Can Slack Improve Workplace Culture for Women?

By Anna Codrea-Rado, Contributor

When Josie* was in her previous job at a media company, construction workers making repairs in her office made inappropriate remarks toward the female members of staff. The company dealt with the incident swiftly, thanks to a discussion that took place on the business communications platform, Slack.

Josie, 24, who now works for a different company in the same industry, was at the time a member of a female-only private Slack channel, where someone first publicly raised the issue as a concern.” This led to action by members of the channel who had the power to make change, which made us all feel more empowered and more comfortable,” she said.

Slack launched in 2009 in Canada; billed as a workplace tool designed to facilitate collaboration and cut down on email. Today, it has 9 million active weekly users in over 100 countries.

Yet, beyond being a business communications app favored by startups and creative companies, the tool has the potential to help people, in particular, women, change workplace culture.

A Supportive Space

Josie is one of many women who use Slack for work and also participate in women-focused Slack channels. Slack’s functionality allows users to create private channels that are invisible and invite-only. Similar to a forum or SMS group, these channels become topic-driven spaces that can act as support networks.

And it’s here women have found a comfortable space to air gender equality discussions.

Sarah, 33, who also works in the media industry, said that at her previous company, she was in two women-only channels: one for her immediate department, as well as a company-wide one. “Both were really supportive spaces, where topics could be discussed freely,” she said. Discussions, she went on, ranged from experiences of sexism in the office to advice for dealing with challenging co-workers.

“[Slack gives women] a place to channel frustration and support each other, whereas before perhaps people would have suffered in silence, or only confided in one very close friend.”

The presence of these types of discussion forums should perhaps not come as a surprise given contemporary gender inequity statistics. In the U.S., women overall earn 80 centsfor every dollar men make. For black women, this figure drops to 65 cents; for Latinas, it sinks to 54 cents. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the U.S. loses a combined total of over $840 billion each year due to the pay gap.

But it’s not just about money. Women are also underrepresented in leadership roles. A 2017 survey by the global advisory firm Grant Thornton found that—globally—women only make up 25 percent of executive roles, a figure that has not changed much in the last 13 years.

For many women, spaces to talk are a necessary measure in combating inequity when it comes to pay, leadership positions, and a host of other sexist encounters.

Lucy, 29, who works in market research, said that women-centric channels are productive forums to feel a sense of comradeship. “They’re a place to channel frustration and support each other,” she said. “Whereas before perhaps people would have suffered in silence, or only confided in one very close friend.”

As it turns out, they are also a place to galvanize action.

Finding a Voice

In 2015, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton School professor Adam Grant wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about why women stay quiet in the workplace.

“When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope,” they wrote. “Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

The research backs up the idea that women aren’t speaking up. A 2012 study by Princeton and Brigham Young Universities found that in collaborative environments such as meetings and group problem solving, men take up around 75 percent of the conversation.

For many women, Slack has become a place where—even in company-wide chats—they feel more comfortable speaking up. Natasha, 29 and on the senior leadership team at a tech startup, noticed that in her company junior female employees tended to speak up more in Slack than in meetings.

“I’ve spoken with them about this and they say they have a high bar for contributing in big discussions,” Natasha said. While meetings tend to lean in the favor of those who already possess power and leadership (disproportionately, men), Slack provides a more level playing field.

This level playing field is made possible by a distinguishing feature of the Slack platform — transparency. Slack channels are open discussions, as opposed to emails which require invitations and can keep workers out of the loop. In an episode of the Trailblazers podcast, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield talks about transparency on the platform, compared to that of email.

“The fact that each person has their own, totally distinct, unique and invisible inbox, and that all of that communication is private, even if it’s shared between multiple people, it’s just the wrong way to do it,” he said. “You want the communication to be available. You want people to be able to overhear the conversations, you don’t want it to be pushed to you, you want to be able to pull.”

“So often I felt the need to share my ideas via Slack so that I could be sure they were given enough room to be thought-out and thoroughly explained.[The conversations] also permanently marked that the ideas were mine.”

For women who work in male-dominated fields, this transparency is particularly valuable. “The team I worked with was largely male, busy and alpha,” Sarah said. “My male counterpart would ignore my ideas in one-on-one or in video meetings, but on Slack, I felt I had more space to say what I thought and people were forced to read other people’s ideas.”

Josie, too, has found it easier to talk in Slack, commenting that in face-to-face meetings, she felt men dominated discussions and brushed off her ideas. “So often I felt the need to share my ideas via Slack so that I could be sure they were given enough room to be thought-out and thoroughly explained,” she said, “[the conversations] also permanently marked that the ideas were mine.”

A Long Road Ahead

While many women see Slack as a positive means to improve workplace culture, others worry that it’s susceptible to the same challenges already present in the workplace. In her extensive research into the gendered differences on Slack, Quartz reporter, Leah Fessler, found the women she interviewed reported that many of the men would use Slack channels to primarily write self-promotional posts or dominate the conversation by “responding to others’ posts with declarative statements and dropping in links with no context.”

Lucy shared this experience. “I noticed that many of the most frequent contributors were very confident men who had been in the business a long time and clearly felt they could spend lots of time showing off,” she said. “They would share articles only tangentially related to the job on Slack versus actually delivering work.”

While Slack does offer a safe place for women to convene in private channels or focus on women-first issues with their male allies, there is still the potential to carry over the same discriminatory behavior that happens in meetings and male-dominated forums.

Even on Slack, as Fessler wrote, “Over time, these aggregate power displays can wear down women and minorities, leading us to question whether it’s worth sharing our thoughts at all.”

This fallout is not so much a problem created by Slack, but rather symptomatic of enduring challenges for women in the workplace. As Josie put it, Slack is one positive step forward on a long road towards change. “I do not think it is the end-all-be-all solution,” she said. “It is a work around until we can figure out how to make the office an inclusive conversation for all.”

*All names have been changed.