Emily watched the barista with growing urgency as he steamed the water and then walked over to a set of three empty glass coffee funnels and decanters. He placed a filter over the middle funnel, tipped the water over the filter, and looked at Emily, pushing his square glasses up.
“We do this to clean the filter,” he said. “Makes better coffee.” She offered a half-smile and checked her watch, which was buzzing from the emails already coming in. Shifting her weight— her laptop bag felt especially heavy that morning—she ran a hand through her dark brown hair, twisting it briefly before letting it fall, a nervous habit she’d picked up in adulthood. She looked out the window. When she glanced back in the direction of the barista, he was steaming more water. With a grimace, she looked at her watch again as he scooped coffee grounds into the filter.
Scoop, dump, scoop, dump, scoop, dump. Sigh. He walked to the back counter to retrieve the steaming water and poured it over the grounds with an impressive slowness. The coffee drip-drip-dripped into the waiting glass container. Emily let out a subtle but exasperated breath.
“I can bring this to your table,” the barista said. “That’s what we normally do.”
Now you tell me, she thought, as she said aloud, “Great.” Emily rushed up the stairs and unloaded the contents of her work bag onto the long oak table. She opened her laptop, set out her notes, and pulled up her presentation file before checking her watch again.
Scrolling through the slides, she felt confident. She told herself it was going to go perfectly—she was prepared, well rested, and had even gotten a workout in that morning, not to mention the bike ride to the coffee shop. Now, she just needed to do final preparations. But as Emily scrolled to the fourteenth slide, she paused, panicked. The slide was blank. Where was the text she’d put in the night before?
Hastily, she continued scrolling. Slides fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—they were all blank.
With growing panic, she began looking through her handwritten notes. She would have to recreate the presentation. But first, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then another.
“Here you go.” Emily jumped at the voice behind her. She laughed nervously. “Smells delicious. Thanks.”
The barista set the coffee on the table to her right as Emily began remaking the presentation she was set to give in an hour and forty minutes. Those slides had taken her nearly three hours to create the first time; hopefully she’d be able to whip them together before the meeting. So much for the additional prep she’d planned to do that morning.
Emily reached for the coffee, her eyes still on her screen. A second later, hot liquid was all over the table. She scooped up her laptop and notes just in time.
“Dang it, dang it, dang it.” After relocating her items to the other end of the table, she turned around to search for napkins, nearly colliding with someone. She jumped back as a man extended a stack of napkins.
“Looking for these?” he said. “Oh, yeah. Thanks.” She paused momentarily before smiling and taking the stack from him. The man went to grab more napkins and then walked over to help mop up the mess.
“Here, I’ll take the wet towels,” he offered, gathering up the dripping paper.
“Thank you.” As Emily finished drying the table, all she could think about was her presentation. She set to work getting her area reorganized.
The man returned from throwing away the second set of wet towels. “All dry?”
Emily looked up from her work space and surveyed the man in front of her. He had neatly styled white hair and wore a button-up shirt, tailored jeans, and brown leather dress shoes. His eyes wrinkled into a genuine smile just as Emily realized how odd it must seem that she was standing there staring at him. She smiled back.
“Yes, thanks so much.”
He nodded and reached out his hand. “I’m David.” “David. I’m Emily.” She shook his hand. “Thanks, again.” “Of course.” He looked toward her ordered workstation. “May I ask what you’re working on?”
“I have a big presentation in”—she checked her watch and lifted her eyebrows in surprise—“an hour and a half. If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work.”
“Of course.” David made his way back to his table, which was directly across from hers. He picked up his tablet, returning to the news article he’d been reading.
Over the next hour, Emily focused intently on her computer screen, her hands moving furiously. With five minutes to spare, she saved the file three times just to be sure. Finally, she gathered her items, placed them in her bag, and rushed out the door without looking back. She didn’t realize David was watching her the whole time.
“Good job today,” Mitchell said. The conference room had cleared out, and Emily was gathering her presentation materials. She still felt the familiar rush of an excellent presentation—her mind sharp, body energized, breathing a bit shallower than normal. She smiled at Mitchell.
