Breaking Down Barriers

Breaking Down Barriers | Laini Bennett

They say behind every great man is a great woman. But in the case of Dr Nadine Marcus, there have been many great men supporting her career in a field that remains male-dominated. Dr Marcus is Associate Professor, Computer Science and Engineering, at UNSW. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned, including how she helped open the door to part-time leadership roles in academia.

It has long been the case that men dominate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries. In Australia, as of 2020, only 28% of professionals working in STEM-qualified industries are women. Dr Nadine Marcus is one of them. She is an Associate Professor in Human Computer Interaction, School of Computer Science and Engineering, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). She is also an international leader in educational technology research.

Dr Marcus has expertise in psychology and computer science and specialises in online learning – essential in both a professional and educational setting. She collaborates with many of the world’s most influential cognitive psychologists (who study how we think) and has been published extensively in highly respected international journals.

Despite working in a male-dominated field, Dr Marcus has received strong support from male mentors throughout her career. “I’ve had amazing male role models in my life,” she says. 

She credits her male support network – both professional and personal – with recognising her potential and championing her through good times and bad.

Championing male champions

Dr Marcus believes that one of the best ways to improve diversity in STEM professions is by championing the men who are driving diversity in those fields. Furthermore, she believes these men should be acknowledged and applauded. For this reason, she nominated her mentor, a male colleague who had mentored many women into more senior positions at UNSW, for an engineering award for gender equity and diversity. 

“They kept giving it to women,” she says. “I believe quite strongly that as part of changing the culture in the STEM domain, we should be rewarding those men who support women and encouraging them.”

Career Tip:

Sometimes, acknowledgement is the best reward of all. 

If you are seeking to encourage specific behaviour within your organisation, publicly praise those demonstrating it. They deserve to be recognised, and it’s a great motivational tool.

Passion and pragmatism

Dr Marcus has always felt confident and comfortable working in her industry and has never experienced overt sexism or imposter syndrome. Her parents, who were leaders in their fields in South Africa, where she grew up, fostered this confidence. 

Dr Marcus’ father was an award-winning scientist and professor of chemical engineering. He encouraged her interest in math and science, tutoring her from a young age. “He always felt that girls could be just as good as boys in math and science,” she says. 

Her mother established a not-for-profit, contemporary African dance company called Moving Into Dance. It was one of the few mixed-race dance companies and training organisations in South Africa when blacks and whites were still segregated. “I grew up with parents who were quite out there, breaking down barriers and changing the world,” she says.

Breaking Down Barriers | Laini Bennett
Associate Professor Dr Nadine Marcus

With her parents’ encouragement, Dr Marcus studied computer science and psychology at the University of Cape Town, later graduating with a first class honours equivalent from the University of the Witswatersrand in her hometown of Johannesburg. 

“People used to say to me, ‘What do people have to do with computers? Why are you studying people and computers? They’re unrelated,” Dr Marcus says. Little did they know.

While her interdisciplinary skills later helped her stand out and proved to be a huge advantage in her career, Dr Marcus’s initial motivations were passion and pragmatism. She loved psychology but thought she’d have a better chance of landing a job if she studied computer science.

Stumbling onto her future

After graduating with honours, Dr Marcus and her husband immigrated to Sydney, Australia. While she quickly found work, it was three years before she stumbled onto the pathway that would leverage her unique skill set.

Finding herself between jobs and returning to South Africa for her first visit since leaving, Dr Marcus wanted a temporary and challenging role. Fate intervened in the form of a three-month contract position at UNSW. They were looking for a research assistant with an unusual combination of skills: math and psychology. It was a match made in heaven.

In this role, Dr Marcus met her first professional mentor, Emeritus Professor Dr John Sweller, a highly-cited educational psychologist. In their short time together, Dr Sweller recognised her capabilities and encouraged her to take up a PhD scholarship, opening the door to her career in academia.

“So, it all happened more by chance rather than by design,” she says. 

