Slack is becoming ubiquitous in the workplace, replacing email as a faster, more efficient means of colleague communication. I use it in the office, on the tube – we even used it for organising societies at university. But, as the zeitgeist dictates, it has fallen victim to undertones of sexism, with men typically dominating public channels, and their female counterparts self-censoring, confining their conversations, opinions and ideas to private channels.
This, for me, is merely a symptom of a broader workplace dynamic, in which women typically, although neither exclusively nor universally, feel less authoritative, more sidelined, and anxious to proffer their opinions. As Leah Hassler puts it, ‘women are more likely to use supportive, friendly punctuation, and to modify their opinions with hedges like “I could be wrong, but…”’
One of the ways in which this manifests is mansplaining, a feat in which men explain things to women patronisingly and patriarchally. Any woman – professional or otherwise – will have experienced mansplaining at some point in her life. It’s often well-intentioned, administered by relatives, friends and colleagues, but that’s besides the point. It’s humiliating for women to be condescended, and further entrenches power structures that privilege men; guys get to be the knowledgeable saviour, women their grateful – and incompetent – rescuees. This is mythology that requires demythologising.
All hail Slack, then, whose developers are working on a tool to digitally acknowledge mansplaining and use the data to redress problematic communication styles. CEO Stewart Butterfield has proclaimed he’s “really interested in the idea of personal analytics”.
“These are analytics that no one else has access to you except for you,” he told Quartz. “And they don’t present you with any real moral value either way, but [they answer questions like], do you talk to men differently than you talk to women? Do you speak to support groups differently than you speak to superiors? Do you speak in public differently than you speak in private?”
Staff at Slack are developing an analytical tool that’ll be able to identify when these styles of personal communication are enacted. “Our plan for the next couple of years is to expand that as much as possible—so to provide customers with insights about their organizations and individuals,” Butterfield explains. The service could then be used to identify problematic interactions or dysfunctional relationships within teams.
Anyone to whom this sounds more than a little like surveillance is right to err on the side of caution, and privacy is something Slack takes seriously. “It’s a fraught area, because you want people to be empowered by the feedback they’re getting and the tools they’re using, without them feeling like they’re being surveilled,” says Butterfield. Hence the tool is confined to the realms of research and development for the time being.
But Butterfield is adamant that it’d be a force for good: “So if the result of that [data] is not ‘Hey, it turns out you’re a jerk and we’re firing you,’ but ‘Hey, it turns out we’ve identified some set of problems around communication, or management structure or organisational design, which inhibits the kind of progress we want to make, and therefore we’re going to rectify them,’ that’s a good thing,” he explained. Moreover, employers monitoring employees’ interactions is not unprecedented: “most of our large corporate customers have employee provisions which already grant them the right to access all employee communications,” he disclosed.
Personally, I’m all for it. Mansplaining is infuriating at the best of times, and downright humiliating in the workplace. Kudos to Slack for apprehending this, and taking steps to redress it. Or as I like to say, not cutting mansplainers any… slack.