International Women’s Day: seven amazing stories
From humble beginnings, a focus on education and supportive family has ensured Ahranee Vijayaseelan’s success. Now a partner in our General Insurance team, Ahranee recently embarked on her biggest challenge to date: motherhood. She tells her story.
I am a first generation Australian-Sri Lankan. I was born in the UK, after my parents, who were part of the Tamil ethnic minority, left Sri Lanka in the 1970s. We moved to Australia in the mid-1980s when I was very young.
Having just started my own family, I am now even more amazed at what my parents achieved when they migrated to Australia. Their focus was, of course, on providing the best for their family; however the emotion and sacrifice along the way is something I don’t think I fully appreciated until now.
Education leads to opportunity
One thing I can recall most strongly from my childhood is the importance of education. My parents left Sri Lanka due to having limited opportunities to further their education. My father tells the story of working four part-time jobs in London to support his young family as well as fund tertiary education. He recognised that further education was the key to providing himself and his family with the best opportunity in life.
My mother had a similar experience when we moved to Australia. She would look after the family during the day and studied for an accounting diploma at night. I am not sure when my parents saw each other during that time period; however they felt the sacrifice was worth making.
Due to my parents’ incredible work ethic and determination, I recognise that I have a wonderful and privileged life, and I have been given plenty of opportunity. It has taught me that I should take full advantage of everything I work hard to achieve, just like my parents.
My mother is compassionate, caring and resilient. She is definitely a key inspiration in my life, both as a professional career woman but now also as a mother myself. As a child, my mother showed me that it was possible to balance family, study and work commitments. And this was in an era before flexible working and ‘logging in from home’. It is truly remarkable to reflect on how women of my mother’s generation were able to juggle the different demands, but they did it.
I thank my mother often for what she achieved for her family, and I hope I am the same role model for my son as he grows.
Another inspiration are my grandmothers. I am very fortunate that both my grandmothers live close to me in Sydney and are very much part of my life.
My grandmothers never worked in paid employment. Instead, they ran their households and families. However, both have said they wished they could have worked in employment outside the home. In their eyes, education and paid employment is a privilege – the ability to contribute to society.
This was sobering for me to hear, as I don’t think I’ve ever considered the ability to work a privilege, something I’m fortunate to be able to do. I’m like everyone else, you have your bad days at work… I consider the challenges I’m faced with as potential opportunities to learn and thrive thanks to my grandmothers.
Supporting the next generation
We are very fortunate at Hall & Wilcox that flexible working is a real thing, not just a buzz term that everyone uses. There is a focus at the firm to allow people to work how they need to work, particularly those with carer responsibilities. We have an open and collaborative culture that supports and encourages flexible and agile working for everyone.
I know many people who wouldn’t be able to progress in their careers if we didn’t have this focus.
In relation to supporting the next generation of lawyers, I think it’s important to encourage everyone to bring their whole selves to work. I try to encourage people to have the courage to take risks, speak up, ask for help and connect with others in a genuine way. I also have open and honest conversations with lawyers to help them navigate the challenges of balancing competing, and sometimes stressful, professional and personal demands, and encourage them to strive for a workable and happy balance.
I have also recognised, over the years, that women can be less confident when making career-based requests, so I try to give assurance where I can that they should definitely push forward and progress. The same assurances were given to me as I was progressing, from both male and female partners. This was very important at key milestones in my career, and continues to be so. I’m incredibly grateful for the amazing partners who I have worked with over the years for their words of encouragement, mentorship and friendship.
The next big challenge
I didn’t envisage that being a mother would be a big part of my story; however this is who I am now. I am in the very early stages of motherhood (my son, Damon, is nine weeks old), and I’m the first to admit the first few weeks were very challenging for a range of reasons.
There’s the loss of control that a little person brings to our very controlled adult lives (I’m sure every parent is nodding at this). I have such immense appreciation now for every mother who has gone before me – the strength they demonstrate is truly inspiring.
There is also the pause in my career and the emotions around that. I wasn’t expecting those emotions; however, for close to 18 years I have been working, building my practice and networks. To step away from that, even for a short time, is hard.
What was and is amazing is the support and encouragement I have received from my fellow partners and team at Hall & Wilcox. There is complete respect for my parental leave, where the firm has ensured that my practice, clients and team are very well managed while I’m on leave, allowing me to enjoy my leave and this time with Damon.
And I know I will continue to need this support when I return to work and start the juggle of motherhood and career.