cover story: DANIEL DANSO

What have you done to make it different?

di Valentina Dolciotti

London. The Pride Parade took place a week ago and yet the air we breathe, under this hot and unexpected sun, is full of freedom. Streets are covered with banners, flags, hymns. Palaces aredecorated with rainbow colors and shops display brands, slogans and products in praise of LGBT+ pride and rights. Soho’s and Carnaby’s roads are irreverent, Covent Garden is always elegantly gay and along the huge noisy Strand rainbow flags are waving. Michela and I have arrived in the City with our chins pointed towards the sky, surrounded by skyscrapers that shine in the sun on this Monday in July. Linklaters’ office is gorgeous and here is where we’ll meet Daniel Danso for the first time. Daniel Danso is Linklaters’ Global Diversity Manager, charming, radiant, welcoming. I’m happy we have flown here just to meet him.

My name’s Daniel Danso, I was born in Los Angeles California. I had a rich pallet of experiences to draw upon because of my family and those experiences helped me to find my passion for understanding the world’s diversity, and the things we need to do to create an equal and inclusive environment, workplace and society. My mum was one of 11 children, 5 girls and 6 boys. They were from an extremely poor part of Atlanta, Georgia.

In the south!

In the south, which had and continues to have many challenges for African Americans. In the 50’s, when my mum was very young, my grandmother, without any money, took 11 children across the country and established a new home in California.
She told me about how different spaces welcomed them and the environments where they weren’t welcomed. It’s hard to look back at that time and think it’s in the past when looking at the current situation with race and economics in the USA today. Even today in 2019, consider the things that we (African Americans) have to deal with just to be seen as normal in society. We can be killed by police without justice, white people can call the police on us for being in restaurants, public universities and even our own back yards, and we can get degrees from the top universities and still have the same job prospects of white kids without college degrees. The civil rights movement happened during my mon’s generation, and by the time I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s, the idea of “race” was still quite vitriolic. In a post-civil rights America, the aspiration of a unified “America” was juxtaposed with a large portion of society that still had discriminatory beliefs. When I was growing up I saw the marginalisation that we went through because we were black. I didn’t know it then, but I also saw the marginalisation that my mum and my aunts went through because they were women.

And them, they were black and women!

Black and women. And when I got into college I learned about other theories like intersectionality and all of the different things I learned that now I understand were about “Diversity and Inclusion” but back then I just saw oppression.

When were you born?

I was born in 1972 and growing up in LA was interesting. When I was in school I did well like everyone does well. I was dyslexic though and didn’t realise that I was dyslexic until I was getting my Master’s degree, so I made it through secondary school, high school, college and nobody had, at that point, really tested us. They either said that we had ADHD, we can’t concentrate…They don’t want to figure you out, they just want to give you some medication. I think there was a secondary challenge with that because I was in school with teachers, professors, leaders who had a definite responsibility to help shepherd not only my own aspirations, but to point me in the right direction. When you have people that are in those positions that are saying “you won’t make it because you are xyz”. What can I do? I was a kid, so I listened to the adults, and they said I was dumb, so I thought I was dumb. I thought I just had to work harder than everyone else. In my 30s, I go and get tested, and it turns out I’m dyslexic, so I could have had years of help. But, I made it on my own anyway, which is what a lot of people do in today’s world. We learn to “code switch” and code switching is a technique that we have developed over years of going into a situation, analysing very quickly which aspects of ourselves don’t fit and then we change those things so for me…

You had to adapt.

Yes, I had to survive and to fit some of the very exclusive spaces. Everything from how “black” I am, to how “gay” I am, to how “Disabled” I am, all depending on the situation, I could never just be me.
I sounded differently than what they “expected” black people to sound like, so when I go into meetings and they’ve heard me on the phone, they usually think I am white because in their minds they are expecting a black person to sound very different, as if we don’t speak English correctly, or don’t have that capacity and so I code switch. I am also gay, so coming up in society when there weren’t gay bars on every street corner. We didn’t have all the legislative protections, there weren’t groups like Stonewall or Parks. Even in the workplace, very real career-limiting imbalances exist for LGBT+ staff in a variety of global locations. And yet, businesses could do really well in some of Industry benchmarks and all of those different awards that businesses could achieve, and never once have to mention gay people or the LGBT community, or disability & mental health. This thing that we call “Diversity” back then, was only about what you see about a person, and not how they experience the world because of a variety of factors. Skin colour, physical gender, physical disabilities, etc. are obvious markers of difference and as different spaces developed, different aspects of diversity became more prominent, but when I was a kid, Diversity was race and gender.

And today?

People are recognising that “D&I” is multifaceted and that Diversity will vary, and Inclusion is a choice. And I get to be a part of that process. But I started with a very different career in mind. I was a singer, I was in a lot of shows in and around LA, I sang throughout high school, did a lot of different tours around the world with different groups. I got into university very late because I was performing a lot and the time didn’t allow for it/. but as I got older, I realised that entertaining was an avenue I really wanted to study. So, I Went to University at the ripe old age of 27.

In your family, are you the only one who studied?

No, my mum she was getting her MBA when I was in high school. I was at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA as a Music major but that all changed in my first year. I took an elective course that I thought would be easy, to help me kind of fill out my coursework. This “easy” course instead turned out to be one of the hardest things that I had ever gone through, and it impacted me so much that I changed my major. It was Women’s History.

