Wednesday, March 20, 2013

“Where to Now?” 4th Women on Boards conference CareerMums Q&A profile

Today, we are profiling Dorothy Topfer who is is a lawyer for the Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport. Dorothy has over 20 years experience in government - in both legal and non legal areas. She has a broad understanding of governance and corporate issues enhance by practical experience as a board member and company secretary.

Dorothy also has counseling qualifications and is an experienced mentor. Dorothy is also a mentor for Women on Boards.

What do you do? Commonwealth public servant – more specifically I head up the legal team in a Commonwealth Department as the Principal Lawyer.

How old are your children?21,25 and 27

What do you love about your job? The variety and the interaction with all levels of people in the department and across the Commonwealth public service.

Did you always have the intention of progressing your career after having your children? I always intended to continue to work but as my family took precedence I worked part time for many years and was mindful that by doing so it would impact on my career progression. And it did – it is unrealistic to not think otherwise. However when looking back on it I am very comfortable with the choices I made.

It takes a village to raise a family. Who helps you to manage work and family? When they were little I relied on childcare and occasional assistance to collect children from school. Our parents did not live nearby so I was not able to rely on them except for emergencies. Girlfriends and mothers of other school children helped from time to time but as we lived in the country we did not have neighbours who could help. Working part time meant I was the primary care giver. However when the children were teens I managed to work full time as the eldest chose to become a weekly boarder at school and the other two kept their horses at a riding school near to their school so were busy with their horses each afternoon after school – this meant I could work until 6pm.

When you come home each day, are you good at switching off from work? Mostly.  If work is busy this can be difficult – at times I do need to work at night – which I do if I have to so I don’t wake up in the wee small hours and worry. It also helps that I live out of town on a farm in a beautiful natural environment and have a number of hobbies and pets. For instance most evenings I try to find time to work on my knitting projects as I find it an excellent form of meditation.

Every parent should have a selfish pursuit or ‘not-negotiable’ that provides them with an opportunity to relax and re-charge their batteries every week. What is your ‘not-negotiable’? Over the years it has varied – from fitness activities such as the gym and bollywood dancing to gardening or an annual girls ski trip. Currently I am involved in some volunteer activities and am about to join a book club.

Have there been some difficult moments in your career with young children? What were they? Finding time – there is only so much I can do if I work and raise children and it is important to accept that some things must give – important to work out what I can let go of eg cleaning and standards of catering and just finding time to relax with family. When children were little and became ill so couldn’t access childcare that was always a challenge. For some reason it always happened when we were both busy at work with deadlines or court appearances etc which did cause stress.

What advice would you give to parents who are about to return to work and resume their careers? To find a job that has flexibility and that you like – children always get sick and it is important to have an employer who recognizes that this will happen. Negotiate to be able to work from home if necessary or part time if you can afford it. I have worked all types of hours as the children grew – from 3 days a week when they were little to school hours when they were at school (which was great as I could collect them from school – but getting away from work in time was always a juggle).

Don’t be too hard on yourself – we are all doing the best we can and don’t try to be perfect. Good enough in most areas is fine.

Enjoy your children – the time you put into them when they are little is not only fun (by and large) it lays the foundation for a better relationship when they are teenagers. My children remember the times that to me were not so significant – sailing egg carton boaTs on the pond – playing hookey from school when there was a good snowfall so we could go skiing- Sorry school they weren’t really sick – but they still remember that we did this on a number of occasions. 

We learn so much from being a mother – how to negotiate, time management and acceptance of different ways of doing things. And these skills also benefit our career.

What support measures should employers be offering to working parents? 
Flexible working hours and ability to job share (if the work function permits) or work from home.

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