What Slack Does for Women

For years, women have had to control their voice, posture, and demeanor in the workplace. With Slack, we don’t have to worry about any of that.

A pictogram saying "I love slack"
The Atlantic

Years ago, for a story and in an attempt to be more successful, I read a bunch of “how to be a woman at work” books. Because women face backlash for behaving assertively in the workplace, these books mostly advise pretending to be nicer while subtly trying to get what you want. (This being the innocent springtime of the pre-Trump era, “what you want” was typically imagined to be a promotion.)

“Whenever possible, women should substitute ‘we’ for ‘I,’” Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In, the holy writ of this genre. “A woman’s request will be better received if she asserts ‘We had a great year,’ as opposed to ‘I had a great year.’” Even better if she can do so while smiling like a girlboss rodeo clown. The Girl’s Guide to Being a Boss (Without Being a Bitch) advises said girl, “Don’t let self-doubt creep into your tone.” Former CNN Vice President Gail Evans, in Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman, suggests that women try to sit more like men do, admitting, “It took me years to figure out how to inhabit my executive desk chair.” Years! Worrying about sitting!

Now I feel like I can throw all these books in the garbage, because the only things that matter to my work success are the sentences I type into Google Docs and the sentences I type into Slack. I don’t have to smile, I don’t have to worry about my vocal tone, and no one cares how I’m sitting.

Of course, I still want my colleagues to like me, so I still bend a knee to gender norms. I simply say what needs to be said in Slack, throw in an exclamation point and a nice emoji, and call it a day. It’s much easier to perform your gender with a dancing penguin than by “power posing” or whatever. And best of all, Slack breaks the double bind, in which women are disliked for being either too assertive or too nurturing. No one thinks the happy cowboy (🤠) is pushy. No one would damn the joy cat (😹) with the faint praise of being “likable enough.” All this Slacking appears to be working, because for the first time, the performance review that we had in the middle of the Slack-heavy pandemic called me “friendly.”

In short, I love Slack! It’s a great tool for women who just want to get through the workday without worrying too much about how they’re “coming off.” A fellow female reporter once told me ruefully that if a woman behaved as “quirkily” as all the prominent “quirky” men in media, she’d get fired on the spot for being crazy. Now there’s no danger of that happening, because we can all keep our quirks to ourselves while typing “Interesting idea! 🙂”

I ran my love of Slack by several women-at-work experts I know, and they said though few studies exist on gender and Slack, specifically, there might be something to this. “Women are expected to smile all the time, and men are not. It’s exhausting,” says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of You Just Don’t Understand. But “it’s liberating when you don’t have to worry about your makeup and your hair and whether your head is tilted in a feminine way.”

Because people tend to prefer managers with deeper voices, “women frequently tell me that they’re advised, when they ask for career advice, that they need to lower the pitch of their voice,” says Kim Elsesser, a psychologist who has studied gender dynamics at work. With Slack, “you don’t have to think about any of that.”

Women are often punished for not behaving gently and communally. But on the internet, nobody knows you’re a bitch. “One thing that women need to do is not be as aggressive as men,” Elsesser told me. “So if you can use those same aggressive requests or whatever, and put a little smiley face next to them, and then all of a sudden, they don’t seem as aggressive.”

Still, Elsesser thinks I like Slacking not because I’m a woman, but because I’m the kind of person who likes writing things down. “I mean, that’s what you do, right, you’re a writer?” she said. “So is that crazy, that your preferred medium of communication would be written?”

As any woman who has used Twitter.com can tell you, women aren’t always welcome in digital spaces. When the audience is large and unregulated, women can feel shut down, harassed, or ignored, says Susan Herring, an Indiana University professor who researches gender and digital communication. But in situations where a teacher or a boss is reading what people say—like a classroom discussion group or a workplace Slack channel—people are more likely to be civil.

Some women and members of marginalized groups have, of course, experienced setbacks from working only virtually. With so many people still working remotely, some women and people of color find that they are given more workplace “housework”—setting up meetings, taking notes—and fewer prestigious assignments, says Joan Williams, a gender and law expert at UC Hastings. “You can’t hear the plum assignments being given out in the hall and try to insinuate yourself to get part of the action anymore,” she told me. That’s on top of all the actual housework and care work that mothers are having to do as child-care options have disappeared during the pandemic. And, Tannen points out, many women who don’t use emojis and exclamation points in digital communications are still wrongly seen as bitchy.

Certain benefits of Slack extend to people of all genders, though. Because of its asynchronous aspect, I find it to be an excellent tool for anger management. Work is frustrating sometimes, but part of what you get paid for is not taking your frustrations out on your colleagues. (They, too, are working.) The first thing that pops into my head when I’m frustrated is rarely the thing I want my colleagues to hear. Neither are the second through tenth things, usually. The 11th thing—the thing for which I have scraped together all the little dough scraps of my generosity into a nice little biscuit—is the one that is suitable for Slack.

To buy time to bake up my generosity biscuit, I find it much easier to avoid Slacking for a few minutes than to avoid speaking for a few minutes. (It’s also much more obvious when you are stifling your anger in person than when you are typing and deleting draft Slack messages. I typically do this in an offline text file to avoid the ominous “Olga is typing.”) But the effect is that by writing “Sure thing!” in Slack while saying “What the fuck?” under my breath, I spare both my colleagues and myself some grief. I make everyone’s day a little better. I get a little time to figure out whether this is something I want to turn into a big deal—or “expend institutional capital on,” in girlboss parlance—or just brush aside. If a blogger has a meltdown and doesn’t Slack about it, did it even happen?

Yes, Slack conversations are more scripted, but I don’t find these scripts particularly disingenuous, because the scripts we all follow at work are disingenuous anyway. Do you really care how that person’s weekend was? Is someone telling you that they’ll get you that PowerPoint soon actually “awesome”? Scripts save time and, were they followed more closely, could frankly also save a few people from committing fireable office faux pas. If we’re going to be following scripts, I’d prefer that they at least be copy-pastable.

Some people say that they don’t like Slack, but I think these people are actually saying that they don’t like the way other people Slack. Unpleasant people abound, and some people are unpleasant digitally, just as some people are unpleasant in person. To me, getting terse edits in Google Docs is preferable to the time an old-fashioned editor sat me down, looked at my draft, looked at me, and said soberly, “Words matter.”

I am not suggesting that anyone replace in-person conversations with Slack if they don’t want to. I understand that some people live for the few minutes of banter that take place after everyone’s filed into the conference room but before they’ve gotten the presentation to work: These chairs are so comfy. Oooh, where is that bagel from? I would never dream of taking this away. My view on Slack is similar to my view on the office: It should be there if you like it, and avoidable if you don’t. I am simply saying that in the frantic search for silver linings to This Whole Thing, I have found mine. Perhaps, girl, it is yours as well.