By Brittney Rigby, Managing Editor
Jamila Rizvi is a host, interviewer and commentator. She’s been a Kevin Rudd staffer, policy advisor to Minister Kate Ellis, and Editor-in-Chief of Mamamia. And in June, she added author to her already-impressive LinkedIn profile when her debut book, Not Just Lucky, hit stands.
It would be easy to look at her and think, “She’s so lucky.” And maybe she is. But it’s more than that. When women put their success down to sheer luck, they discount their hard work and raw talent. They downplay their value in a workforce that already undermines their confidence.
These are the issues Not Just Lucky tackles head-on.
“I was so nervous that people would see this book as me saying there’s something wrong with women,” she tells me when we meet in the lobby of her hotel. She’s here for the book’s second Sydney event, and it’s a busy day.
She apologises when she arrives two minutes late to our interview. She apologises again for not wearing makeup and dressing casually; she’s been working all morning, she has a column due to News Limited in an hour and a half, and she’ll be rushing to get ready for tonight’s event.
But for now, she’s here. She kicks off her shoes, curls up cross-legged on her chair, and we start with the women who have influenced her career the most. Her answers range from the political to the personal.
“[Kate Ellis] taught me how to be smart and engaged and a leader, but also a leader who’s really willing to accept that they don’t know everything,” she says.
“Watching Julia Gillard up close … the sort of grace and dignity she showed under enormous pressure was pretty impressive.”
As expected, the list wasn’t complete without mention of fellow writer, Rosie Waterland, who started as Rizvi’s employee at Mamamia, but became a friend.
“She began with the idea of recapping this silly television show, and she used that to launch a career which has become an incredibly complex one, where she makes a comment on mental health, where she makes a comment on fat politics, where she makes a comment on feminism, but she does so in a way that isn’t preachy,” she says.
And then there’s her friend Stella Young, comedian, journalist and disability rights activist, who passed away unexpectedly in 2014.
“Stella was one of the best writers I’ve ever met, and I’ve still got a lot of anger I think that she’s gone,” Rizvi says.
“Because she was someone who really challenged my point of view in the world.”
Yet despite being surrounded by, and looking up to, successful women, Rizvi had to confront her own gender biases when researching Not Just Lucky.
“I am someone who had always given in to the stereotype that women talked more than men. In my experience, in my perception of the world, women seemed to talk more, particularly in social situations,” she admits.
“But the data says that’s not true. The data says that’s my own warped perception of the world, that women in social situations actually talk about the same, in terms of number of words, as men, and that in any other sphere … men talk far more than women do.
“When women even speak up for their fair share of the debate, that is perceived by others as her dominating the conversation, because our perceptions are so skewed.”
Rizvi focuses on providing practical advice to women throughout the book, including removing the unnecessary pleasantries we often sprinkle throughout emails. But she admits to falling into the trap of expecting this herself, even from other feminists like Clementine Ford, who Rizvi says is “very direct and doesn’t apologise for herself.” Yet she can still be taken aback by Ford’s blunt correspondence.
“Then I’m like no, she’s doing exactly what she needs to do … it’s so much of a perception issue,” she says.
Rizvi is self-aware enough to know that, just as she’s been socialised to expect the women around her to behave in a certain way, she’s been socialised to behave that way too. She was forced to confront this at the first Sydney launch event, a conversation on confidence with Wendy Harmer. After the event, attendees lined up to have their book signed, and Rizvi caught herself saying sorry to every single one for the wait.
“I’m staying back after an event for two hours, and I’m not being paid for it, and I’m trying to help people out who want to wait,” she says.
“I made the conscious choice [to switch] to thanking people for their patience, rather than apologising for my own behaviour, because I did nothing wrong.”
I ask Jamila how her and her husband approach sharing parenting duties, particularly when it comes to emotional labour.
“One of the things that I’ve definitely learned since having my little boy is that this isn’t a conversation you have once,” she explains.
“If you have the chat once and then see how it goes, the woman will end up doing the majority of the unpaid labour. And that is the pattern you will naturally fall into, even if you are the most ardent of feminists.”
Part of combatting this in Rizvi’s household means listing her husband as the emergency contact at their son’s childcare.
“It means that if he’s asking me to take the day off work to pick up the sick kid, he has to go through that mental check of ‘Can I really not do it? Oh my God I have to call Jamila and ask now,’” she says.
“And it’s been really helpful, and it means he goes more often, and he’s more willing to take time off work to go. Because before, I was just doing it. I’d get the call and they’d be like ‘He’s sick’ and I’d be like ‘Okay, I’m coming’ and it was always me. It was always me.”
Rizvi is acutely conscious of raising a boy in a patriarchal world, and it’s something she says becomes more “intellectually difficult” as he gets older.
“I’m a woman of colour, my dad’s Indian,” she starts.
“But my little boy, for appearance’s sake at least, has blonde hair and blue eyes and very white skin. He is going to grow up with a remarkable amount of privilege.
“And I want him to be aware of that, and aware of the fact that he did nothing to earn that privilege … that privilege was bestowed upon him by a world that is unfair.”
It’s this privilege that is the reason Rizvi also wants men to read the book and engage with the confronting data it deals with. But she’s also aware that not all women are on board the equality train.
The launch with Wendy Harmer ended with an audience Q&A, and Rizvi disagreed with a female questioner who expressed opposition to affirmative action policies. In our interview, I can’t help but think of that woman when Rizvi speaks about our social approach to gender equality.
“There are still many women, and even more men, who genuinely do not accept that we don’t have gender equality,” she explains.
“They think gender equality’s done, like we’ve ticked that box, we’ve done that. And I think that undermines women’s confidence, because they assume ‘well, there’s something wrong with me.’”
But for every woman (and man) who doubts the data, there are many more who think Rizvi isn’t just an author, but a mind reader.
“[There have been] huge numbers of women contacting me, coming up to me at events, and saying ‘We’re so similar! It feels like you’re in my head!” she tells me.
“And it’s really interesting, because we’re not similar. It’s just that we’re women operating in the same system.”
As our interview wraps up, I can’t help but feel really close to Jamila too. I feel lucky. She’s been engaged, articulate and generous with her time; our half an hour time slot has turned into almost an hour, and even when I stop recording, we chat about her wedding, her family and podcasts. She signs my own copy of the book, thanking me for a “clever, well-researched and insightful interview”.
I am lucky. But as I leave, clutching my paperback and interview notes, I can’t help but think there might be a little more to it.