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Not Just Lucky

Emma Macdonald

Jamila Rizvi has this week gone public with the news she has been diagnosed with a rare but benign brain tumour.

She will have surgery in the new year and remains upbeat regarding a full and fast recovery. Prior to her diagnosis, she spoke to Emma Macdonald about her journey so far and the success of her book on gender inequality, “Not Just Lucky”.

She grew up in Canberra with the confidence to think she could do anything—even work for a Prime Minister.

Now Jamila Rizvi is exposing her feelings of insecurity and imposter syndrome in the hope more women understand how and why the system is stacked against them.

Jamila Rizvi is not just lucky. She is prescient. Her first book was written throughout much of 2016 and published in June of this year. But Not Just Lucky could not have been more perfectly-timed to address the dismay, rage and outpouring of emotion that women across Australia have experienced in relation to gender politics.

Harvey Weinstein, the “#metoo” movement, Lisa Wilkinson’s pay debate—the last few months have thrown rampant, inherent and entrenched sexism into all of our faces. And Not Just Lucky was there first, chronicling all of the ways that women are overlooked, undervalued, harassed and disadvantaged. Starting from the moment they are born.

Part personal narrative and part academic research paper, Jamila has looked at what it means to be female from a cultural, social and workplace perspective. And it can be pretty depressing reading if you possess the XX chromosomes.

While she debunks the notion that brain biochemistry differs between the sexes, Jamila cites comprehensive research to uphold the idea of a subconscious gender bias that parents begin the minute their child is out of the womb. It’s a sobering chapter that may concern even those who feel they are raising their children in as forward-thinking and gender-neutral way as possible.

She moves on to school enforcement of gender stereotypes, the lack of female role models and the “niceness expectation” for girls. And then there is the crushing weight of social media that falls upon women the minute they sign up to Instagram.

It is hardly surprising then, that by the time a woman reaches the workforce, she is almost certain to doubt her own worth, lack the assertive confidence of her male colleagues and be so accustomed to the double standard as to not even notice it.

Jamila noticed it. The Lyneham High, Hawker College and Australian National University graduate recalls being outspoken about many things—sexism included —from childhood.

“I don’t think I ever planned or intended to be an outspoken person. I simply struggle to stay silent when I think that something is wrong or unjust.”

While the gender gap in her own household was slim to non-existent—thanks to a supportive dad Abul, a confident mum Helen, and a close sister Miriam—Jamila felt the need to speak out on behalf of others, long before she became a leading member of the modern movement of Australian feminism.

She tested out her voice with a stint as the President of the ANU Students’ Association, and cemented it when she “talked” her way into the office of Kevin Rudd as a 22-year-old, brimming with confidence and enthusiasm.

If anything, the book chronicles how this version of Jamila—the one who thought she was capable of contributing to the office of the Prime Minister (and anything else besides)—got worn down to someone prone to bouts of imposter-syndrome, rambling internal monologues of self-doubt and an instinctive aversion to reaching too high on the career ladder. Which is all rather surprising, given Jamila’s impressive CV.

She would move from Rudd’s media unit to become a youth policy adviser in Minister Kate Ellis’s office, where she would drive Australia’s first ever National Youth Strategy.

She would then be promoted to the position of Media Adviser, and by the age of just 25, she would be one of the youngest people ever to act as a Chief of Staff to a Federal Minister.

In 2012 she would make the break to publishing, heading Mia Freedman’s Mamamia website, before moving on to her own independent venture as a writer, columnist and commentator, and mother to Rafi.

Jamila is now a known name nationally. She speaks out on issues ranging from sexism, to racism, poverty and politics. You can see her on Today, the ABC’s Q&A and The Drum, or listen to her on ABC radio or 3AW in Melbourne. She writes a weekly column for, the most popular news website in the country. She’s been named one of Cosmopolitan’s 30 Most Successful Women Under 30, and one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence by the Australian Financial Review. Her book has been enthusiastically embraced by readers, reaching the top of a number of best-seller lists and eliciting a flood of personal approaches to the author herself.

