Retail Royalty and Fighting Culture: Mary Portas at the Cambridge Union

Amelia Holloway 10 March 2019
Image Credit: bisgovuk

Mary Portas might be best known as Queen of the Shops, but she’s also leading a charge for change. Appearing at the Union this February, she spoke frankly, swore occasionally, and got straight to the point. For the sake of our conversation, we discussed how to negotiate the world of work, as a woman.

On February 19th, Karl Lagerfeld passed away. The creative director of Chanel for over 35 years, Lagerfeld was a man at the top of the fashion industry, alongside many, many other men. It is this failure of attainment between women who do better at school, but fail to thrive in the workplace, which is the subject of Mary’s new book Work Like a Woman. The masculinisation of business, and the dominance of so called ‘alpha codes’ is what Mary argues not only hinders women in their pursuit of the top, but diminishes their desire to get there in the first place.

Alpha codes dictate that women adopt the traits of men, from displaying confidence to donning the uniform of a suit, to succeed in the business world. With her iconic short red bob, dressed in wide legged printed trousers and a broad shouldered jacket, one might be forgiven for thinking Mary herself was ‘playing alpha’. But Mary’s confidence comes from within, she calls it a ‘feminine confidence’ which cannot be shaken. This is not a one-size-fits-all female confidence, but a sense of self Mary didn’t find until her mid-forties. She recalls a turning point, standing in the fitting room at Liberty, looking at herself in the new season feminine frills of Chloé, thinking… ‘I look like Grayson Perry’. Her style may be sleek, but the lack of frills simply expresses her forthright personality – not a play at being a man. Although she admits to having fought her way to the top, carving out her enviable career across retail consultancy and television, she doesn’t want this to have to be the case for other women. Especially not her daughter.

Discussing work in the 80s Mary recounts a friend’s story, a trend forecaster who was in her twenties at the time. ‘All the women were the buyers; the bloke was the buying director. Of course.’ At the end of a successful trend report presentation, she was congratulated for her work, before she was told by her male boss: ‘I just couldn’t concentrate because your nipple was erect’. It was episodes like this which fed into Mary an attitude of ‘alright, lets fight the bastards’. A pervasive culture was accepted, which is now being called out. The more it is called out, the more we can change the Alpha power.

Portas Agency challenges male dominance from within. Not simply by being run by women, and supported by a 70% female staff. A nurturing environment has been created; a circular board table seeks to reduce hierarchy, and foster a ‘sense of self’ for all of Mary’s employees. Mary asserts, ‘If there is a hierarchy in our business it is because they are the best people there’ not because they pushed their way to the top. Employees can’t play alpha and force their way up – regular reviews prevent that. In fact, reviews are not ‘reviews’, they are ‘catch ups’ where everyone can have a voice; where implicit bullying, or one person being responsible for your career progression, is stopped in its tracks.

Yet, her perspective shouldn’t necessarily be dubbed a feminist one. It’s just a decent person one. Where the central goal is happiness, not happiness superseded by profit. Projected in her advocation of employing ‘radiators not drains’ to her undeniable idealism of creating highstreets full of unique shops, department stores dedicated to charity shop clothes, advocating sustainability and putting it into practise with the creation of her branch of charity shops. Her advocation for an ‘antitheses of the apprentice’ isn’t just one driven out of gender, against a world where one has to play hard ball to succeed. It’s that hard ball doesn’t really get you anywhere worthwhile in the first place. ‘You can be kind. You can be strong. Just shouting your mouth off shows power… but power that doesn’t go that deep’ because all in all, ‘ruling through fear is really cheap’.

Advice to a Cambridge Student? ‘Go to into an interview and ask their percentage of female board members, ask how many women leave after having a baby. Challenge it at the start, and this culture won’t be condoned’. Then the world in which we work may be a happier place.

Find Mary’s book Work Like a Woman here or in all good bookstores!