“It is clear that work is working against women, even the most successful,” says retail guru Mary Portas in her new book, Work like a woman: a manifesto for change. Not only is it working against women, she argues, but it is working against all of us – against men who are not of the alpha persuasion, certainly, but also against business.
Her book is a call for change, now, and she illustrates how her thinking has evolved over the years since she started her career and how it has impacted the way she conducts business herself.
There are myriad examples of how a macho work culture has affected Portas despite her energy, creativity and ambition and her years of experience in retail, from Top Shop to Harvey Nichols to presenting tv series on changing the high street.
She says: “Certain focuses, behaviours and characteristics tell us a lot about the values held by organisations. They tell us that we’re still working along traditional masculine alpha lines. I should know. I did it myself for years. Until I couldn’t do it any more.”
All of those focuses, behaviours and characteristics need to be held up to the light, argues Portas, and their limitations exposed, including the way they often reward mediocrity over talent.
She presents many examples of cultures that made her feel undervalued as well as telling details, such as the fact that she kept a pair of flat shoes in her desk to put on during meetings with a particularly short male colleague.
She argues that a work culture that doesn’t allow people to be themselves, which makes people mimic one particular way of behaving and crushes anything different, is demotivating and serves to deter certain groups from wanting to climb the ladder.
She highlights the fact that it is not a deficit of ambition that holds many women back from aspiring to leadership roles, but a surfeit of what she called “circular ambition”- the desire to succeed at work but also to have a fulfilled life outside work.
Portas writes about the impact having children has had on her. Even though she was the main earner, she still retained the ‘female’ role of family planning with all the energy that requires.
She acknowledges that, just as it is difficult for women to buck gender stereotypes about being the main breadwinner, it is also hard for men to not be the main breadwinner with jokes about emasculation and the like common.
Portas chose to set up her own business due to the macho culture in which she worked. Over the years that business has evolved alongside Portas’ thinking. She wants to create a culture that is inclusive of ‘feminine’ traits and where talent is able to flourish.
That is about allowing people to be authentic, listening to everyone in the business, having balance in everything, encouraging creativity, collaboration and personal development, ditching annual appraisals in favour of regular conversations and focusing on resilience, among other things.
She states that there is no one blueprint for getting a work culture right. It depends on the organisation. For her agency diversity was not an issue, but financial transparency was. She admits not all the new ideas the agency has tried to have worked and that not everyone likes the culture, but she is proud that it is a thriving business which has a heart.
People are encouraged to work flexibly and there is equal parental pay. Portas also puts forward different models for subsidising childcare, from national government intervention to local schemes.
Finally, she focuses on sharing care and on joining forces to change the workplace. Equal care, she says, is not a choice, but a responsibility. She would like to see honest conversations between men and women on equal parenting, addressing fears and concerns.
The current system doesn’t work for the modern world, she says. It needs to change and we – women and men – need to change it.
She says: “Our systems, values and behaviours are at breaking point, and ordinary men and women are expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo more and more frequently.
Working like a woman is not about replacing an alpha system with an exclusively feminine one. It’s about learning to value the power of feminine characteristics, embracing them in the way we work and blending the best of both genders to make us all more productive, powerful and in harmony…This is not us or them. This is we.”
*Work like a woman: a manifesto for change is published by Bantam Press, price £9.35.