Mary Portas On Why We Need To Forget 'Leaning In' At Work And 'Be Every Bit A Woman'

'Embrace those wonderful feminine traits we’ve suppressed for too long.'

If anyone knows how to get ahead in business, it’s ‘Queen of Shops’ Mary Portas.

From humble beginnings in retail, the business woman-turned author-turned TV personality-turned government advisor has earned her place as one of Britain’s most formidable authorities on business - and with good reason.

The 56-year-old is often credited with turning Harvey Nichols into the fashion juggernaut it is today and thanks to her uncanny ability to revamp charity shops, she’s raised more than £10 million for Save The Children.

Southbank Centre

Perhaps the real secret to Portas’ success is that she’s always unapologetically herself - disrupting our interview to shout to her wife in the next room or quote a few pieces by her favourite poet - and now she wants other women to do the same.

Forget table-bashing, hiding your emotions and pretending you never want to have children, according to Portas, the new way to get ahead in business is to “be every bit a woman”.

“I really, really do believe that the future of being successful in work is going to be about embracing all of those wonderful things women bring - empathy, collaboration, flexibility - all those wonderful feminine traits we’ve suppressed for too long,” she told The Huffington Post UK.

“I don’t want to be Sheryl Sandberg and ‘Lean In’, I don’t want to lean in like a guy. I want to be more. I want to be a woman and proudly a woman.”

Ahead of her appearance at the Women of the World (WOW) festival, we spoke to Portas for our new interview series ‘Fierce’ about the highs and lows of success and how women can push forward in 2017.

What was the last thing you did that made you proud?

I think it was opening up my 21st Mary’s Living and Giving shop for Save The Children. From a little idea of ‘can we make charity shops fabulous and really great, profitable places?’, I’ve made £10 million for the charity - that’s something to be proud of. Every single penny goes straight to Save The Children, so it will help Syrian refugees, fund education programmes across Africa and also help children in this country who are deprived.

Who inspires you and why?

There’s lots of people, but I think Jude Kelly who launched WOW (Women of the World festival) is really extraordinary - she’s one of my favourite people. She just makes stuff happen. I’ve really gotten to know her and just adore her.

She’s got soul and she has drive and she has kindness - which I think is a wonderful mix. We’re both so ridiculously busy and we have very little time, but when we do get together, it’s just wonderful. We exchange ideas and I just think she wants to make the world a better place - which I love in anybody.

What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and keep pushing forward?

It certainly isn’t money. There’s a great quote by [the American poet] Mary Oliver. She says: “Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride, married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. Instructions for living a life: pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I mean, that’s enough to make you get out of bed, isn’t is?

I get up because there is just so much out there and you just don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s the great thing.

How do you think society views ambitious and successful women?

I’m writing a book called ‘Work Like A Woman’ and I think there’s going to be a shift. When I first went on TV, to make you look like a successful woman you had to be ball-breaking. I remember looking at these shows and thinking ‘I’m not sure that’s me’. It seemed like you had to behave like a man - but I think that’s all going to go down completely, that’s not the way we’re going to live.

Because of the financial crash, we’ve lost trust in these big businesses that were led by a linear ambition to reach the top by risk - and invariably led by men. And so I think all the stuff that was seen as great “behaviour” will not be in the future, which I’m really pleased about.

I’m hoping that shift will change the way we view women, and we will see women in business as actually the best thing that can happen. I think we need to embrace feminism, we need to embrace all of the gifts women bring to the workplace.

Does success have a downside? If so, what is it?

Balancing your ego is the most important thing, because success fuels ego - and that is not easy sometimes. When you’re in the public eye, people see that as success and it’s just not.

The downside often is, when you meet people at dinner parties, you’ll ask what they do and it might be a woman who’ll say: “Oh I used to work but I’m only a housewife now.” They’ll put down what they’ve achieved, like raising kids. You want to say to people “well you’re just a wonderful human, just because I have my gob on the telly and I’ve made some money, it doesn’t make me successful or any better than you.”

How do you practice self-care and why/when is it important?

I have a responsibility to lots of people in my life. I have three children, I’m a wife, I have 60 staff and lots of charity shops, so therefore I have a responsibility to be well, I think. I have a personal trainer three times a week, I do yoga and I meditate.

If you had one piece of advice for other women, what would it be?

Be every bit a woman. I really, really do believe that the future of being successful in work is going to be about embracing all of those wonderful things women bring - empathy, collaboration, flexibility - all those wonderful feminine traits we’ve suppressed for too long.

The more we talk about kindness in business, the more we’ll break through the hard structures that have defined business and alienated women from getting to the top. I don’t want to be Sheryl Sandberg and ‘Lean In’, I don’t want to lean in like a guy.

I want to be more, I want to be a woman and proudly a woman. I think women should think about that when they’re in the workplace - and cry as well, there’s nothing wrong with that!

What’s the one thing you would change or do in 2017 to push women forward?

The elephant in the room time and time again when it comes to work and promotions is maternity leave. We need to work with businesses so they work with women and make it easy and supportive for them to come back into the workplace.

It will require support from big industries to make this happen. Making maternity leave an accepted thing and a kind of sexy thing, rather than an embarrassing thing. I have an MD, a woman, who I worked completely with about when she was going to come back to work - we even planned when she was going to have her second child.

You’re not even allowed to ask that at interviews, but that’s rubbish, I don’t believe that. Success is a balance thing, it’s about work and play together, so we need to work on how we embrace that. The conversation we need to keep having is how women and businesses learn to embrace women having children.

Mary Portas is in conversation with India Martin, 10 March at Southbank Centre. Part of WOW-Women of the World Festival, 7-12 March 2017, supported by Bloomberg. More info #WOWLDN @WOWTweetUK.

Fierce is our new regular feature on The Huffington Post UK, asking trailblazing women what drives them.

We’ll be speaking to a range of women including those who’ve found success in male-dominated industries, created a service to help other women and are using their position to empower others.

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