'Be yourself and never apologise for it' – career advice from successful women

To mark International Women’s Day, women in science, business, politics and the arts discuss how to get ahead at work

Karen Blackett OBE, chair, MediaCom UK

Find your cheerleaders. These are the people that know the real you, not your job title or role. We all have moments of self-doubt, when we lack self-belief or have things that do not go according to plan. Your cheerleaders are the ones who will give you a verbal slap or can just be there to listen. They are also the ones who will tell you what you need to hear and not necessarily what you want to hear. Find them, collect them and cherish them.

Continue to grow your network. This can seem daunting at first and may fill you with fear, but you need to network to ensure you are part of the right conversations, and in the room with a seat at the table. When your network is broad, cross industry and diverse, magic can happen.

Melissa Fleming, head of communications and public information and spokeswoman for the high commissioner, UNHCR

Glass ceilings are real but they can also be imagined or self-imposed. I remember worrying pregnancy would set me back professionally. It didn’t – I continued to move up in the ranks as my two children grew. Recently, as a senior manager commuting between Vienna where my family lives and Geneva where I work, I fretted about requesting to work from home one day a week to have more family time. I asked and the arrangement was readily agreed and even became a workplace model, including for men.

Maybe I have been just lucky, but my advice is to choose not just a profession that is your passion, but also to seek a workplace that has a real record of supporting the advancement of women. Just as important – choose a partner who is your equal and friends who are your champions. “Having it all” means more than rising to the top in your career. Finding community, nurturing family, maintaining health and having fun makes it worthwhile.

Joanne Harris, author

Read – a lot, and in as many different areas as possible: fiction; non-fiction; novels; short stories; news.

Write – a lot. It takes practice, but don’t be afraid of writing badly. Only by writing badly will you learn to write well.

Keep your day job, at least until you’re making enough money from writing to live on. Persevere. No one succeeds straight away.

Joanne Harris, best known for her award-winning novel Chocolat
Joanne Harris, author. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Deborah Frances-White, comedian and writer

If opportunities excite you but you balk at putting yourself forward, find a network of buddies and coach each other to take a shot. Form a club and help each other write powerful emails, rehearse openings to confident phone calls, dare each other to volunteer for presentations and cheer each other on to greatness. Find opportunities to talk each other up.

The old boys network is a real thing. Replicate it. Find female and male allies who believe in you, who you believe in and be on each other’s team. You don’t have to be in the same industry or firm but find tribes within tribes. Proactively support and encourage others and be proud to ask them to do the same for you. You are not alone.

Prof Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Know what you want to achieve; this can be surprisingly difficult sometimes, but once you’ve worked this out you’ll never lose your way. Project yourself every so often into the future and look back; if you find yourself looking back with regret at a mistake made or an opportunity not seized, you may make a different choice. Remember the old adage, “take the stones that are thrown at you and use them to build great successes”.

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party and MP for Brighton Pavilion

My career advice to any young woman is to be yourself and never apologise for it. That might take courage and you will have it. It might mean asking for help and that’s part of how you are strong. And it might mean becoming different versions of yourself over time and I hope you’ll love them all. Dream, demand, defy, dance.

Caroline Lucas speaks after being re-elected to Brighton Pavilion
Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party. Photograph: Clive Gee/PA

Sharmadean Reid MBE, founder and owner, Wah Nails

Always ensure your vision has a higher purpose other than just shifting sales. That will take you further, for longer.

Don’t ever stop asking your customers what they think, don’t ever stop learning, tweaking, launching.

Have a global gameplan and work backwards as to how you would achieve those sales. For example, if you want to sell £10m of a product, calculate how many customers you need and how many times they need to purchase per year, for you to hit that goal, then everyone knows their targets across marketing, sales, customer service.

Prof Nazneen Rahman CBE, head of genetics, Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden hospital

Find something that you have both a talent for and a passion for. There will something. Talents and passions change. Change with them.

Learn to say no. Clearly, politely and very, very often. Be remorselessly focused on dedicating your time and energy to the things that are important to you.

If you are doing something important, new or different it will be a challenging ride. Things will not always go as you want. You will get knocked down. Just keep getting up and getting on with it. If the goal is worth it, it will be worth it.

Professor Nazneen Rahman CBE, head of genetics, Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden Hospital
Professor Nazneen Rahman CBE, head of genetics, Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden Hospital Photograph: Wellcome Trust

Juliana Ruhfus, senior reporter and investigative film-maker for al-Jazeera English

The most important thing when you approach someone is to have a very clear idea about the work they are doing. I often get generic emails from people who would like feedback on ideas or career advice, but they haven’t really thought about how they could work in the context of al-Jazeera’s output.

When you approach someone don’t expect them to do something for you but tell them what you can do for them, highlight how your ideas would work for them and demonstrate your specific qualifications. You will get much more interest.

Curiosity, tenacity and humbleness are the three qualities that I value most in the people I work with. Genuine curiosity is a powerful engine, tenacity means you keep going when things get tough, and humbleness allows you to learn from every situation and every person that you encounter. The last one is really important to me: once you think you know it all you actually start standing still.

Jeanette Winterson, writer

No-one needs to write what they know - but you need to write where the mojo is. Find your interest. Attach it to your energy. Be ruthless with time. ‎Make your language work hard. Read good writers. Don’t be afraid of the hard sell when it comes to pitching your work. Be confident if you think your work is good.

Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Get comfortable being uncomfortable – achieving something that’s never been done before starts with challenging yourself to do things that you’ve never done before.

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