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

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Con­tents - Photography JUSTIN LLOYD Words JAMILA RIZVI

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.

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