Stop talking about Diversity and Gender Imbalance and start talking about Desegregation.

The greatest missing truth about gender imbalance and diversity that everybody is struggling with, is that they are not issues of quota, pay scales or even opportunity — they are issues of desegregation. The metrics that have been emerging recently have excellently proven how imbalanced our workplaces are, but they don’t tell us how to fix them past changing some recruiting and HR policies.

How do we desegregate our workplace? What do we actually have to do, to get to where we want to be? What does the desired end look like anyway?

When desegregation commenced in 1950’s American Schools — the outcomes were often hazardous, and unpleasant in many cases. You see, it wasn’t just about opening the doors for the segregated groups to walk through — it was about changing the actual cultures into which they would be integrated. Assuming that integration would just occur, due to the ‘permitted’ presence of a new group in an established culture was a gross undersight. Cultural design and behavioural management had to be utilised — not just to ensure the environment was safe and functional for everyone involved — it had to provide a fertile platform on which all genders and ethnicities could co-exist and more importantly, collaborate and thrive.

Eliott Aronson

A method known as Jigsaw Learning was developed to precisely address this issue. Elliot Aronson, who designed the technique had observed that students from minority groups were patently side-lined in their lessons, as a consequence, not just of racial intolerance but more measurably of an ineffective teaching culture. The schools had been developed for english speaking students, usually from a comparable background and grounding faith. When a Latino student arrived in a class of white kids, it wasn’t necessarily their ethnicity or a language barrier that impeded their learning experience, but the way the classes were actually taught and students duly rewarded by a constant series of micro rewards on problems answered correctly by individuals. Students were in direct competition with each other. Silent contracts came into play, especially around teaching components where a teacher would address the class and invite interaction. Naturally, if a students’ first language or grounding cultural value left them feeling outnumbered or intimidated, they would not interact and the teacher would often allow them their silence, so as not to have them face potential humiliation by forcing them to communicate — but what happened as a consequence was that the other students began to assume that their new fellow was intellectually sub-standard and continue the freeze-out past the lesson, past the school yard and straight into their programming viewpoint.

From there it advanced into their conversations with families about the abilities of their new classmates and therefore provided commentary on the arc of integration that was negatively skewed. Let’s be frank about this — every classroom features students that want to shrink into the shadows, who lack in confidence. They’re often the pupils who were picked on and side-lined. Before Jigsaw Learning, students in the most intolerant schools were heading straight for a crushing experience from day one.

Jigsaw Learning or ‘Cooperative Learning’ as it became known, was the panacea that ALL students needed, not just those that were marginalised. Taking the focus away from short term rewards and an individual results based classroom, Cooperative Learning brought an entire class together around the new students and encouraged the entire class to support them (and each other) in problem solving and discussion. The results of Cooperative Learning were staggering. Not only were the integrating students experiencing a far more personally optimised education, their classmates were growing through the collaboration also, learning to look after each other and solve common purpose problems together.

We are at the same juncture in our workplaces today. The governance is now in place for everyone to sit at the table. To be ‘integrated’. The salaries, fees and rights of employees are under scrutiny and are being assertively aligned — but the groaning chasm that many are struggling to bridge is handling the cultural realities of a truly diverse workplace, capable of utilising and supporting all genders and ethnicities to their greatest extension and power. Our workplaces are still optimised to reward individual success and favour particular ‘types’ of people and they need to be optimised for collaboration, as well as integration.

Does the following statement make you feel uncomfortable?

“If you’re not actively involved in desegregating your work teams — you are actively involved in segregating them.”

Take that for a little walk for a minute, business leader. Are you redefining the way your teams collaborate to include everyone?

Pierre Boulez famously said: “Revolutions are only celebrated when they are no longer dangerous”. Perhaps this revolution hasn’t even got started yet. Perhaps this revolution is too polite, too closeted. Perhaps it hasn’t got dangerous enough yet…

I believe that Cooperative Learning provides a template for us to seriously consider fixing our issues of Gender Imbalance and Diversity. To desegregate. Many of our workplaces are optimised for one, common culture. In the UK the corporate workplace is almost patently optimised for white, educated, men, but around the world you will find that most organisations are staffed by people from the same local cultures, educational standards and language and leaves anyone who doesn’t quite fit the type to struggle to be heard, to be paid correctly, or to simply rise.

You may not have noticed, but ‘self-management’ or hierarchy free management systems are a new hope. Some organisations, especially those entrepreneurial start-ups keen to own the rules of their destiny are employing hierarchy free management frameworks. The most spotlighted of these is ‘Holacracy’ — developed by Brian Robertson and his HolacracyOne Team (though many other permutations are brilliantly profiled by Frederic Laloux in ‘Reinventing Organisations’ .

Self-Management is Cooperative Learning for Grown Ups that need to collaborate and comes resplendent with a promise to optimise individuals and provide the foundations for teams to truly share a purpose and a method to support themselves and each other. If this can be achieved, understanding more about the needs of parents, people with differing religious observances, cultural foundations or physical disabilities becomes a far easier and more tangible task.

It’s understandable here to box-off our thinking, only reflecting our discussions on the business landscape and the potential outcomes of new management culture that demands equality — but there are also many other types of groups where people from differing backgrounds need to quickly build alliances, as well as understand and collaborate with each other. Sports teams, PTA Groups, Residents Associations, Community Groups, even families. If a world is to be perceived where issues of Gender Imbalance and Diversity are eradicated, we should feel able to join any group of people at any time of our lives and be able to cooperate effectively with the other contributors immediately. Perhaps, if we can learn to effectively self-manage we can move between any group we wish with a grounding communication structure that transcends the language you speak, the skin you’re born with, your orientation, your age or your beliefs.

We’re better together, and it’s redesigned culture that will save us.

Tim Hole is a Performance Development Specialist at Zeitgeist Labs