For someone who based their impression of agency life on a Hollywood heteronormative rom com narrative, it was refreshing to chat to Julia Birks, Lead Experience Designer at digital agency Isobar about her experience in the agency world.
As a vivacious and charismatic member of the leadership team we asked Julia: what steps did she take to own her confidence, and how does she use her extroversion to bring out the introverts in her team at Isobar?
A little bird tells me you got into agency life after watching the questionable rom com, What Women Want. Is it true??
I loved What Women Want in an ironic way – like, it’s so bad, it’s good. That was my perception of the ad agency for years. [laughs]
You eventually moved from Consulting to UX agency side. What convinced you to take a leap into agency based on your questionable movie taste?
One of my colleagues said I should try Isobar. I definitely didn’t want to work for an agency based on what I’d heard. Prior to this I’d not had a great experience with them. But I thought the worst I could do is take an interview and give it a go.
Looking around the agency, I saw a huge number of heteronormative women and that was really intimidating for me. My whole life I have struggled with my gender identity and it brought back those memories of school where I struggled to feel like I fit in.
When I got the job, on the first day, I was sitting next to badass female programmers who knew their shit. They made small talk about how painful wearing heels at a wedding was and I thought ‘oh ok, this is going to be totally fine. I can be myself here’. [Laughs]
It challenged me to re-address my assumptions about people. These people are excellent humans and it has nothing to do with what they look like.
Can you share with us more about feeling like an ‘outsider’? Hopefully someone else reading it might feel more comfortable being themselves if they’ve read someone as confident as you have overcome challenges?
I’m super comfortable with my gender identity and sexuality now, but as a kid I really struggled. I didn’t have people around me I felt I could talk to.
One of the first friends I made when I moved to Melbourne was this dude who used the word ‘gay’ pejoratively. I barely knew this guy and I said ‘hey man, that’s not cool’. He was like ‘I was joking’. And I was like, ‘well you’re saying something is bad because it’s gay’. Like, how else could that be interpreted? [Laughs]
We were big NFL fans and we were at a screening at a bar several years later and one of the players screwed up his play so another buddy of ours goes ‘what a fag’. So, I sigh and before I can say anything my friend turns around and says ‘dude, that’s totally unnecessary’. It was a really cool moment of ‘these people have my back’. Like, people are listening to me, they support me.
I used to run a women’s gridiron team, and surrounded by all these blokey blokes having to convince them why a team comprising of heterosexual, gender queer and gay women would compliment their league. One day, one of the straight dudes said to me, ‘working with you has made me realise that gay people can be just as boring as straight people’. [laughs] It made me realise visibility can have a big impact on changing attitudes of others, even in subtle ways.
You’re really confident now; how’d you get over that?
I spent most of high school feeling like an outsider and I got bullied a lot because I was butch, gay and an arrogant loudmouth. I was at an all-female school and just felt like I didn’t fit in.
When I went to University, I had to deal with a whole new pecking order with guys. I felt a lot of body shame, I also had eczema, I struggled with my gender identity. I covered up a lot with ill fitting clothes.
One summer at Uni, it was a really hot day and I thought ‘what if I wore a t-shirt to Uni today. What’s the worst that could happen? If people judge me because I have eczema they aren’t worth knowing, so let’s see what happens.’
And the result was… nothing. Literally nothing happened. It was a real lightning bolt moment for me. I started to understand my worth was greater than how people perceived me.
And in a work environment?
Early in my career I got into business development and was encouraged to go to these networking breakfasts. It was great because it pushed me, every week, to talk about what I did and to practice my elevator pitch. Just like anything, the more you do something, the better you get at it, so that was a really big help in feeling more confident.
You’re now a member of the leadership team in the UX department at Isobar. How do you manage others?
I experienced Impostor Syndrome a lot on my journey to be a leader at Isobar. I was worried I wasn’t experienced enough or was going to make a huge mistake. But what I’ve learnt is that everybody at some point thinks this. Everyone makes mistakes, at every level. Self reflection has been a massively helpful tool and sharing those fears early, too.
I’m an extrovert, but not all my team are. There are multiple ways for people to grow and demonstrate their expertise. My team needs my support in very different ways. My girlfriend is a total introvert which has actually helped me understand others.
As a UX designer, it’s my job to get people to change certain behaviours, collaborate and workshop issues together. It’s been a learning curve for me figuring out how to position myself as an authority without being a jerk, building a sense of trust with the team, and rather than telling people what to do, facilitating conversations to solve a challenge.
One of our values at Isobar is to ‘be excellent to each other’. I try to champion that in my team.
What percentage of the leadership team is female?
I’m the most senior woman in the experience design team nationally. The business understands our stats aren’t great, but we’re committed to changing this. We know that the more diverse the business, the greater the perspectives and outcomes we can deliver for our clients.
We’ve got some good things in place at Isobar to tackle this. We have a Diversity team in place to help the company commit to initiatives which support diversity (race, gender, age) in the workplace. Subconscious bias, the pay gap, and access to opportunities are all on the table and it’s being championed by the senior leadership team as a big focus.
One of our new policies is: If a male at Isobar gets asked to speak at an event and there are no female panelists, we’ll refer a female instead. If we don’t have a female with the required expertise, we turn down the speaking engagement.
The HR team is also working to ensure they interview an even mix of men and women for roles. Next step is to try and address subconscious bias and phrasing in job ads which may be viewed as a deterrent to certain demographics.
If there was someone out there reading this struggling at work with any of the issues you mentioned here, what would you hope they gleam?
I hope that I can help others feel more comfortable to bring their authentic selves to work: don’t wait for an opportunity, just go out and just get it. I wish someone had told me that early in my career!
Agency Iceberg are regularly recruiting for senior level UX and UI roles such as Julia’s, so get in touch with us today for a confidential discussion about new career opportunities.