To this day, Dr Marcus still collaborates with Professor Sweller, jointly publishing papers and supervising PhD students.

Launching her PhD

Breaking Down Barriers | Laini Bennett
A/Prof Dr Nadine Marcus receiving her PhD doctorate.

When the opportunity for a PhD arose, Dr Marcus grabbed it with both hands. Her PhD research project was on cognitive load theory and its application to instructional design. However, as she neared the end of her research, an experiment failed. It was a significant setback, especially as she was now pregnant with their first child.

“In the end, I took six years part-time to finish my PhD, and I had two babies along the way,” she says. But, with no extended family to help out at home and suffering from sleep deprivation, it was the men in her life – her husband and father – who kept pushing her towards completion.

“My father said to me, ‘you’re so close, don’t give up, you’ll always regret it’,” she says, grateful for his enduring belief in her.

Facing life’s challenges

Having completed her PhD, a future in research and teaching Human-Computer Interaction at UNSW beckoned. It was 2001. With no family in Australia and two young children, Dr Marcus negotiated a part-time lecturer role – a first for the Faculty of Engineering. The appointment reflected their respect for her unique skill set and the support of her boss, who understood the challenges facing working mothers.

This understanding was vital a couple of years later, in 2004. Dr Marcus’ girls were still very young when her husband suddenly and tragically passed away. With her boss’ backing and help from her friends and community, she maintained her part-time workload while rebuilding her life as a sole parent. Work became an opportunity to escape from the day-to-day challenges she faced at home. It was also her best chance of supporting her family.

“I was adamant that my children were still going to have a good life; that I wasn’t going to let adversity take me down,” she says. “I’m an optimist and have a very strong survival instinct.”

This optimism held her in good stead when she was subsequently diagnosed, not once, but twice, with cancer. The first in 2012, the second in 2020. Both times, Dr Marcus was grateful that doctors found the cancer at an early stage, and for the support of the man who became her life partner 12 years ago. Throughout her radiation and treatment, rather than thinking, “why me”, she reiterated, “how lucky am I?”

“I just kept seeing the positive,” she said. “Both times, it could have been life-threatening, and it wasn’t.”

Career Tip:

Sometimes, inexplicably, bad things can happen in your life. Try to identify the upside of the circumstances rather than focusing on the negative. 

“You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude,” Dr Marcus says.

After experiencing cancer, remaining part-time became even more critical to Dr Marcus. While she is passionate about her work, she values work-life balance. It allows her to spend time with her family and enjoy the serenity of a bushwalk. “It’s really important not to get so sucked into work that there are no outlets,” she says. 

Surprisingly, however, part-time leadership roles in universities are uncommon. When Dr Marcus applied for her current leadership position as Associate Professor in 2018, she had to convince the promotion panel that she could do the role part-time. This was despite the fact she’d been running the course for seven years part-time, including training up to 300 students a year, and publishing her research as prolifically as many full time academics. Another major achievement was the commercialisation of a PhD project she’d supervised, named SmartSparrow, which was recently acquired by Pearson Education.  

Ultimately, she was awarded the promotion, and as a result, helped break a barrier for women in STEM academia. 

Today, Dr Marcus aspires to further address the STEM gender imbalance by mentoring female university research students, many of whom now have successful careers with companies like Facebook and Microsoft.

She is also mentoring junior female academics, helping them navigate the male dominated landscape and advance their careers. “Women need to support each other,” she says. In addition, she pays forward the outstanding male mentorship she’s received by mentoring male students. 

After all, the best way to break down barriers is by setting an example and leading the way.

Dr Nadine Marcus’ Leadership Lessons Learned

  • If faced with a tense situation at work, try responding with kindness rather than aggression, especially in male-dominated professions. 
  • Delegating is important. Understand people’s strengths, then delegate accordingly.
  • Take time out of work to rejuvenate and re-energise yourself.
  • Learn to collaborate across different disciplines or departments. You will achieve more, faster.
  • Be good at what you do. It will help open the door to a leadership role. 

© This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA

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