Silicon Valley’s Slack is Getting Ahead With Diversity by Simply Interviewing More Women and People of Color

Slack's Vancouver office
Slack’s Vancouver office

Slack has been outperforming other Silicon Valley companies when it comes to employing minority employees, according to the organization’s latest diversity report.

Last week, Slack, the company whose popular, plaid-themed messaging app has simplified office communications and introduced custom fox emoji into our daily routines, quietly released its 2017 diversity report. Diversity reports, which list statistics like the percentage of women in management and underrepresented minorities in technical jobs, have become something of an annual rite of passage among Silicon Valley tech companies. As public concern about gender and racial inequities in tech has grown, companies have begun, over the past several years, to share numbers.

Slack has been outperforming other Silicon Valley companies, and its current numbers show that the trend has continued. At Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, women hold between 19 percent and 28 percent of leadership positions and between 19 percent and 20 percent of technical roles, according to those companies’ most recent figures. At Slack, women make up 31 percent of leaders and hold 34 percent of technical roles. Also, in Slack’s U.S. workforce, percentages of underrepresented minorities (including black or African-American, Hispanic or Latino, or American Indian or Alaskan employees), are, in some cases, triple that of peer companies. At Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, underrepresented minorities hold between 4 and almost 8 percent of technical roles and make up less than 11 percent of all employees. At Slack, by contrast, underrepresented minorities make up almost 13 percent of technical roles and roughly 13 percent of all employees; they also make up 6 percent of leadership. The number of Hispanic women at the company has more than doubled since last year. The number of Hispanic men more than quadrupled.

What’s notable about this is that Slack has achieved it without a designated “head of diversity,” a role that has become ubiquitous at tech companies—Google, Facebook, and Microsoft each have one—and might soon become more so; the lobbying group that represents tech companies in Washington, the Internet Association, hired its own director of diversity and inclusion last week to focus on “diversity, inclusion, and workforce-related policies,” after members of the Congressional Black Caucus pressed the organization on the lack of diversity at big tech companies. While studies by the Harvard University professor Frank Dobbin, and colleagues, suggest having someone overseeing diversity efforts can increase the numbers of underrepresented groups in management, other measures, such as mentoring programs and transparency around what it takes to be promoted, are also important; a diversity chief alone may not be enough to make much of a difference. At Slack, the absence of a single diversity leader seems to signal that diversity and inclusion aren’t standalone missions, to be shunted off to a designated specialist, but are rather intertwined with the company’s overall strategy. As the CEO, Stewart Butterfield, has said, he wants these efforts to be something “everyone is engaged in.” Indeed, as the research by Dobbin and colleagues shows, involving employees in diversity policies leads to greater results.

I’ve been speaking with employees at Slack for the last couple of years, while researching a book about mitigating bias, and have witnessed an all-hands effort, organized around several specific policies, to create a fairer and more inclusive workplace. These efforts began with the company’s launch in 2014, and have only accelerated. “All of us believe it’s our responsibility,” Julia Grace, Slack’s senior director of infrastructure engineering, told me.

For one thing, the company has, since 2015, proactively sought out candidates from outside traditional programmer pipelines like Stanford and MIT, recruiting through all-women’s coding camps like Hackbright, as well as programs that focus on training black and Latino programmers such as Code2040. Recruiters are trained to look at skills rather than a candidate’s university pedigree. In 2015, Slack worked with Textio, a company that analyzes job descriptions to ensure they appeal to the widest possible audience. (Slack’s job descriptions feature phrases like “care deeply” and “lasting relationships,” which statistically draw more applications from women. Microsoft’s, by contrast, feature words like “insatiably” and “competing.” Amazon’s keywords: “maniacal” and “wickedly.”)

The company has also worked to eliminate opportunities for bias to creep into its hiring process. The “whiteboard interview,” for instance, is a classic part of software hiring in which candidates are asked to solve a coding problem in real time. But tracing one’s thought process with a dry-erase marker in front of a live, skeptical audience can create extra stressors for people from underrepresented groups. Interpersonal phenomena like stereotype threat, in which people from stigmatized groups spend mental energy grappling with negative stereotypes about those groups, can lead women and minorities with the same skills to perform more poorly.

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The Atlantic