How I negotiated flexible working in an industry with few part-time roles

Hillary Mitchell negotiated flexible working in the construction industry

Hillary Mitchell is not afraid to chase her dreams – whatever it takes. Like a true warrior she graduated her bachelor’s degree with honours while working and raising her firstborn as a single mother, overcame her battle with cancer with tenacity and optimism, and while recently on parental leave after the birth of her second child, negotiated part-time hours despite initial reluctance from her employer. Talk about fearless! Hillary shares with us her passion for working in the construction industry and her inspirational story. 

Can you tell us about your career journey so far?
After school I deferred my uni placement for a few years and eventually went back as a mature age student to study Project Management at RMIT University. I became pregnant in my third year and raised my son as a single mother whilst studying and working part-time. Upon graduating I continued working in a full-time position as a contracts administrator for a small commercial builder. In 2010 I landed another contracts administrator role working for a large property group in the commercial and industrial division. I was so excited as I felt this was a great step up in my career.

The week before I started, I unfortunately found out I had cervical cancer and required surgery and radiation/chemotherapy treatment. My new boss was amazing and was able to hold my job position for six months whilst I focused on my treatment and getting better. I was also very lucky to meet my (now) husband a week after my last treatment. I ended up beating cancer and going back to full-time work a few weeks later. I had a great four years at the large property group, and even though they were brilliant to work for, my passion was in housing so I moved on.

I began working for a leading luxury residential builder, that specialises in high-end pre-designed and also custom homes, stepping into a project management role. It was a very demanding role but I loved what I was building and enjoyed the flexibility I was given.

Four years later my husband and I were incredibly lucky to have a baby via surrogacy and I have been fortunate to have the last 14 months off work to look after our new son.

How has becoming a mother changed your perspective on life?
I have always been very ambitious and determined in my personal and professional life, but since having my sons have come to realise you can’t quite have it all no matter how hard you try. Having had cancer and nearly losing my life and recently losing a beloved family member, I have come to the conclusion that I can still achieve my dreams but it might just take me a little longer than expected and that’s totally OK. My priorities have now shifted; I still have goals for my life that I am working towards, but being more present for my family and enjoying the now is equally as important.

Life is short and precious; your kids grow up so quick!

What was your parental leave and return to work experience like for your first child?
I was working weekends at a real estate agency and two days during the week as a house cleaner whilst I was pregnant with my eldest. I worked right up until his birth and had four weeks off after he was born. As he was born in early January I was able to continue my uni degree without the need to defer, going back to uni late February when my son was only eight weeks old. Looking back, I have absolutely no idea how I managed to raise a newborn, keep up with my housework, work part-time and complete my uni degree (passing with honours) all on my own. I guess I was just so determined to finish my degree and better our lives that I just did what I had to do, plus I was ten years younger (I definitely don’t feel so young and fresh second time round).

After taking parental leave for 12 months with your second, you started conversations with your workplace about returning three days a week. How did these negotiations go?
I made contact with my boss three to four months before I was due to go back and met with him to discuss my proposal. I requested that I return three days a week. Initially my employer was hesitant, saying that my role could not be done part-time, but eventually agreed. We had fewer houses in construction than the year before which helped my cause. I explained to management that between my Construction Manager and Contracts Administrator any issues that arose on my days off would be dealt with, and assured them I was only a phone call or email away for major emergencies. Part-time roles in my industry are very few and far between, particularly in management roles, so I was thrilled with the outcome. I have been back at work for three weeks now and am pleased to report it’s going really well and I am juggling the workload in my three days OK for now.

It can be quite confronting asking for what you need, particularly in a workplace where flexibility isn’t often embraced. What advice would you give to other working parents wanting to negotiate more flexibility?
Read FairWork policy about returning to work before you start your return to work negotiations, and understand your rights. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, but be prepared to compromise.

Why is flexibility so important as a working parent? And how has it positively impacted your family life?
Flexibility is HUGE when you work and have kids. Both my current job and previous job allowed me flexibility for school drop-offs which was so important to me with a young primary school child. I hated the thought of him going to both before and after school care, and by dropping him off at school it meant I could spend time with him in the mornings. Working from home when my child gets sick is also very helpful, especially now that my youngest has just started childcare as I am sure he will pick up some bugs and need some days off.

What practical advice would you have for others who are preparing to go on parental leave?
Enjoy your sleep while you can! Keep in contact with your work. Request Keeping In Touch days if that’s what you desire.

How do you practically manage the juggle?
Now that I am back at work part-time, we have a house cleaner come fortnightly. My husband and I are both doing bootcamp and F45 challenges at the moment, so I make sure I food prep twice a week on my days off. My 11 year old son also has chores he does every day to help out.

Favourite time of the day is…coming home on a Friday after work and seeing my boys, knowing we get to spend the weekend together.
Instagram sites that inspire you…@threebirdsrenovations@style_by_aggi.
I’m happiest when…my one year old sleeps through the night!
I’m addicted to…wine, chocolate and books.
Favourite wardrobe staple for work…black jeans (I go on site throughout the day so need to dress practically).
Favourite wardrobe staple for weekend…jeans and a t-shirt or shirt.
My role model is…I don’t have a role model but I do have a mentor. My aunt has been helping me with career, financial and personal advice for years. I think of her like my second mum.
Heels or flats? Boots at work, flats on weekends.

Discover more Real Stories from our Circle In community HERE.

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