4 Major Things We Should No Longer Apologize For As Ambitious Women In Leadership

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Mar. 11 2024, Published 8:00 a.m. ET

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It’s Women’s History Month, and I love the deliberate focus on our unique stories, struggles, and triumphs, especially when it comes to work. Oftentimes, I read and view a lot about how women should be, how we should act, or how we can “get ahead.” While some of the advice is helpful and comes from a harsh reality of coping and thriving, some of it is simply archaic, pacifying, and feeds into corporate enabling.

As an ambitious woman in leadership, I decline and refuse to embrace certain narratives that aren’t taking into account today’s world of unequal pay, discrimination, and threats to democracy.

So, while we celebrate all amazing and talented women this month, here’s what I won’t be apologizing for this year as an ambitious woman in leadership. Take these as your new confidence affirmations and mantras:

1. I will not apologize for being proud and assertive in my walk, tone, and manner.

Early in my career as a journalist and editor, I was on my way into the office and got into the elevator just as an executive of my company was entering. “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry I didn’t see you on my way here. I have tunnel vision when I’m walking into the office,” I said in greeting him. He responded, with a laugh, “Oh, I knew it was you! I know that walk anywhere.”

I took that remark as a compliment. All the successful, respected women I love, whether I know them personally or have followed their careers from afar, stand boldly, move with intention, and are confident even if the undertones of that confidence are shy, demure, or coy. They do not suppress the power of their unique talents, calling, culture, or way of approaching life.

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I’ve witnessed this in Anna Wintour while sharing elevator rides with her during my time working in the Conde Nast offices. I’ve seen it in my grandmother as she attracted loyal customers to her as a top saleswoman in a major department store. I admired it in Diane Weathers when I interned at Essence during her era of publishing leadership. Oprah Winfrey, Tai Beauchamp, Hillary Clinton, Lola Ogunnaike.…I could go on and on.

Issa Rae is another great example, as she’s someone who embraces being “awkward” and proudly pro-Black, all while working as founder of multiple businesses with a tell-it-like-it-is way of communicating. And she still managed to graciously correct a host when her name was mispronounced while serving grace, a chic natural hairstyle, and athleisure glam at 2023 CultureCon.

If you’re also bold and your presence shifts atmospheres, we’re in great company.

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2. I will not apologize for being passionate and embracing my work as a personal mission.

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It’s OK to enjoy doing the work you do and serving the people you serve so much that you give it your all. I’m not talking about hustling and working to the point of burnout, but when you’re in work mode, it’s a time when you refuse to compromise quality and time. When you do what you love, it’s hard to give it less than your best, and when you have a personal commitment to the mission of your work, you’re going to take it personally.

This is not about being unprofessional, lacking professional couth, or ignoring emotional intelligence. I’m talking about those of us who were called to leadership and who embrace all the emotions that come with that calling. We tap into the passion and allow it to fuel us, to boost our drive. We also genuinely care about and love the people we work with and for.

Passion has its place in business, and yes, I take my legacy and the work that I do seriously.

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3. I will not apologize for expecting (and requiring) people to respect my time and talent.

A former mentor of mine hurt my feelings when, after I had to reschedule a confirmed interview with her, she declined. It was a hard lesson to swallow, but I respected her for it, as she’s an amazing person and entrepreneur who played a pivotal role in my career success. Sometimes, you just simply don’t have time for rescheduling things, and you might even need to set boundaries, simply for principal’s sake, based on your preference and needs at the time.

Time is indeed money, and the more successful you are— the more you earn based on your special qualifications—the more this matters. Congresswoman Maxine Waters infamously reminded us all, a few years back, that we should command respect and speak up when our time is compromised or wasted.

I’m not saying you should be super-strict and avoid offering people grace, but oftentimes, as leaders, we have to put our foot down and set standards when it comes to the value of our time and talents. I unapologetically set certain days and hours for meetings, interviews, and short “chats,” and I sometimes won’t reschedule or budge on my availability if it’s going to inconvenience me or it’s a clear indication of downplaying the value of who I am as a leader in this industry.

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4. I will not apologize for redefining ‘femininity’ in the workplace for myself, not by cultural ‘standards’ or social media shaming.

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There’s this huge push for “traditional” femininity on TV and on social media that is dangerously problematic. TikTok content about “how to be feminine” has racked up more than 57 million views, with many of the popular videos (ie. those that have 50,000-plus views and thousands of shares) centered on applying layers of makeup, wearing heels and form-fitting clothing, and toning down one’s personal expressions of choice, intellect, and perspective.

Considering that many of us, especially Black women, are breadwinners, and the fact that the gender roles in many aspects of our lives are constantly shifting, I think we must define what’s “feminine” for ourselves and stop shaming others for their own very valid versions of it when that version isn’t the so-called traditional “norm.”

I’ve learned from the lives and work of women like Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, and Pauli Murray about the freeing and impactful advantages of defining womanhood for ourselves. I’ve also learned recently about the tragic implications of accommodating very toxic versions of femininity (rooted in sexism) that stifle workplace progress, feed unsavory work cultures, stifle creative thought, impact democratic processes, and threaten women’s safety globally.

The key here is choice and self-definition versus having to be something by force, shame, or intimidation. My leadership and business skills are not solely defined by (nor should they have to compete with) my choice of cosmetics, hairstyle, or attire.

Being Unapologetically Authentic As A Woman In Leadership

The more we define ourselves for ourselves, and we’re bold and supportive of our fellow women in their decisions to do so, we can lead with those two actions as foundations and take a stance at higher levels of leadership. This makes the work to fight against the challenges of lack of understanding, grace, vision, and inclusion that much more doable.

I choose to stand on the business of being my authentically unique self, walking in purpose despite the challenges, and leaning into my culture in ways that affirm and give voice to my fellow Black and Brown women and encourage all women leaders to boldly do the same. The business innovation and advancement benefits of all of this have been proven time and time again.

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By: Janell Hazelwood, MAOL

Janell Hazelwood, MAOL, is an award-winning journalist, speaker, editor, and strategist who has worked for companies including The New York Times, Black Enterprise, and Conde Nast. She's also a proud HBCU journalism graduate who enjoys serving global audiences of women professionals and entrepreneurs. She holds a master's degree in organizational leadership (MAOL) with a concentration in coaching, allowing her to pursue her ultimate goal as a lifelong servant leader to women professionals, entrepreneurs, and nonprofit founders.

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