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Posted by Devanshi Varandani

Mary Portas’s book, Work Like a Woman – A Manifesto For Change is an absorbing piece of work covering the not so evident, yet translucently visible gender prejudice at the workplace. The author ingeniously integrates her work narrative with various situations, predominantly allied to male hegemony at work place, second generation gender biases, female versus male leadership and circular and vertical ambition.

Work Like a Woman is a significant contribution in gender studies, as it presents the formation of women’s agency at workplace. The author, through her own narrative, is symbolic of the initiation of creating women’s agency. The agency aspect is highly encouraged as it produces freedom of thought and questions gender-biased conformism, which, undoubtedly yields a well-informed female self. Presenting her own experiences, Portas accents on the current social array, which, in multiple forms, challenge the women’s agency. Stressing upon the staunch existence of alpha culture (male hegemony at work place) in organizations, Mary Portas stands for a structure that is more inclusive and encouraging of women. She argues that alpha culture should be seen as a normative concept rather than a prescribed mechanism, which can be configured into a more equitable set-up.

Arguing against alpha work culture, the author emphasizes on the importance of shifting towards a more feminine approach at the workplace. Alpha culture is significantly distant from emotions and sensitivity. Further, challenging the idea of alpha culture, Portas, dwells on the power of intuition. At Harvey Nichols, her workplace, trusting her intuition she turned the tables, winning a fair chance over the company’s competitors. Her intuitions were in constant disagreement with alpha culture, which is majorly focused on numbers, calculations and statistics.

Not splitting parenthood, Portas examines the role of a father to be equally responsible for nurturing the child with care and protection.

As we read through the book, another focal point is the second-generation gender bias which is about subtle sexism, namely, an indistinct affair such as eye contact in a meeting, is indicative of authority and power. According to the author, to witness a radical change, it is important to transform the characteristics of corporate culture, instead of women integrating into the present substandard system. Second-generation gender bias is an unseen barrier to the growth of a female working in the corporate world. This kind of discrimination cannot be blamed on anyone directly, as it is usually unconscious due to the traditionalist expectations of men and women. She says, “Since the beginning, men have been taught and trained to bred and decipher the social cues.” They are aware and have been subconsciously practising the appropriate body language they need to carry at the workplace.

Are women less ambitious?

A preconceived notion is that women are too nice, too soft, and docile to be leaders. There is a presumed relationship between masculine emotions (single-minded, myopic focus, competition) and competent leaders. Portas suggests that women, by choice, don’t actually want to be leaders. The core reason being, they have to rip off their identity in order to fit-in into the leadership roles, which, to them, does not seem as a fair play. Women have been part of a system where codes have been “created by men, for men” . Now, expecting women to conform to such a modus operandi is inequitable.

On the subject of being ambitious, Portas talks about two types of ambitions: first, the vertical ambition, wherein, regardless of the situation, one needs to win. The person is judged on his/her ability to hoard power and status. Usually, this kind of ambition is evident in male employees. On the other hand, the second ambition is circular ambition, which covers a wider spectrum of issues, integrating professional and personal goals; a more happiness-oriented approach. However, one must not confuse this kind of ambition with a lack of ambition. Instead of hightailing towards the linear power ladder, women prefer to collaborate and work in teams.

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Bisecting parenthood

First thing first, Mary Portas wants her readers to be aware of the fact that one cannot cover every base when career and motherhood are combined. Women are carers, and thus, the current system conveniently takes advantage of working mothers. With her own start-up, Portas was liberated from the existing male favouring norms of work culture. This provided her with the freedom to work independently, and infuse and encourage undivided humans inside her organization, instead of bringing in bits and parts of her employees. Empathy, vulnerability, intuition and resilience were the key feminine qualities Portas tapped into.

Work Like a Woman is an interesting read for both, men and women who are working or aspire to work.

Not splitting parenthood, Portas examines the role of a father to be equally responsible for nurturing the child with care and protection. But unfortunately, alpha culture heavily discourages fathers to get involved with their new born. They themselves become the victims of the same alpha culture which, supposedly favors them in terms of money, status and power. There is an evident thick layer of division between men and women in regard to job roles.

Does masculinity come with some inherited power?

Quoting an example from Work Like a Woman, in the #MeToo movement, actor, Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexual harassment, portrays an ideal image of men believing, they, being at the top of the ladder, are authorized to victimize women the way they want to. Their paramount masculinity is used as a tool to vindicate their aggressive behavior. After the #MeToo incident, one cannot deny that the lack of power given to women is one of the biggest flaws in the system. The assumption that male hegemony at workplace is a vestige of a bygone era is something one might want to ponder upon.

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Work Like a Woman is an interesting read for both, men and women who are working or aspire to work. The construction of the book is well netted, and explicitly endorses the integration of heart and brain at the workplace. To encourage a healthy working environment, it is pivotal to be comfortable with emotions, instead of shying away and concealing them. The author frequently expresses dissatisfaction with reference to subtle sexism; which, seems as a transparent sheet which cannot be seen, only can be felt; thus, challenging the current subdued approach towards the issue.


Devanshi Varandani is an enthusiast in writing for the social sector, and intends to bring in a positive change in the society, through writing.

Featured Image Source: Mary Portas

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