A MAN’S WORLD?
JAMILA RIZVI WAS ONLY 22 WHEN SHE LANDED A JOB IN THE PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE. LITTLE DID SHE KNOW IT’D BE AN INDUCTION INTO A WORKFORCE WHERE WOMEN ARE ROUTINELY TREATED AS SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS
Former political staffer Jamila Rizvi opens up about the boys’ club she came up against in Parliament House.
Iwas 22 years old when I landed my first full-time job, working for the prime minister. Over drinks one Saturday, my friend Maggie told me about a position that was available in Kevin Rudd’s office. It was 2008. Rudd had soared into power the year before on a wave of popular opinion, progressive policies and optimism about the future. He was riding high in the polls and there was – externally, at least – no hint of the political turmoil that was to come.
Maggie embarked on an excellent sales pitch about why I should consider applying for the role. It was wholly unnecessary. I wanted that gig, and would do whatever it took to get it. And I did. I’m 31 years old now. I’m a wife and a mother with nine years more experience and nine years more knowledge than I had then. And I know that I will never again have that kind of confidence.
The young woman in that story – the one who cold-called the prime
minister’s office to make sure they had definitely seen her résumé – is a stranger to me. My preference now is to wait to be asked, rather than thrust myself forward. These days, I won’t apply for a job unless I meet 100 per cent of the criteria and tick every single box. I am always worrying about what people might think.
THESE FEELINGS AREN’T unusual. I’ve had countless conversations with female colleagues and girlfriends about how their careers make them feel anxious, insecure, overlooked and undervalued. We’re baffled and bemused by the starry-eyed, ambitious young women we were at 22, the ones who would give anything a go and were not hamstrung by fear of failure. The ones who were naïve about how the world really works, and perhaps didn’t know any better. The ones who had nothing to lose – because they didn’t yet know how much there was to be lost.
Of course, men experience this lack of confidence in their work, too – but not in quite the same way. The men I’ve worked with don’t question themselves with the same rhythmic intensity that women do. They don’t trip and fall into a mindless cycle of Maybe I could… but I couldn’t possibly in response to every new opportunity. If there were ever a Self-doubt Olympics, only women would be chosen to represent their countries. Assuming we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not qualified enough, just never enough, is a sport at which we excel.
So what happened? What, during the past decade of working life, made me start to doubt my abilities? What happened to my female friends that caused them to do the same?
The workforce happened. A whole generation of girls was raised being told they were just as good as the boys, that they could be anything they wanted, that if they could dream it, they could do it. Then, as adults, we were exposed to a workforce where hidden inequalities continued to rob us of our confidence.
For me it began with the drycleaning. Employed under the ambiguous title of media assistant, I was tasked with doing pretty much anything the prime minister’s senior media team required. This included collecting the freshly pressed and ironed shirts of my manager on days that he was too busy, or couldn’t be bothered. Rather quickly, I came to realise that it was the female media assistants who were routinely awarded this menial task. When I spoke up about the double standard, I was curtly instructed to get back in my box.
The truth was that a whole host of activities in our unit was divided down gender lines. Women took the bulk of administrative – or “optics” – work, whereas the blokes did the heavy lifting and more politically strategic tasks. As different individuals with different talents moved in and out of roles, the division of labour didn’t change. At a macro level, the same was true for the whole of Parliament House and the hundreds of staff working within her walls.
A few years later, I was attending regular chief-of-staff meetings in the boardroom adjacent to the prime minister’s office. There was an enormous polished wooden table in the centre of the room, surrounded by executive-style leather chairs. There was also a ring of stock-standard office
“IT WAS THE FEMALE MEDIA ASSISTANTS AWARDED MENIAL TASKS. WHEN I SPOKE UP, I WAS TOLD TO GET BACK IN MY BOX”
chairs around the perimeter. Being a complete nerd and a perennially early person, I was often the first to arrive at those meetings. I would watch as the rest of the government’s senior staff filed in and an unspoken hierarchy was established.
The more high-ranking the politician they worked for, the more likely staffers were to sit at the main table. The blokes would shout across the room to one another. There was much backslapping. Several of the younger guys would rock back on the rear legs of their chairs, hands clasped behind their heads, legs extended and lazily crossed at the ankle. There were 20 or so carbon copy Don Drapers and barely any women in the room – at most, maybe four. Each of those women, regardless of the relative importance of her boss, took her place in the cheap seats next to me.
Around the same period, I was at a hotel bar in Perth with about a dozen colleagues for one of the prime minister’s “community cabinet” meetings. Everyone was drunk and, once more, barely any women were present. The man who had been sitting on my left stood to say his goodbyes. He was a married man and we had been chatting for much of the night. Moments after he said his goodbyes to the group, I noticed that his hotel room key was on the table in front of me. I called out his name, waving the plastic card in the air. He walked back to us, came right up close beside me and spoke in a faux whisper: “That was meant for you.” The whole group could hear him, and that was exactly how he had wanted it.
OF COURSE, NONE of these incidents alone is conclusive proof of anything much. However, the more I reflect on working life, the more of them I notice; moments that reveal the reality of operating in workplaces that were built for men and by men. This sort of double standard is not confined to politics, either. In the research for my book, Not Just Lucky, I spoke to hundreds of Australian women who recounted stories of sexism and disadvantage across industries. What they experienced was not as blatant as what their mothers or grandmothers would have suffered, but the impact is analogous.
Many things can influence women’s career confidence, but gender is probably the most insidious. Often without notice or acknowledgement, little flashes of sexism creep into our working lives. Over time, they combine and condition us to behave in a certain way: to make ourselves smaller, quieter and less bold than we were at age 22. We learn that women shouldn’t be taking up space in the world of work. That we should put our heads down and bums up, and stop trying to aim for the top because the top isn’t something we deserve.
And if you’re treated like a secondclass citizen for long enough, you start to believe it’s true. Not Just Lucky by Jamila Rizvi (Penguin Random House, $35) is out July 3.
THERE WERE 20 OR SO CARBON COPY DON DRAPERS AND BARELY ANY WOMEN IN THE ROOM”
JAMILA WEARS Gucci bomber, matchesfashion.com; By Walid top, bywalid.net; Sandro Paris pants, (02) 9327 3377; Prada shoes, vestiairecollective.com
JAMILA WEARS H&M trench, hm.com/ au; Dodo Bar Or dress, shopbop.com; Witchery boots, witchery.com.au
HAIR Richard Kavanagh MAKE-UP Samantha P using Ella Baché
Below right: Jamila Rizvi with (from top) Labor MP Kate Ellis who she worked for after Kevin Rudd, and former PM Julia Gillard.