Does Somebody’s Success and Privilege Make You Trust Her Less?

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Does Somebody’s Success and Privilege Make You Trust Her Less?

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I doubt I’m surprising anybody when I say that I’m a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg and her bestselling book, Lean In. Not only am I a practitioner for and advocate of developing female leaders, but I’m also passionate about many of the subjects Sandberg talks about: teaching women how to effectively negotiate in all areas of their professional and personal lives, the importance not only of mentorship but also sponsorship (having someone with power and privilege championing you), and playing nicely with your fear (when you know it’s serving you) by labeling it as the voice of your power or “moxie” so that you don’t talk yourself out of stepping into new opportunities.

There are a lot of wonderful pieces on Lean In. Two of my favorites are from my good friends Selena Soo and Emily Bennington, author of the new book Who Says It’s a Man’s World, which I discussed a few weeks ago on my blog. NPR also has a great segment on this book.

What I’m more interested in is unpicking what some of the backlash against the book tells us about our own blind spots regarding privilege and success and how it plays right into what Sandberg is saying.

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According to Sandberg, based on research in 2003 from Columbia Business School professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson, “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”

Whether one agrees or not with the study, which has repeatedly been erroneously attributed to Sandberg rather than Flynn and Anderson, Sandberg’s reception by too many thought leaders, cultural critics, and Amazon readers certainly seems to support it. “This privileged author has nothing of value to say to women like me, who work out of necessity,” says Karen G. Brown, which sums up the critiques best.

Why are privilege and success, when acknowledged as they are by Sandberg – again and again – seen as a credibility disqualifier for women? I don’t recall anyone accusing Jack Welch of having no place in cultural conversations about business and leadership when he began his publishing career. There was no outcry from the self-improvement community when Tony Hsieh published his advice on how to be happy at work in Delivering Happiness and launched his own movement, much like Sandberg is doing, to bring his experience and work to the masses.

The fact that a smart, hard-working, trailblazing woman like Sandberg has the courage to admit she has moments when she questions her worth and still feels the burn of criticism shouldn’t make her elite. Or naive. It should make her all the more trustworthy. She’s not speaking as an expert, but as a woman doing the work she invites us all to do in order to more consistently “lean in.” And the proof that what she recommends works, well, that’s in the results she’s achieved for herself and, most recently, for Google and Facebook.

Furthermore, her transparency should heighten the need to talk about the issues she addresses that, until this month, have often been relegated to niche women’s studies programs and documentaries/books/magazines or women’s happy hours and spa days. For if privilege has not protected Sandberg from the real and self-imposed professional obstacles she chronicles, then shoot, what does that mean for the rest of us?!

My hope is that when the sensationalism surrounding the launch of the book subsides, we can individually and collectively recalibrate. We can both look to Lean In as a practical guide for stepping into our power, however we define what power for us looks like, and honor privileged, successful people who dare to pull back the curtains from their seemingly obstacle-free pathways to success.

Just as importantly, may we choose to critically examine rather than criticize. Seek to challenge our biases rather than look for evidence to substantiate them. And use our communication to enable people to see their light rather than their darkness.

Alexia Vernon
Alexia Vernon

Alexia Vernon has been branded a “Moxie Maven” by the White House for her unique and effective approach to women’s leadership development. Alexia is the Founder and Director of Influencer Academy, a 9-month program for female leaders seeking to cultivate their skills in public speaking, persuasion, negotiation, coaching, facilitation, and high-impact interpersonal communication. A former women’s studies and public speaking professor, Alexia has contributed to media including CNN, NBC, the Wall Street Journal, Inc., Forbes, and Women’s Health. To learn more about Alexia and Influencer Academy, visit

Connect with Alexia on LinkedIn.

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