Being a woman in a man’s world is tough, but female bosses are tougher. From challenging “bitchy female boss” stereotypes to gender inequality in the workplace, these women have walked so that we can run.

Here’s what we can learn from 5 female bosses on what they wished they knew when they were younger.

1. Stop over-apologising

“Stop being overly apologetic. When asking for things, try changing your vocabulary. Starting a question with “I’m sorry…” instead of asking directly, sends an unconscious message that you’re not confident. When I stopped doing that, I found that I gained more respect as a leader.” – Kirsten Croft, Head of Year, Education Sector

Women are more apologetic than men simply out of habit and in most Asian cultures, saying sorry is synonymous with manners. But try being mindful of when you’re apologizing unnecessarily, so that you can change your vocabulary and reclaim your power.

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2. Everyone’s journey is different

“My younger self was an impatient perfectionist. As I grew older, I learnt that life is not a race and should never be. A few years ago, a friend gave me a very good piece of advice – it’s ok to be the tortoise and finish last, the rabbit may have won but a burnt-out bunny is not cute at all!” – Rilla Melati Bahri, Director, Mini Monsters Limited

Pushing yourself and going outside your comfort zone is how you grow. But when you’re busy comparing your achievements to your friends’, you’ll never appreciate the journey. Life isn’t a race so enjoy going at your own pace.

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3. Speak up for what you want

“Always read, question, and negotiate contracts before you sign – you’re never too small to ask for what you want.” – Amira Yahaya & Foo Chia Chern, Co-Founders, The Straits Finery

Not gonna lie, the thought of negotiating my salary scares me. And more women than men avoid it because they’re afraid of looking greedy. But if the men can do it, so can we. Know your worth by researching industry standards based on your experience and level so that you can feel more confident when asking for what you want.

 

4. Never stop learning

Image: Pexels/ Tranmautritam

“Wherever you are right now, no matter how small your job is, you are preparing yourself for bigger things in years to come. Don’t underestimate your ‘hidden years’ because it’s paving the way for what you can become” – Lit Yang Quek, Marketing Director, IT Industry

Often, we’re eager to take on bigger challenges at work to show off our chops and give little weight to smaller, menial tasks. But don’t let your pride get in the way, master the basics and never stop learning. Humility and knowledge is an unstoppable combination.

 

5. Use empathy as a tool

“I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” – Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Empathy is often viewed as a weakness and a criticism faced mostly by female leaders. However, don’t underestimate the power of leading with empathy. By listening and speaking thoughtfully and compassionately, you build better trust and relationships, earning you more respect among your colleagues.

Disclaimer: Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.