Work Like A Woman: A Man­i­festo For Change by Mary Por­tas is pub­lished by Ban­tam, £12.99

Belfast Telegraph - - REVIEW -

By her own ad­mis­sion, straight-talk­ing busi­ness­woman Mary Por­tas, TV’s queen of shops, who has helped shop­keep­ers turn their strug­gling busi­nesses around and ad­vised the gov­ern­ment on the fu­ture of high streets, has mel­lowed.

In re­cent years, the plain-speak­ing red­head who worked her way up in the world of al­pha males by be­ing tough and ag­gres­sive has found her­self read­ing books about phi­los­o­phy, tak­ing to med­i­ta­tion and find­ing her fem­i­nine self.

“I found my­self not get­ting the joy that I thought I was get­ting,” she ex­plains. “I was start­ing to look at my life. It re­ally started when Ho­ra­tio (her youngest son) was born and Mylo (her eldest) was go­ing off to univer­sity, so I had one child com­ing into the world and an­other go­ing out, and I just started won­der­ing how I re­ally wanted to spend my life.”

She be­gan to read books on phi­los­o­phy and how to live.

“I’d read about these in­cred­i­ble peo­ple who had got bal­ance right and I ini­tially thought, ‘Yeah but they can’t do it if they work like I do’, and then I thought, ‘Why don’t I just change the way I work?’ Once I’d started it, it just be­came this won­der­ful roller coaster which wouldn’t slow down.”

Was it a mid-life cri­sis? “Yeah, there was a bit of that,” Por­tas (58) re­flects. “Might have been menopausal, but it was some­thing I needed to do. I cer­tainly wouldn’t have had the con­fi­dence to do it when I was younger.”

She stepped down as CEO of her com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany, the Por­tas Agency, whose clients in­clude Mercedes-Benz and West­field, be­com­ing its chief cre­ative of­fi­cer and leav­ing the prac­ti­cal, daily steer­ing of the busi­ness in other hands. She found light, open-plan of­fices in Blooms­bury, a ‘vil­lage’ in Lon­don full of his­tory, cafes and shops, where staff could con­nect with the com­mu­nity. She doesn’t co­coon her­self in a glass of­fice, she works along­side the rest of the team. “I put a woman in to run the busi­ness. I’d thought I needed these great, fab­u­lous, ball-break­ing men and I didn’t. I even had to deal with some of my own thoughts — ‘She’s had a baby, will she’ll be want­ing an­other one, will she be able to be an MD?’ I had to cut my­self short and stop that.”

Many of her thoughts and ac­tions, chang­ing her work­ing prac­tices by tap­ping into fe­male en­ergy and power, are de­tailed in her lat­est book, Work Like A Woman: A Man­i­festo For Change. “We re­alised that the his­toric way of work­ing was just based on keep­ing profit, profit, profit and you nar­row who you are as a per­son to achieve that and you don’t de­velop the peo­ple around you in a much more car­ing, deeper way.”

Her val­ues now lie in col­lab­o­ra­tion, em­pa­thy, in­stinct and trust as she tries to nur­ture fe­male en­ergy and sen­si­tiv­ity. Emo­tion does mat­ter in busi­ness, she ar­gues.

It’s been a long road to build a mean­ing­ful, au­then­tic life for the woman she once was, work­ing her way up in an al­pha cul­ture.

Por­tas di­vorced her hus­band Gra­ham, with whom she has two chil­dren Ver­ity and Mylo, in 2003 but has re­mained on good terms with him. Soon af­ter the di­vorce she met fash­ion ed­i­tor Me­lanie Rickey, with whom she fell in love al­most in­stantly. When she told her chil­dren about the re­la­tion­ship she says they hardly bat­ted an eye­lid. “Me­lanie pretty much seam­lessly be­came a part of our fam­ily be­cause chil­dren are way less both­ered about the boxes we put our­selves into than we adults are,” she writes.

They mar­ried in 2014, be­com­ing one of the first cou­ples to con­vert their civil part­ner­ship into a same-sex mar­riage af­ter the law was changed. Rickey had IVF treat­ment (Por­tas’s brother Lawrence was the sperm donor) and gave birth to Ho­ra­tio in 2012.

But Por­tas did en­counter prej­u­dice about her sex­u­al­ity in the work­place. At a char­ity din­ner, just be­fore she stepped up to give a speech, a man she was sit­ting next to turned to her and crudely de­manded to know what two women got up to­gether in bed.

