Francesca (Fran) Dobbin, Director, Family Programs and Service, will be retiring after 28 years of strategic leadership and dedicated service. Fran led the development of university-wide policies, programs, and initiatives designed to help students, staff, and faculty integrate their family responsibilities with their educational and career pursuits and create an inclusive, family-friendly environment.
“This has been a dream job for me, to be honest with you,” Fran said, reflecting on her long and remarkable career.
Fran’s passion for supporting employees with family responsibilities began in 1995, when “mommy tracking” was the new practice of allowing employees who were starting families to take leaves and resume their careers without repercussions. Fran began conducting internet searches looking for jobs where she could support employees with family responsibilities. “Only two results came up. One was the University of Toronto, which had just opened the Family Care Office,” recalled Fran, who, at the time, was working in community development in childcare and eldercare programs. “We were connecting the entire community and I knew that U of T was a great place to continue this work. The idea of making the workplace family-friendly was really, really exciting to me. Eventually, a position came up at one of the third-party operated childcare services at the University and that’s how I started my journey here.”
Later, Fran had the opportunity to join the Family Care Office (FCO) as the Manager. “It allowed me to really focus on the bigger picture. What does it take to make this institution as open and friendly as possible and remove the barriers for those who have family responsibilities?”
In 2007, Fran was appointed to the position of Director, Family Programs and Services.
As Director, Fran acted as a senior consultant, leading the development of policies, programs, and initiatives designed to assist students, staff, and faculty with integrating their family responsibilities with their educational and career pursuits and creating an inclusive family-friendly environment. She provided leadership and strategic direction to the FCO and Early Learning Centres childcare services and acted as the University liaison to the third-party childcare services both on and off-campus. Fran is recognized as a subject matter expert and represented the University of Toronto as a conference presenter as a member of the College and University Work Life Family Association.
Under Fran’s leadership, the dedicated team at the FCO has achieved numerous accomplishments. For eleven consecutive years, the FCO has made significant contributions to the University’s recognition as one of Canada’s Top Family-Friendly Employers. In 2020, the FCO team was honoured with the HR & Equity Awards of Distinction ‘Distinguished Contribution – HR Team of the Year’ Award for their exceptional service during COVID-19. The FCO has also collaborated with Robarts Library to develop Canada’s first academic library family study space for U of T students, staff, faculty members, and visiting scholars with children under 12. Fran was recognized with an Excellence Through Innovation Award for this initiative. Moreover, in her role as Director, Fran expanded childcare services on campus, resulting in a 33% increase in childcare spaces and a capital project investment of over $7M.
Throughout her career, Fran has been instrumental in improving policies and support for employees, including parental leave and pregnancy leave. She explained, “We’ve looked at ways that we can bring in educational programming and resources, consulting with employees around what their options may be when they’re looking at continuing at the University and wanting to integrate their families and responsibilities.”
Fran’s efforts have resulted in major milestones, including the creation of family-friendly spaces on campus where employees can congregate with children, and breast and chest-feeding-friendly areas. Fran explained, “I think it’s made the University stronger and richer, because we are able to support everyone, at any point in their life.”
In addition to her work in family care, Fran served as a Mentor in the Rose Patten Mentoring Leadership Program. She emphasized the importance of being open to new opportunities within the institution and taking on challenges that may seem out of reach. It was a mentor who had recommended that she take on her first role with the Family Care Office.
Fran encourages employees to ask questions about positions they are interested in or to reach out to departments and ask more about a role. “There are incredible opportunities within the institution across all three campuses.” She shared an example of a former colleague who started as a lab technician and eventually became the Director of Benefits and Compensation. “Employers where you can work for a very long time and have opportunities to change careers within the same company are few and far between. So have a look at what’s out there.”
When asked for her advice to those working in family care, Fran stressed the importance of flexibility in the workplace. “I think the pandemic brought it right front and centre.” Fran stated, “There needs to be the capacity to provide flexibility for people to be better able to integrate their work and their life. It’s become a reality that alternative or hybrid work is definitely going to be a retention and recruitment tool.”
Throughout her tenure at the University, Fran witnessed many changes, the most significant of which was the people. “The incredible increase in diverse candidates and diverse hires from gender to race is very encouraging,” Fran said. “The diversity in the staffing is very different from what I was seeing in 1995 and I believe that has enriched everything the University does, from research to the experience individual students and employees have.”
Reflecting on her time with the FCO, Fran shared, “What I usually say about the work that we do in our office is it’s rewarding because it’s proactive, meaning that usually we are able to reassure and give people some options that they weren’t aware of, that will help them in their situation, and I’m going to miss that part of our work.”
As Fran looks forward to retirement, she plans to spend time with her family, travel more, and get back to her love for painting and drawing. She also plans to volunteer more in her community.
Fran’s contributions to the development of family-friendly policies and programs have helped set the standard for workplaces across Canada and beyond. Her legacy will continue to be felt by the thousands of employees who have benefited from her work to create a more inclusive and supportive work environment.