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Work Like a Woman by Mary Portas

Book Review - Fiona Burton

I am not particularly ‘into’ gender stereotyping, especially in business. I picked up this book with a healthy dose of cynicism, driven mainly by the title.

I shouldn’t have.

In one-hundred and eighty pages, Portas convinced me that we (women and men) need to broaden our leadership behaviours to get the best from ourselves and our people.

The premise of the book is that women work and live in a world, in a system, designed by men. In this system, women have adapted their behaviours to fit; suppressing ‘feminine qualities’ like empathy, collaboration and compassion. Portas argues that businesses need to make more room for these behaviours and qualities to drive effectiveness. I don’t disagree.

For years I’ve written (or talked) about the need for diversity of thought in our industry. But it was only after reading this book that I fully appreciate the scale of the systemic challenges preventing positive change.

The way we work is routed in alpha culture and this culture has been established for hundreds of years. To evolve this culture we must interrogate ourselves and our behaviours to ensure we’re not simply ‘leaning in’ to the flawed system that created us.

According to Portas, in business we ‘over-reward masculine qualities’ like risk-taking, arrogance, logic (without emotion) and individual wins.

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Let’s stop for a minute and think about this. We as marketers strive to create purposeful brands that connect with our audience; does this sound like a universal leadership model for success? I don’t think so. Change must keep coming. And we all have a role to play in it.

Portas argues that until we adapt our working culture, shifting its focus and values to reflect a more modern world and diverse society, the same cardboard cut-outs will rise to the top.

While I agree with Portas, I think there’s already been some headway here, especially in the UK. Helped by social and political pressure, businesses are becoming much more accountable; and never more so than in the eyes of their customers.

However, for systemic evolution to happen – the evolution Portas wants - we need a redistribution of power; in politics, in business, in government. And that’s not as easy to solve.

So, what can we do? Here are my five key leadership takeaways from Mary:

  1.  If leadership requires you to suppress who you really are and behave in ways that don’t feel comfortable, review where you work.
  2. Leadership is about strength, resilience and vision. Don’t be afraid to flex (and recognise) other leadership attributes too, like compassion and empathy. Your team might thank you for it.
  3. In leadership, you must prioritise the collective good. Do you have the right team around you to do that? If not, fix it.
  4. Let go. Review your leadership style; is there anything you can (and should) pass off? You can still provide the vision ‘the light’, but someone in your business may just do a better job of the task at hand.
  5. In times of uncertainty we all hold on to the familiar. Don’t. Devise a plan based on skill, knowledge and experience to move you and your business forward. Life will be much more interesting.

To conclude, if you have a spare two hours in lockdown, I’d give this book a go. Despite the title, it’s a witty, honest read and it might even surprise you.


Book review by Fiona Burton - Client Partner at The Leith Agency, Chair of Marketing Society Scotland Advisory Board  //  @b_fi

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