Laura Wade-Gery could be a Barbara Taylor-Bradford heroine or a Jackie Collins boardroom badass: debonair, moneyed and connected as only a diplomat’s daughter could be, well-travelled, ambitious, successful – and about to become a mother at 50.
The public announcement of her four-month maternity leave was made by Marks & Spencer, where Wade-Gery has worked for four years and is now a senior director.
Before that, she was at Tesco, which she helped transform into a national ubiquity that appears on every high street. Before that, she travelled the world, covering Vietnam, Spain, Moscow and Delhi, where, according to the Telegraph, she “single-handedly fought off a street gang”.
She featured in William Dalrymple’s book In Xanadu, following Marco Polo’s route from Palestine to China, a journey during which she demonstrated, writes Dalrymple, “feats of endurance”.
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The announcement of Wade-Gery’s maternity leave prompted the usual disapproving voices, with their thinly veiled warnings (which are nothing more than criticisms) about career women who “delay” having babies, as though having babies is our written destiny and having a career is a selfish indulgence we have just taken too far – and we’ll be sorry.
Then will come speculation that Wade-Gery is too old to be a mother, or that her maternity leave is too short, or that it is too long and the corporate world can’t do without her for that long and that that’s why you shouldn’t have women at the top in business at all.
In becoming a mother at 50, Wade-Gery is flouting the speculation, pressure and judgment that are brought down on any woman who dares act outside the prescribed template. It is not for anyone to judge if a woman has no babies, three babies in three decades by three different fathers or adopts alone in her 40s. Indeed, this anti-patriarchal behaviour, which undercuts the nuclear family and makes partnership with men a peripheral concern, is something to celebrate.
Laura Wade-Gery is inspirational because she is acting without explanation or apology
The approved timetable for women’s lives was crafted with our subjugation in mind: we are to be good girls and study hard, stay out of trouble, get jobs and pay our own way despite being paid less than men for the same work. Just when it all shows signs of going well, we are to pack up, knuckle down, and turn into a mummy.
Indeed, people including strangers and colleagues will start asking us intrusive questions about whether we have a partner and whether we have or want children, and when, from around our 30th birthday.
Whenever we step beyond the narrow lines drawn for us, it prompts hysterical rage about bad women who dare to “squander” years exploring their talent, brains and natural desire for experience and achievement. If we have children in our late teens or early 20s, we are feckless bimbos. If we have them in our 40s we’re selfish, careerist monsters putting the NHS under strain.
We are supposed to have them by our early 30s at the latest – and not with some nobody we met on Tinder, but with a long-term partner who’ll push a buggy occasionally. If we feel grotty after the birth, we’ve let ourselves go. If we stay beautiful we’re sexually objectified as selfish, entitled “yummy mummies” or Milfs.
If we haven’t met anyone we’d want to procreate with by our late 30s, we are bashed for being selfish, uptight and picky. In terms of public and media opinion there are few ways of behaving that leave women unjudged, and a tiny window in which to do it all “right”. Somehow, magically, we are to have kids, a house, a great job and a non-douchey partner by our early 40s. And if we haven’t, then we’ve dropped the ball – or missed the boat.
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I wonder what women’s lives would look like if we unhitched ourselves from the approved timetable and followed our inner desires rather than conventional expectations. I bet many women with the means would spend their 20s, 30s and most of their 40s studying, travelling, working, partying, pursuing cultural passions or personal success or artistic talents, before having kids in their late 40s, with or without a partner.
That could only happen in a world where the state supported mothers and young children, where there was decent and full parental leave, well-funded universal childcare, child-friendly cities with creches in cultural institutions and offices, zero workplace discrimination against mothers, no pay gap, no glass ceiling or “mummy track” – and no sniping about women’s choices.
Laura Wade-Gery is inspirational because she is acting without explanation or apology. She’s dealing with motherhood, just as she’s governing her career, just as she’s run her global and privileged life: in her own time, and like a boss.
• This article was corrected on 20 August 2015. It previously stated Wade-Gery had been at M&S for 14 years.
Laura Wade-Gery (born 1965) is a British business executive.
Wade-Gery (daughter of the late Sir Robert Wade-Gery) was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College and Magdalen College, Oxford, where she studied history and also achieved an ice-hockey blue. As a student she accompanied William Dalrymple on a journey across Asia which is described in Dalrymple's book In Xanadu. Dalrymple has said of Wade-Gery: “Stories of her feats of endurance were common currency; if half of them were true, she had by the age of 21 made Freya Stark look like a dilettante. ... When travelling with her I could never decide whether she reminded me more of Boadicea or Joyce Grenfell ..."
After working at Gemini Consulting and Kleinwort Benson, Wade-Gery joined Tesco in 1997 and rose to become chief executive of its online business. She was to have become commercial director of Tesco's non-food operation in 2011 but instead joined the board of Marks & Spencer as executive director of multi-channel e-commerce. She is also a member of the British Government's Digital Advisory Board.
- ^Sir Robert Wade-Gery (obituary), The Times, London, 26 February 2015, page 57 (subscription required)
- ^Laura Wade-Gery lands at M&S to take multichannel to the next level, Internet Retailing, 4 July 2011
- ^ abBolland lures Tesco's Laura Wade-Gery to run M&S's online operation, The Guardian, London, 7 February 2011
- ^Dalrymple, WIlliam, In Xanadu: A Quest, Collins, 1989, pp.12,180
- ^M&S reshuffle sparks speculation over chief’s successor, Financial Times, London, 4 July 2014
- ^Laura Wade-Gery, Executive Director, Multi-channel, Marks & Spencer
- ^Digital Advisory Board profile – Laura Wade-Gery