Is the business world different for women? Yes, the expectations and the standards are different and if we understand this we can navigate better. I want to share a few observations I learned from my experiences. 

#1 Self-advocate.

In the early days of my career, I did what I was conditioned to, a product of my culture and upbringing: I kept my head down and put in hard work. I assumed my performance would be recognized. But when it was time for a performance review, I was disappointed. My mistake? I’d assumed that my work would speak for itself and that I didn’t need to self-advocate. 

Women are often left behind because they don’t want to call the spotlight on themselves. Self-advocate, you must be comfortable speaking for yourself. Raise your hand for high-visibility projects. Remember, visibility = opportunity. Showcase your accomplishments. Ask for what you’ve earned — promotion, compensation review, etc. Accept compliments, don’t rush to disregard them or divert them to someone else.  

#2 Shun the guilt.

Women are more likely to grapple with guilt of some kind or another. ‘Mom guilt’ might be the obvious one, but it’s certainly not the only one. Women worry that their husbands/partners might feel insecure if they earn more money than them. When I found I was pregnant just after getting a round of funding, I worried investors will lose faith in my ability to lead as CEO. If we don’t feel guilty, there will definitely be someone around us — a lot of well-meaning people trigger guilt, even if unintentionally.  

This kind of guilt can hold us back and drain our emotional energy. To be successful, let go of your guilt. Permit yourself you live by your choices. 

#3 Apologize less.

Women often bookend their sentences with apologies. For instance, a man might not think it’s as big a mistake to interrupt someone, and a woman might apologize before speaking. While a good leader is never too proud to apologize for an honest mistake, you should stop being apologetic about everything.  

You will be making tough decisions, and there’s no reason to be sorry about it. 

#4 Be adept at the language of the system.

There is both conscious and unconscious bias against women in the workplace. A study by researchers from New York University found that men are more likely than women to be seen as “brilliant”. Has anyone ever called you “tough to work with”, “over-confident”, “too straightforward” etc.? It’s just biased. 

But, as leaders, we need to navigate an unfair system while trying to change it. In that journey, we need to be adept at the language of the system. We need to find the right balance between going with the flow and putting up a fight. We must pick our battles carefully so that we don’t exhaust ourselves even before we get to the top. 

#5 Embrace the discomfort.

After 30+ years of working in corporate America and India, I still find it hard to advocate for myself or not feel guilty. I try to do it anyway. I believe that we, as women leaders, have a shared responsibility to change the system. We’re not powerless. Navigating a system that’s stacked against you won’t be easy. But embrace the discomfort, because it’ll be worth it.