“The commonality of experiences women have in workplaces, particularly corporate and government offices, was something I suspected but didn’t quite contemplate the scale,” says Jamila.

More than anything, she wants her book to be a practical guide for women—to help them see the structural barriers in their way and to give them the skills to climb over them.

“I’ve tried to provide practical advice around confidence, while being careful to show that often women’s lack of confidence is driven by systemic sexism, not some personal failing,” she says.

“There are of course things we can do to feel more confident and project confidence to others but as individuals we can’t break down a workplace structure that still treats women as lesser in a myriad of ways. That is something that can only be achieved through the collective power of women and allies working together to dismantle structural gender disadvantage once and for all.”

Jamila’s words and experiences are surprisingly candid and she approached the 90,000-word project understanding that true authenticity was the only way to engage with the reader.

“In politics and media we talk a lot about messaging and spin. The truth is that spin is useless if the message isn’t authentic…Audiences and readers can smell bullshit a mile away. If you try to be someone you’re not…you’ll definitely be found out.”

So Jamila throws her dignity to the wind and comes clean about myriad personal failings, crises of confidence and personal experiences of sexism, racism and harassment—including one particularly sleazy proposition from a senior colleague that left her feeling humiliated and shaken.

Many have asked her about what parts of Not Just Lucky were the hardest to write, assuming they’d be the admissions of her own failures. But they weren’t.

“The hardest part to write was the chapter about sexual harassment and assault. While names and non-key details have been changed to protect identities, each of the women in that chapter are friends or colleagues of mine. Telling their stories was heartbreaking.”

Jamila feels the recent “#metoo” movement has finally forced our community to be honest with itself about the widespread and insidious nature of sexual harassment and abuse in workplaces.

She understands, all too well, how harrowing an experience it has been for women around the nation—and, indeed, the globe—and hopes meaningful change will come of it.

In her book Jamila manages to negotiate a line between women not wanting to be objectified for their gender and their looks and yet, somewhat paradoxically, wanting to look good.

“My message in the book, is a simple one: Women will be judged—unfairly—on their appearance regardless. If you’re blonde, you’re a bimbo. If you’re wearing make-up, you’re trying too hard. If you’re overweight, you’re lazy. If you’re wearing flat shoes, you’re a lesbian.

“Women cannot win in a world that still says our primary role in the workplace is to be ornamental. So instead of trying to please others with our appearances, let’s instead focus on trying to please ourselves.”

Jamila has had to deal with a personal backlash over her own undeniably attractive appearance.

“I worked in politics from age 22 to 26 and there was a lot of baggage that came with being young, female and—much of the time—single. I often spent the first few meetings with someone proving I was worth taking seriously, delaying when we could start getting some actual work done.”

Not only was she facing some level of sexism, but she had to deal with ageism as well.

“Girls are told that they can be anything, do anything and try anything but then they enter the workforce and discover that isn’t true. The shock prompts them to turn inward and blame themselves, which wreaks havoc on their confidence.”

In her honest, slightly geeky and disarmingly-open way, Jamila reveals that she had an enormous crisis of confidence while writing a book about womens’ collective crisis of confidence.

“I originally wanted to open the section on imposter syndrome with a one-page rambling of my inner monologue, panicking that I should never have written the book!

“However, my publisher said that wasn’t the best idea and might detract from my authority as an author. Clearly they were right because the section never made it to print!”

With the book achieving exactly what she wanted it to—namely opening up a helpful conversation with women about their deepest insecurities and providing a practical guide for them to move onwards and upwards—Jamila is now turning her focus to her next book. This will be on another topic close to her heart—motherhood.

“It’s another book for women and shares the stories of many women who I admire and respect. It’s a charity project that will be raising money for CARE Australia’s life-changing projects for women and children in developing countries. Mum is the word for now.”

Photography: Daniel Spellman

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Summer for Summer 2017/18, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author