Women forging creativity: Why Mary Portas says we should 'work like a woman'

Retail guru Mary Portas has set her sights on triggering a movement that allows for 'effective' female traits in the workplace.

Economically and socially, the world of work is weighted against women, and workplaces continue to be created for men by men, says Mary Portas. "As a successful businesswoman I’ve had to battle with structures that were put in place by men. I want to bring the so-called ‘soft traits’ of leadership – honesty, empathy, communication, collaboration – into the workplace. I want to work like me, like a woman – a movement toward creating a better working culture."

The issues of inclusion and creating a supportive workplace culture are challenging ones; but are becoming increasingly relevant to businesses that understand how diversity can unlock both market growth and innovation.  

As a high-profile, gay business leader, Portas also deplores the "bling value of diversity"

Portas has an idea about how to spearhead that change. Her new book, Work Like a Woman, is her take on the way it will benefit all of us – regardless of gender – when we break the existing structures and systems, put a premium on ethical behaviour and diversity, and work toward not just profits, but a happier life. 

She should know. This is the woman who turned around the fortunes of the out-of-the-ark department store Harvey Nichols in the early 90s, and recalls how, as a mother of young children, she felt obliged to sit in board meetings that went beyond 7pm "while scurrying to telephone home that I will be late again tonight". 

Portas remembers years of conforming to corporate expectations that just did not work for her or the kind of life she wanted for her family, or even her friends. "Women have had it harder than men, and while there has been great advice asking us to ‘lean in’ or behave like a man and be more aggressive, quite frankly, why should I? I want to work the way that makes my soul sing. And that will only happen if we invest [in] creating the right workplace culture," she says. 

The idea for writing Work Like a Woman arose when Portas was asked to write a second memoir, following her successful book Shop Girl – the poignant tale of how her mother died of meningitis when she was 16, and her father from a heart attack two years later, leaving her to look after her 14-year-old brother. She got a job as a window dresser, eventually becoming a creative director – she was on the board of Harvey Nichols by the age of 30. "But what I couldn’t do was not come back only three months after having a baby. It was the most horrible thing I ever had to do." 

This first memoir, however, ended with Portas at the age of 23 "driving away into the sunset". The new book coincides with the rebirth of her agency; five years ago Portas started to re-evaluate her profitable brand consultancy and creative comms business, and found herself not loving it. 

"That is when I sat down with my managing director, Caireen Wackett, and started looking into building a culture that appreciates the traits, skills and competencies that are perceived as more feminine," she says. 

However, Portas accepts that this urge to create a diverse, inclusive workplace that can empower and inspire creativity has been far from easy. The agency has walked away from brands that fail to espouse any of these values.  

As a high-profile, gay business leader, Portas also deplores the "bling value of diversity", whereby businesses feel almost forced to align themselves with equality, but fail to be genuinely inclusive. She recalls a jewellery brand asking her to put "gays in an ‘engagement campaign’, but then discussing whether that might offend the non-gays. What the fuck?" 

Tiffany, Acme Studios and Maltesers are among the brands she thinks have got it right.

"It is like when people who don’t know me ask: ‘What does your husband do?’ I can’t now be bothered to answer that. The fact they have presumed I have a husband makes me think they will not understand when I tell them I have a wife and three children, my wife has given birth to one of those kids and I have given birth to the other two. And that is what I mean when I talk about having a cultural understanding of how we all live; we are all different. It is time we changed that siloed thinking. Time to have conversations, time to collaborate. Time to work like a woman."  

Tips for businesses of the future

"I’m no Mother Teresa meditating in a corner, so I cannot say how you should do it. The way I do it is what feels right and good to me. I do not want to match anyone to a pre-defined template of working, but instead encourage the feminine ways of working," says Portas.

The Portas Agency has created a cultural manifesto to help nudge it toward the right behaviours. The business’ board and management are encouraged to take as much holiday as they deem fit, set their own working hours and take open-ended maternity leave. 

  • Be where you want and need to be. Encourage flexible working hours.
  • We are not members of the 16th-century court trying to plot our way to the throne. No political gameplay at work – build a "teamwork" work culture.
  • Use Intuition. For every single project, person or potential client, if it doesn’t feel instinctively right, then it isn’t.
  • Be mischievous. Infuse fun, curiosity and joy. 

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