“Do you think they’re on board with how artificial intelligence can transform our business?”
“It’s hard to say. They’ve been doing things the same way for years.” “True.” The room grew quiet. Mitchell lingered as Emily cleaned up.
“You know, I’ve been wanting to know—” Emily said. “There’s something I’d like to—” Mitchell began. “You first,” Emily said. “Well, we both know you were up for a promotion.” “Right.” Emily sensed what was coming next. Discussions never start that way when you’ve gotten the job. “I’m excited to be considered.”
“You’ve been wowing everyone on this Asia project, myself included, with your hard work. Honestly, you’re one of the best I’ve seen.”
“Well, thank you. This past month has been a good challenge.” “And you’ve tackled the challenge head-on”—he paused, looking at the table before raising his eyes to meet hers—“but I don’t think you’re quite ready for the next step.”
“What?” She startled herself with this response. Get it together, she thought.
“We’ve given the promotion to Stan.” Stan? Stan, the same guy she’d started her trainee program with—the one who’d just received terrible ratings in his latest customer response survey and showed up late to meetings? Seriously? “I see. Thanks for letting me know. So if I can ask, what am I missing?”
Mitchell stretched his mouth into an attempted smile. “It’ll be your time soon. I meant what I said. You’re doing great.”
“I appreciate that.” “OK, then.” Mitchell knocked lightly on the desk twice. “See you at 2 p.m. for our team meeting.” “See you.”
Emily hung back in the conference room. She sat at the head of the table, her elbows on the surface, hands together in a fist and forehead resting on her hands. Then she leaned back and stared at the ceiling.
This was the third promotion she’d been passed over for. She thought about the people who’d received promotions over the past two years: James, Kyle, Stan. She had gone through the same manager trainee program with them—they’d all been hired at the same time, started on the same day, and were deploying different parts of the same product. What gives?
Over the past month, she’d been watching the company’s monthly metrics. Her team had far surpassed Stan’s in customer acquisition, retention, and satisfaction. They launched updates faster with fewer bugs, while Stan’s team had been slowing down with launches and reporting more issues with their code. Her direct reports consistently praised her leadership, and while she liked Stan, she’d heard the rumblings of dissent within his team. It had been a similar story with James and Kyle. And yet they had gotten promotions and she hadn’t.
The last time this had happened, a good friend had suggested it might be because she’s a woman. Emily had rejected the idea at the time, but now she wasn’t so sure. She wanted to believe her confidence and intelligence outweighed centuries of bias, but she also didn’t want to be naïve. It seemed there were too many signs to ignore.
She’d worked for nearly a decade at this company, and now she felt stagnant. After missing the last promotion, she’d even gone to the lengths of conducting her own version of a 360 review, in which she solicited anonymous feedback from nearly a dozen people on her team and in her network. A few comments had stung—two people said she was too direct and unemotional, one said she had trouble fully delegating projects—but otherwise they were overwhelmingly positive. She couldn’t identify anything serious enough to be holding her back from getting promoted, and she’d been actively working to improve on issues called out during the review. One of the other managers had even made a comment about how well she’d delegated on a recent project, which had given her confidence that she was improving.
Emily shifted her attention to the ten executive chairs askew in the room. She sighed, then stood and walked to each chair, pushing them in. Three dirty coffee cups were on the table, and she gathered them one at a time. Someone had spilled a dime-sized coffee puddle, and as she retrieved a napkin from the beverage station at the back of the room, she stopped.
She stood there, three coffee cups in one hand and a napkin in the other. It had been ten years since she’d been the new manager trainee, and yet here she was, cleaning up after her colleagues and bosses like their mom. She did enough of that at home with her own child.
Emily walked around the table and set each coffee cup back where it had been, then made her way over to the beverage station and returned the napkin.
“I have begun my own quiet war,” she whispered, reciting a section from her favorite book, The House on Mango Street. “Simple. Sure. I am the one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”
She looked at the spilled coffee on the table with defiance, slung her bag over her shoulder, and walked out of the room.