From surviving to thriving: The woman who’s beating the odds
Julia Bickley’s story is painful to hear. Struggling with trauma and mental illness from a tumultuous childhood, she became a single mum in her early 20s and paid ‘the motherhood penalty’ for years. She shares the incredible journey that led her to find her tribe at WORK180.
I first encountered WORK180 - a thriving jobs and diversity network - back in early 2018. Led by Valeria Ignatieva and Gemma Lloyd, their impressive story is built on the principle that no one should experience discrimination at work. I love that they practice what they preach - their employees work remotely and flexibly in a truly supportive and inclusive culture. I’m proud to be able to bring you the story of one of their team members - someone who can identify with WORK180’s mission more deeply than most.
A life of challenge
Julia Bickley’s childhood and teenage years were marked with pain few could imagine.
“My parents divorced when I was five. My mother had a mental illness and would often leave my brother and I on our own; we rarely got to see our Dad. We were constantly moving from place to place and by the time I was 15, I had lived in over 20 different homes. At one point, my brother and I were separated - he went to live with my Dad while I stayed with Mum. During the years I was in Mum’s care, I was molested by two family members.”
“There were times when I would come home from school to witness my Mum, who was also an alcoholic, being beaten by her boyfriend or making a suicide attempt. My last year of high school was pretty disruptive – staying on other people’s couches, in homes and on the street.”
Despite years of moving from place to place and trying to block out the trauma she had experienced, Julia still managed to complete her high school certificate, and at the top of her class in Legal Studies. Determined to break the cycle, Julia went straight to university after high school. With high hopes of becoming a human rights lawyer, she studied at night and worked during the day. Opportunities for entry-level legal roles were limited, so Julia took on an HR role while completing her degree. Then life threw her a curve-ball. Three, in fact.
“In my final year of uni, I fell pregnant with my son. I continued working until it was time to have my baby. But as I went on maternity leave, the business relocated to Las Vegas, which meant I had no access to paid parental leave entitlements.”
As a young mother, Julia had an urgent need to make ends meet. So her career began in earnest with a return to work ten weeks after her son was born. To add to the challenges she faced, the aftershocks of Julia’s childhood began to surface, and she began to develop symptoms of PTSD and depression.
It was difficult to find a role with even an ounce of flexibility. Eventually, Julia secured an opportunity with a donut franchise. The business struggled, however. They were bought out and Julia found herself out of work again, with an eight-month-old son and a global financial crisis to contend with.
“I had to figure out how to find an entry level job when there were recruitment freezes everywhere. Time after time I came up against it. The roles I was shortlisted for were very much based around the 8-5 work day, which was very stressful as a young mother. I was also attending weekly intensive therapy at the time, and struggled to find an employer that, firstly, I could feel comfortable disclosing to, and secondly that would afford me the flexibility to leave early on a Friday to make my appointments.”
A break, at last
Finally, when temping with a professional services firm, an opportunity arose to become an Executive Assistant.
Before Julia knew it, seven years had flown by.
Julia loved being an EA but says it was more a means of income than a career to her. It’s not hard, though, to understand why she didn’t push for more - the security and balance she found in her role contrasted so dramatically with what went before. And as Maslow shows us, it’s hard to self-actualise when you’re fighting to eat and sleep somewhere safe. Yet as things settled down, and her son grew older, things started to change.
“One day I woke up and had an epiphany. I thought, ‘what am I doing?’ I wasn’t feeling challenged or fulfilled enough in my role. So I found a new job in real estate. It was still an EA position but with additional marketing responsibilities.”
For the next three and a half years, through three different employers, Julia would edge her way back towards a career in HR and marketing.
For some time, she had been following WORK180 on social media. It’s no surprise that she felt a strong connection to the organisation, and was excited about the work they were doing.
“I saw that WORK180 was looking for a Client Engagement Manager, but I hesitated. About six months later, I had another epiphany - I realised I needed to step outside my comfort zone. I needed to find a role that suited me within an organisation whose values aligned with mine and that would allow me to make a positive social impact in the community. I’d never really looked at that before.”
An honest application; a career regained
Julia decided the best way to score her dream job at WORK180 was by sharing her truth.
“In my cover letter, I shared my experience of living in and out of different homes, and having a child at 22. I wrote about having to return to work when my son was 10 weeks old, about how having no access to parental leave now drives my advocacy for paid parental leave benefits. I wrote about the wins I’d had in changing some policies and working conditions for one of my employers.”
Julia had barely hit ‘send’ on the email when she received a call from WORK180 co-founder, Valeria Ignatieva. They had a warm, honest, powerful conversation which eventually led to Julia joining the team.
Now almost a year into her Inclusion Strategist role, Julia helps employers create and implement best-practice, inclusive HR policies. She finds deep personal and professional satisfaction in helping shape a brighter future for others, while enjoying the benefits of working for a truly supportive employer.
“I well and truly paid the dreaded motherhood penalty. My personal experiences of being overlooked due to being a working mum and someone who was dealing with PTSD fuels me every day in my role. I am fortunate now to enjoy fully flexible working arrangements that allow me to be present for my son, while pursuing my professional goals. WORK180’s mission is to end workplace discrimination and I’m equally inspired by our incredible endorsed employers who are fighting for the same thing.”
The journey ahead
A Hollywood scriptwriter would round this article off with uplifting orchestral harmony and Julia walking into a perfect sunset. But I’m no script writer and life’s not perfect. Julia loves her role and is kicking goals for WORK180. However, at times, she still feels unworthy of the success and the life she has worked tirelessly to create for herself and her son.
“I was able to heal through therapy and the support of my network of friends and family, but some memories do still remain. They have a way of creeping back into your life at unexpected moments. When they do resurface though, I now find myself able to get back up with more resilience and ease than the time before.”
“It can sometimes be hard to see others doing so well, comparing your journey to theirs, and wishing you’d not had those experiences so that you could be standing in their shoes. But who would I be without those experiences? They’ve shaped who I am. They have made me more courageous, adaptable to change, able to love and care for others more deeply than most and show an unwavering compassion for the more disadvantaged members of our society.”
Julia reveals that this article is the first time she will publicly share the abuse she suffered as a child.
“I only wish I had known at the time that others around me have gone through similar things. I felt very alone. I think that’s why I feel a responsibility to talk about it now. It’s important to remember that people don’t ask for certain things to happen in their lives. It’s not a choice, and they shouldn’t be disqualified from pursuing their professional goals because of them. You have to give people the right conditions. You have to allow people to be vulnerable. Give them an opportunity to shine.”
Julia’s story is one of strength through determination, and through circumstances that no one should ever experience, one of resilience.
She says she’s started writing a book but she’s not sure she’ll publish it. I hope and pray that she does.
About the Author
Mark Puncher is Employer Branding Australia’s Founder and Chief Energy Officer. Having spent much of the last 18 years with one foot in recruitment and the other in marketing, Mark loves helping fantastic, imperfect organisations bring their stories to life to engage their future superstars.
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