:: How on earth am I supposed to get anything done when I not only have to do the thing but also prove that I have the right to do the thing in the first place?

Some years ago.

I’m having a conversation with my friend, Ariane. She’s just called me back—I texted her thirty minutes ago after I received a stressful email, begging her to call me ASAP, ASAHP, RN, RND.[1]

“What’s so important?” Ariane asks. By the background noises, I can tell she’s walking to her office at work, after a meeting probably, which is why she didn’t call me INSTANTLY after receiving my texts.

“I received an email today,” I tell her. “It’s an email asking me to be an expert witness.”

“So what’s the problem?” Ariane asks. “Being an expert witness is good money.”

Sidebar: Ariane and I both work in the legal profession, so we both know what it means to be an expert witness and how much lawyers have to pay experts. We’re talking hundreds of dollars per hour. She’s right: the work would be incredible money.

And yet: “I’ve spent some time with myself since I first received the email.” I say. “And I’ve had some problems.”

She knows where this is going.

I continue, “When I first received the email, I thought, No I couldn’t possibly.”

“You couldn’t possibly.” Her voice isn’t dry. It is desiccated.

“No, I couldn’t possibly.” I try to make her understand, but I don’t know how.

“Of course you couldn’t.” She’s not actually agreeing with me. If sarcasm were a fossil fuel she could power a small state, like Florida or New York.

“No way,” I say.

She asks me what they want me to offer expert testimony in. I tell her: The grammatical implications of certain punctuation in a legal document. (You might be surprised by how frequently this type of thing is an issue in litigation.)

And here’s the deal: This area of expertise is precisely mine.

Not mine alone, no, but it is mine.

I’ve written multiple books on the subject, including one of the most widely adopted text on legal grammar called, no joke, Core Grammar for Lawyers. I have a doctorate in rhetoric and composition as well as a law degree. I’ve taught legal writing and rhetoric at the university level for over a decade. I am, by any metric, an expert on the subject.

On paper.

But on paper isn’t the point. It never is, when you’re a woman.[2]

I say to Ariane, “When I read the email, I thought, Surely not. I couldn’t possibly.”

She says nothing. For a long time, we sit in silence while she waits for me to come around. And then we laugh.

It feels good to laugh at the bogeyman of self-doubt.

She says, “You know who would say yes?”

I snort. “Every person who is a man.”[3]

Then we spend some time trying to figure out why this particular email makes me forget that I have spent half of a lifetime becoming what any ordinary person would consider an expert.

And then I say, “I think it’s that word the word expert.” I pause. “The word ‘expert’ is like a gut wound.”

That’s what imposter syndrome feels like. Sounds like. At least for me.


Now, years later, when asked I immediately agree to be an expert witness. I have a price list, and my rates are appropriately high. I help others create their price lists. Most women, I find, need to double their rates whenever they do anything.

I shared this story about my conversation with Ariane, about imposter syndrome—I couldn’t possibly be an expert—because today, this week, this month, I’m facing new professional challenges. But this time, it’s not my belief in myself (or lack thereof) that’s getting in the way of my success. This time, I’m not the one blocking my path. No. Now that I’ve gotten out of my own way (finally), I’m facing gatekeepers.

So many gatekeepers.

No, I cleared my own path years ago—although keeping it clear of my own hesitations and insecurities is an ongoing battle, to be sure. And I’ve worked to help other people whom the world tells they can’t be excellent to do the same.

Now, though, it is clear that what is in my way are obstacles put there by others. By gatekeepers who do not want to cede territory to new voices. By gatekeepers who are afraid of the unknown.

These are obstacles I can’t move on my own. Paradigms I can’t shift.

This time, the obstacles are put up by others—not by me. It’s so hard to have worked this much and come this far, to have fought back the internal voices that have told me I’m not good enough, only to realize that now those voices are coming from everywhere else.

How on earth am I supposed to get anything done when I not only have to do the thing but also prove that I have the right to do the thing in the first place? And I do. I do have that right. I’ve earned it.

This is the plight of every person trying to succeed-while-marginalized. We have to fight our own internalized barriers and the very real external ones, too.

Too often, gatekeepers blame marginalized groups for sabotaging our own success. They blame imposter syndrome. They blame upspeak or AAVE. They blame disabled people who need accommodations. They blame everyone and everything but themselves for why marginalized groups never reach the top of the ladder.

To all of the gatekeepers, I want to say this: Get out of our way. And we will be great.

Or, we will push you out of the way, and we will be great despite you.


[1] ASAP, ASAHP, RN, RND: As soon as possible, as soon as humanly possible, right now, right now dammit.

[2] Some women.

[3] Some men.


(c) 2019

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