maclean said.

“That’s not where they belong. As engineers, diversity and inclusion need to be at the centre of the world that we’re shaping and the cities that we’re creating. Right now, they’re really only designed for a certain type of person and, in most cases, he walks into engineering firms wearing a checked shirt.”


Taylah Griffin

Graduate Systems Engineer, Boeing


Amanda Quan

Adviser, Women in Oil and Gas; Committee Member, Engineers Without Borders

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