In celebration of International Women’s Day 2018 and the #PressforProgress theme we interviewed Belinda Harvey who is one woman doing it her way – in an industry that is renowned for making it exceptionally difficult for women to make it to leadership positions.
Belinda who is Partner at International Law Firm, Norton Rose Fulbright, generously shares her story about being a single mum with the support of an employer that is leading the way for working parents to manage career and family responsibilities.
Belinda talks to us about her journey from average high school marks and air hostess dreams to parenting as a single mother and becoming a lawyer – from the self-doubt, the doubt of others and the challenges of being a woman in law.
“Finding it within you is your way forward. Finding that strength is going to take you where you want to go on life’s journey.” Belinda Harvey, Partner, Norton Rose Fulbright
To listen to the full podcast tap here, or listen below.
To read more of Belinda’s story scroll down . . .
How did your career take shape from an early age – what attracted you to a career in law, what did you dream of doing when you were young?
I would have never of dreamed of becoming a lawyer, let alone a Partner of a global law firm. When I was young I wanted to be an air hostess and travel the world. I was an average student and after the wise wisdom of my father who said that I shouldn’t go to university unless I knew what I wanted to do, I started working as a travel consultant. So my dreams of travelling the world came true – to some extent. Whilst living in London, I decided it was time to head home and start university. A business degree was the plan and I was going to work in Advertising. That was until I did really well in Business Law and my lecturers and tutors talked me into transferring to a combined law degree. I’ve never looked back since!
Where did the journey take you?
I worked as a paralegal through university which helped provide some insights into what areas of law I didn’t want to work in. I also knew that I wanted to leave Newcastle, which is where I grew up and returned to for study, and move to Sydney. Competition and regulatory law was an area of interest. After gaining a graduate position at the ACCC, my area of law was chosen pretty quickly for me. I loved the economic and commercial environment in which the law was applied. I knew that my time with the ACCC would be a stepping stone and I would need to find my way into a law firm to see where my career could take me. I have been with the same firm now for 10 years and worked my way up from a lawyer to now a Partner.
What did you learn along the way, about yourself and others?
I questioned myself a lot during my journey through law. Having not been the “top of my class” at school there was always that niggling doubt in my mind as to whether I was good enough – did I have the intelligence to be in this profession? The sort of questions that should have been let go of a long time ago. But I see it regularly – intelligent, highly capable women questioning their ability. I realised that if I wanted to pave a career as a lawyer and as a Partner of a law firm, it was up to me!
I learnt that I was determined (but if you ask my parents they would probably tell you that was a trait I exhibited from a very young age) and very capable. I knew my strengths professionally, so worked on those areas that were not so strong. If an obstacle came up, I found a way over it or around it. What I realised is that you are stronger and more capable than you think.
What challenges did you overcome – in your career, as a woman and a mother?
I have been very lucky in my legal career that I don’t feel like being a woman has disadvantaged me. However, as a woman who took 12 months parental leave after the birth of my son, I soon realised that juggling family life and a professional services career was going to be a very big challenge. I am very lucky that my firm has a diversity policy and a flexible working policy that supports parents in their return to work, including from parental leave, but the biggest hurdle was my own emotions surrounding the separation from my baby as he was just under 12 months old when I returned to work. They call it “mothers guilt”! I had to find a way quickly to deal with that. Given I am a solo parent and the sole source of income for me and my son, there was no choice but to return to work full time. Finding your peace with that is key. I miss my little boy daily, but he is happy, safe and feels secure in our routine, which is an achievement for both of us.
How did you manage your return to work?
I returned to work 4 days a week and moved up to full time within 4 months. I work flexibly. It is crucial for me to be able to manage my work and home life together as a solo parent. I established a flexible working arrangement, where I work from home one day a week and if needed I can work remotely of an evening also (after my little one is in bed) to catch up when I leave the office at 4.45pm a couple of days a week to pick up my son. It is important to remember that flexibility in a workplace is a two way street – it is not all one direction with the workplace providing you flexibility and you providing none back. This was a key realisation for me.
What do you think it was that you did to keep your career and life goals aligned and on track?
I found peace with the fact that life and work would cross over. The day I decided that I would let the two flow together, was the day I found that everything became easier. I employed my “village” to help me. Outsource! A wise female partner once passed down this advice to me, which her mother passed down to her – If the time it takes you to do house related chores is less than you would get paid for that hour, pay someone else to do it. Not only are you then freeing up your time, but you are helping others in their employment. Make your life as simple as possible.
Many women experience a motherhood penalty when returning to work eg: their pay and career options narrow or diminish – how can women avoid becoming another career statistic penalised by motherhood?
Have the conversation with your employer before you go on parental leave about what will happen when you return, what their expectations will be of you and you of them. Continue that conversation while you are on leave also – stay connected, even if it is only a little bit. I was promoted to a Special Counsel while on parental leave which shows what can happen through ongoing conversations.
What do you say to young women and men starting their career, wondering how on earth they will juggle work and family life and still have a satisfying career?
You can do it if you put your mind to it! It is simpler when you don’t have a family, that is true. But, you gain so many new skills that can assist you in your career from having a family. Use them to your advantage. Your time management skills are now exceptional, as are your negotiating skills (it is amazing how early in a child’s life you have to start enhancing these skills as a parent). Cherish the time with your children. It may not be as much as you would like – make it quality over quantity. Use your time wisely in the office also.
What can individuals do to ensure we have navigate work and family life well?
Be clear about what you want to achieve. Communicate this at home and in the workplace. Understand what your goals are, whether they are career or personal, and discuss them in both the work and home forum. There are always going to be hurdles and road blocks, and sometimes these seem a little higher or more difficult to navigate when you also have a family to think about, but find a way around them. The path to your goal may deviate slightly, but move with it. Find a way to get back on track, or at the worst, you find a different direction that will allow you to grow, develop and find your way back to the original goal or develop a new one.
What can employers do to make it easier for women such as yourself to reach their full potential without having to sacrifice family in the process?
Flexibility is key. Although the level of flexibility I am fortunate enough to enjoy does not work for every role, it is important to allow women who have families to continue to develop and meet their career goals with the organisation. And, be open to the discussion on how to assist someone in reaching their career goals, while recognising that they have competing demands on their time. The organisation will benefit as will the individual.