“Even then, I didn’t have the con­fi­dence to say, ‘I’m not go­ing to go up there — what did you say?’” she ad­mits. Then she adds: “I wouldn’t keep quiet now.”

So, is she truly mel­low­ing? “I prob­a­bly am,” she says, chuck­ling. “I do med­i­tate, which I never used to. I could have done with that 20 years ago. I know it’s a cliche that you learn things when you get older, but I want to help other peo­ple change, even if it’s just one thing they do — to be kin­der and more vul­ner­a­ble and more em­pa­thetic and col­lab­o­ra­tive.”

She doesn’t be­lieve in long work­ing hours and, while her di­ary is crammed, she val­ues her down time. “I don’t work week­ends, I don’t work evenings. I’m full when I want to be full but I can also turn it off for ‘me time’, oth­er­wise I’d be in a home.”

Her proud­est achieve­ment to date is the cre­at­ing of 26 Mary’s Liv­ing and Giv­ing char­ity shops for Save the Chil­dren, but she is still bang­ing the drum for women in the work­place. The book fea­tures lots of statis­tics and in­for­ma­tion on ev­ery­thing from the gen­der pay gap and the glass ceil­ing to bul­ly­ing, sex­ual ha­rass­ment and at­ti­tudes to child­care.

Por­tas is one of five chil­dren — she has three broth­ers, Michael, Joe and Lawrence, and a sis­ter, Tish — and has writ­ten pre­vi­ously about how her teenage years were thrown into tur­moil with the death of her mother. In her mem­oir, Shop Girl, Por­tas dis­closed de­tails of how her par­ents came from North­ern Ire­land. Her Protes­tant fa­ther and Catholic mother, Sam and Theresa New­ton, left the prov­ince for Lon­don shortly af­ter they mar­ried — a union that had caused deep up­set to her mum’s rel­a­tives.

“Re­li­gion was so in­grained in my mother that she once went to the cin­ema and ab­sent-mind­edly gen­u­flected as she walked down the aisle to her seat,” wrote Por­tas). “Grow­ing up a Catholic, she was taught to pray each night, at­tend church ev­ery Sun­day and re­gard the lo­cal priest as the God’s earth-bound em­bod­i­ment. Her fam­ily was ap­palled when she mar­ried a Protes­tant from the wrong side of Belfast and never quite for­gave my dad for whisk­ing Mum to a new life in Eng­land.”

Tragedy en­gulfs the New­ton fam­ily in 1977, when her mother dies from menin­gi­tis. Her heart­bro­ken dad re­mar­ries six months later, mak­ing Mary, then 16, and her younger brother Lawrence (14) home­less. All their child­hood pos­ses­sions are sold. Then, nine months later, her fa­ther dies of a heart at­tack, leav­ing ev­ery­thing to his new wife.

Por­tas is the first to ad­mit that she adopted the al­pha cul­ture in her early ca­reer. “If you look at my early days, a lot of it was sur­vival in­stinct,” she re­flects. “Later, I fought to sur­vive and make my­self se­cure and create a fam­ily that no one could take away.”

Her cre­ative ca­reer be­gan as a win­dow dresser in Har­rods, later help­ing to trans­form Har­vey Ni­chols. Her pro­file was raised fur­ther help­ing strug­gling shop­keep­ers turn their busi­nesses around in TV shows in­clud­ing Queen of Shops and Se­cret Shop­per, and later ad­vis­ing David Cameron on the much-needed re­ju­ve­na­tion of the high street.

But Por­tas is pleased the world of work is now rapidly chang­ing and says the #MeToo and Time’s Up move­ments can only be a good thing.

“Un­til the Hol­ly­wood story broke, it seemed as if we had all been sleep­walk­ing through it. We heard sto­ries from our friends, many of us had ex­pe­ri­enced ha­rass­ment our­selves, and yet it was so com­mon, so much part of ev­ery­day life, that we were silently ac­cept­ing. Then Har­vey We­in­stein was brought down and sex­ual ha­rass­ment be­came part of the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion,” she writes.

And the next gen­er­a­tion will be work­ing dif­fer­ently, she pre­dicts for “the old power-play­ing di­nosaurs” will not be our fu­ture.

Change of di­rec­tion: Mary Por­tas, and (be­low) with Me­lanieRickey

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