Jamila Rizvi on work, motherhood, and owning her achievements


Author, presenter and political commentator, Jamila Rizvi is fast becoming one of the leading voices in Australian media. From her role as chief creative officer for Future Women and a regular commentator on The Project, The Drum, Today and Q&A to author of the best-selling Not Just Lucky and The Motherhood, Jamila is one to watch. We sat down with the policy advisor turned women’s advocate to discuss the steps she has taken to truly ‘own’ her achievements, and what she wants other women to know.

It has been a combination of passion, education and talent that’s propelled you and your career forward. What does your self-talk sound like as you take on big, high-profile roles such as chief creative officer at Future Women?

I’ve got a pretty solid baseline of backing myself. If I take some risks, some of them are going to pay off. Not all of them will pay off – I’ve stumbled many times – but for the most part, when I’ve taken a gamble and combined that with working hard, it’s paid off, so I suppose my self-talk is actually pretty positive.

Alongside that, I’m a very rational right brained person. I enjoy evaluating, strategic decision making and planning. While I move very fast in my working life, I’m also a planner, so my self-talk is often quite logical. I’ve also got a good sense of who I am and what I’m good at, and the flipside of that is I know what I’m not good at.

Yes, so you’ve got a deep awareness of your strengths and weaknesses.

I think that takes a bit of time in your career but there is nothing better than being a manager of a lot of people to make you realise what you’re not good at!

You’ve been appointed to some big roles at a young age – have you ever suffered from imposter syndrome?

I think everyone suffers from imposter syndrome to an extent. It’s only at that point where you realise that no one’s got it figured out, and no one knows what they’re doing all the time, that you start to relax a little bit. In my career, I have learnt that no matter what industry, there is an element of risk and lack of understanding, but having a go is part of what everyone does and that’s both reassuring and, sometimes, worrying!

Having other people support you can also give you the confidence to have a go. Who have been the key influencers in your life?

When I was younger, it was the influence of different teachers and definitely my mum who always put her kids ahead of everything else in the world. As I got older, Ian Chubb, the Vice Chancellor at ANU when I was studying there, was incredibly kind to me and was a really wonderful mentor. Kate Ellis, who I worked for in politics for several years, was also a great mentor and then Mia Freedman at Mamamia after that.

The last two gave you a real chance at a young age too in some ways.

They took pretty big risks. Kate hired me out of Kevin Rudd’s office when I was 23 years old and into a policy adviser role that I had no business doing. She took the time to nurture and help me learn how politics worked. She was someone who was focused on achieving what she needed to, but at the same time really cared about her staff and our progression.

There is plenty of research out there that confirms the existence of the maternal wall. After the birth of your baby, you stepped back at Mamamia to lean into different opportunities all at the same time. How have you navigated the maternal wall, and how has your relationship with work changed since becoming a parent?

I still think the former me would be horrified at the way I work now. I very much didn’t know what to expect when I had Rafi. I literally worked up to the day before he was born. When I was on parental leave I was itching to go back to work but when I did return I thought maybe I don’t. It shows just how vicious the hormones are at that point in time, but also how much your world fundamentally shifts.

For me, the ambition and drive didn’t disappear. If anything, it increased but I needed to find a way to do it differently to accommodate parenthood. I had to find the flexibility and the role that would be compatible with how I was trying to run my home life, and enable me to have my finger in different pies.

I had previously always thought that the only way to be in a stimulating influential job was to work from 6am to 8pm and manage a whole lot of people, five days a week. But now I think not only is the economy changing so much, so too are my family’s values around parenthood. For example, for the first two years of our son’s life, my husband and I worked four days a week and it was such a lovely time. And that will keep evolving – it’s about your needs and their needs and both of those are always changing. There is never a solution that’s going to work for a long period of time. There’s a solution that works for you and your family in that moment.

Your book Not Just Lucky interrogates why successful women attribute their careers to luck as opposed to talent, intelligence and hard work. How do you navigate the likeability bias while owning your achievements?

This is one of the most complex hurdles that women face at work and I don’t pretend to have figured it out. The data tells us that likeability for women at work does not correlate with success. For men, the more successful you are, the more people like you and want to be around you. The more successful you are as a woman, the less people like you and want to be around you. So, women are left with this impossible trade-off between being liked and being successful in workplaces, and because we are socialised as girls to hold likeability above all else, we do. Many women find that very confronting in the workplace and will often relinquish ambition for jobs they really want for the sake of keeping that relationship they have with their colleagues, friends, and family.

What I have tried to do with this book is say to women… don’t let the world tell you that you’re doing it wrong or you are thinking wrong. Be aware that some of the biases in your head – the ones that make you doubt yourself, think likeability is more important and make you judge other women who are successful – are not inherent beliefs and experiences that you have. They are the result of a patriarchal system. Simply knowing that can give you more confidence to push back against it.

Let’s talk about the mental load – the domestic and childcare responsibilities that so often fall to women. How have you navigated this common source of unequal gendered labour with your partner?

These are the moments when I go, gosh, I’ve got a good job. It’s so much fun.
It is similar to that decision around how you balance work and child rearing. The same goes when it comes to the mental load space with you and your partner. So many of us assume that you sort of fall into a pattern around the time that you settle down together, and that you hold that pattern forever, when really as your lives change and as you change, it has to change with you. I’ve noticed that we easily fall into gender stereotypes even when I’ve set my life up to be opposed to them – because it’s easier, more comfortable and what everyone else is doing.

For us, it’s been about an ongoing conversation. We get help and there is a lot of gentle ribbing of one another. But when it comes to the more mental or emotional load of organising the household, being in charge of things… it comes down to interrogating the patterns you take on. The single best thing I’ve done is made my husband the ‘parent one’ and me, the ‘parent two’ contact at childcare, which means that if something happens at childcare, the first call is always to him so he can’t not deal with it. He either has to ask me or he has to deal with it himself, so that gives him the ownership.

How do we unite as women for a stronger voice?

I think Australia really suffers from never having developed a single women’s electoral lobby group. I would love to see a unified women’s lobby, with various organisations coming together to look at giving a portion of their funding to a single representative body that represents their interests! Critical to the economic empowerment of women is good policy that is inclusive of women and children.

What policies should women be advocating for together?

For me, child care is the single most important issue at this moment in time. I worked in child care policy for a long time. Our child care system was essentially developed in the ’70s without any real framework or an understanding of how integral to our workforce women would become. We have just tinkered with it, added bits and moved some things around.

Labor creating the child care rebate payment was an enormous step forward but a lot of those costs end up being passed on by proprietors. We need to reach the point where a party is willing to say our child care system is fundamentally not the right system for the future of work.

We need to reframe the way people think about early childhood education and child care. There are still so many people who consider child care as just babysitting, as opposed to recognising how fundamental those first few years of life are – that being engaged in some sort of formal learning environment is outstanding for children. We need to see early learning as part of the schooling system and less as a babysitting service.

At the same time, we should be having a conversation about improving women’s participation in the workforce. Women make up around 77% of the part-time workforce in Australia, which is very high, but many say they would like to be working more. One of the primary drivers of this is lack of availability of quality child care. There has been some great modelling done around how much our GDP and tax base would jump each year if we just had a small increase in the number of women in the workforce or working slightly longer hours.