Reading Between the Lines of Slack’s New Diversity Numbers

The most important thing about Slack's new diversity report isn't a statistic.

Slack headquarters in San Francisco (Slack)

There are many reasons to be cynical about the way the tech industry talks about its commitment to improving diversity. A lot of what’s said is lip service, and everybody seems to work off the same script: We have a long way to go, and we’re working on it.

So it came as a surprise this week when Slack, the chat platform and Silicon Valley darling, re-ran its numbers and shared the results publicly—only five months after doing so the first time.

What they found were some improvements to staff diversity, and some steps backward. For instance, women went from representing 18 percent of Slack’s engineering staff to 24 percent of it; but fewer women are managers and fewer staff members have women managers. (In September, 45 percent of managers at Slack were women; today, it’s 43 percent. And 41 percent of other staffers had a woman manager five months ago; today, 40 percent do.)

“Because we are still small as companies go, every person we hire and every person who leaves can make a dramatic difference to our diversity data,” Slack said in a blog post published on Thursday. “For the most part, we appear to be harnessing our net growth in a positive way, but that could change.”

Slack saw small gains elsewhere, too. In September, 7 percent of Slack’s engineering employees were black; by December, that number had crept up to 9 percent. LGBTQ representation overall went from 10 percent of employees to 13 percent of them. It should be pointed out that Slack has hired a lot of people since the last time the company assessed its diversity, which helps explain some of these differences. Last summer, Slack had 170 employees. By December, they had 290 employees. Today, they have some 350 employees.

That rapid growth was, Slack says, “a key reason” it re-ran the survey. But hopefully the decision serves as a signal to other tech companies, too. Slack’s improvement, where there was improvement, was modest. Only so much can change in a matter of months, after all. “We recognize that we still have a long way to go,” Slack wrote on Thursday.

Ah, that familiar echo of an unkept promise across tech and other industries.

But in releasing new data again so soon, Slack has also set the bar higher for publicly following up on promises of improvement, and acknowledged the reality of what solving this problem actually looks like. Success is not guaranteed. And diversity doesn’t just happen because you say you want it to. “So we are going to keep talking about it,” Slack said. “Of course, talk is not enough.”

This is a mentality more companies should emulate. Because the representation of minority groups in the workplace is not an annual issue for the people who are a part of those groups. It’s a daily one.