Mary Portas, 57, last night slammed the antiquated attitudes towards motherhood that still persist in British business.
'It’s difficult for a woman to get to the top in business,' she said at the Telegraph Festival of Business in London last night. 'Especially when she has children. It’s the elephant in the room that no-one talks about.'
She cited the poor representation of women in the FTSE 100, the top listed firms in the UK, where just seven of the top jobs are held by female bosses.
The ‘Queen of Shops’ star made an impassioned plea to government to help women who want to be mothers while maintaining their high-flying careers. 'The government should be investing in this,' she said.
Portas spoke of the fear that she felt when she had to take time out from her business to raise her family. 'I’ve had three children,' she said. 'And the stress of being the highest earner in your household and knowing that you will be off work…' She tailed off, adding: 'It helps when you have a partner to share the load. But this needs to change. There are absolutely barriers in the workplace for women.'
Portas is mother to Mylo, 23, Verity, 21, and Horatio, 6, and is married to Melanie Rickey, a successful fashion journalist. 'Business has been created for men by men,' she told the audience, which was made up of 600 chief executives and leaders from small and medium-sized companies. 'These are institutional barriers.'
She made a veiled criticism of Sheryl Sandberg, the former Google exec who is currently chief operating officer of Facebook. 'Lean in...,' Portas said, quoting the name of Sandberg’s best-selling book about getting ahead in business. 'She does that because it’s a man’s world.'
Portas claimed that men as well as women would benefit from a fundamental rethink about the way we balance family and career. 'Men too want more freedom to spend time with family,' she claimed. 'But they are scared to take shared parental leave. They don’t want to be the only one.' She cites a friend at a top UK firm who became the first father to use his entire parental allowance. 'He was the only one who did it that year,' she said. 'We need to break this culture.'
She called upon the business leaders in the room to lead the change and encourage more open conversation about family, motherhood, and professional ambition.
'When I hired my managing director, she had one child so I asked her if she wanted another,' she revealed. 'It’s a big HR no-no but we should be able to have these conversations. I asked her, "How can we make this work?"'
She claims that going the extra mile to help women have children and maintain their careers benefits firms in the long run. 'When her baby didn’t sleep through the night, I would pay for a maternity nurse to help her,' she says. 'But everything I did to help her was better, financially, for my business, than her leaving or taking a whole year off.
'You’d be surprised what a woman can do,' she added. 'A woman can do a lot of stuff, let me tell you.'