Wooooow

I learned about gender imbalance, I learned about how words will mean different things for men and women. Think about the word “Aggressive”. If you say a guy is aggressive it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if a woman is aggressive it’s never good.
The most powerful thing I learned about was intersectionality. I learned that we exist in multiple spaces at the same time, and if we don’t understand our diversity most people will only see their disadvantages, they don’t see their benefits. With intersectionality, as a black guy, hopefully people will support me because of what I will go through because of my race. As a gay guy, hopefully they will support me because of what I may go through because of who I love. But as a man, I can champion any woman’s equality because I don’t have the same barriers that she does. I only get to know that if I understand my own diversity. I studied women’s history because it was an oppression that I could empathise with but that I didn’t have myself. I learned 3 huge things from university. One my own diversity because I will understand where I need help and when I can support. The second thing is: we live in multiple spaces at the same time, so I can have masculine benefit and at the same time have racial prejudice. And the third thing was, some of the most powerful messages of inclusion come from people who are not part of the group they’re fighting for.

Our allies.

Yes, allies are supremely important, and Involving them in this debate, will see change happen. plenty of white people marched on Washington During American Civil Rights, straight peopled voted to give their LGBT+ neighbours the same right to marry in some places, and some men have been in the gender equality debate since the start. University was mind-blowing for me.

So you graduated from UCLA with Bachelors in women’s studies…

And I did a double major sociology and I did a minor in LGBT studies. I did a semester in London and loved it because I got to see the world away from US media, and got a sense of how big the rest of the world was, because I knew that the American story of diversity wasn’t the only story. After UCLA, I went to London School of Economics and got a master’s degree in gender and the media. I learned that when we talk about how we communicate this topic to people, we’ve got to talk to the minority and the majority too.

In fact, gender question is not only a feminine issue

This is about both. I found out in women’s studies that just like women are labelled “primary carer”, which has a whole host of limiting and debilitating factors to it, men are labelled “provider” which has just as many, but we don’t talk about those things. It’s why men have a tough time taking flexible working because providing is this psychological barrier that says your entire family’s livelihood is on your salary.

The male breadwinner

Yes! It’s old school economic and social patriarchy. Men have societal pressures to be the bread winner, it is reinforced in a variety of spaces from childhood through to adulthood. It’s societal, cultural, sometimes even religiously taught that there are certain “rights” to “being a MAN”. That image has been “normalised” in film and television and now on the internet. This is one reason why men have a hard time generally disclosing stress and other “weaknesses”. It is then built into the idea that nothing can threaten a man’s ability to work full-time as it’s at the detriment of the family; not helping to manage the family (aka woman’s work); not relationships; not illness; not even declining mental health. The expectation is that women occupy lesser positions. As women “won” rights, it suddenly became clear that they have ambitions outside of the home. And now, women enter into systems like the workplace, that didn’t think someone would “need” to balance life and work. The systems are designed with anything other than affluent men can truly be successful. So, women won’t get to perform equally. How can women compete with that imbalance? But it’s starting to change in Business, D&I is a critical driver now and more people are engaging in the debate.

Let’s talk about D&I in business, and in your firm especially

Diversity is probably one of the most powerful weapons that a business has at actually maximising the potential of the people that are in it, but also of the performance of that business. We have taken the time to create a structure and approach that gets the local perspective across. We are showing people how to view their own diversity so and to build an environment where people can challenge, and their voices are heard. We educated our global workforce over the last few years on D&I, Bias, and the steps to Build an inclusive culture. I personally design and deliver all the firm’s D&I-specific training and awareness. Three times now I have visited every country to engage and train our offices, using local knowledge and examples to make it make sense. We have increased the promotion rates of women to senior positions and were the first Magic Circle Law Firm to go public with aspirational targets for gender balance. Our focus on systemic change meant that I needed to get our Partnership on board with what the Firm would potentially go through during this process. Our Board now have ownership of individual aspects of our strategy, they are reverse-mentored by young diverse people from across the globe, so they keep their finger on the pulse of the firm. We built a system of “Diversity Partner” roles in each location, so that as I work with HR across the globe to interpret our strategy, they engage with the other partners to ensure that things progress. Linklaters D&I vision is not the norm for Italian companies. usually, there will be people doing role similar to mine, but it’s a subject that is added on to already existing roles.

You have “only” this role at Linklaters?

Yes, that’s my full role. They kind of needed a different approach, and I chose Linklaters because, of all the places that I had seen, they were, as a law firm, prepared to say that they didn’t know everything. And that is rare. They had some ideas, but they left me completely open with their support, if it fits the trajectory of the business. In a year, we wrote our first real Global D&I strategy which had 3 aims to get everybody in the firm to understand their diversity, how they’re in this, how they’re affected by it but how they can use it. The 2nd element was to find local relevance because I needed Asia, Jakarta, I needed Singapore, I needed Hong Kong to tell me what diversity was there. The objective was to find out what that means and then choose something that will fit. And the 3rd thing was ensuring that our foundation was solid. I spent the first year trying to learn the firm.

When you arrived here?

In 2013. I developed unconscious bias training and that was the vehicle for our strategy, getting everybody to understand how they fit but also understanding the roots of bias, how normal this stuff is. If you’re conscious of that you may be able to stop it. It’s a very simple message.

I don’t think so

It is when you get to the basics of what D&I is trying to do. First, we focused on gender. And while it hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t all been comfortable, everything that we’ve done has been about making this business the best that it can be. For example, we’re saying just “make it okay” for disabled people to come in and some people ask the cost? Well, if it was you though, would costs matter or would you just hope we did it? We knew that it was going to be a long game because we had to change our own culture, we had to change the way people thought about it, but we also had to change the processes potentially that some people went through. So, we knew it was going to be a long game. It’s great to see that there was that nuance between the things that we could have effect like how people experienced this place and the things that we could have, whether or not they chose to leave.

You have lost some people during this journey?

Yes, and I think it’s natural with any journey. It’s not like we were a horrible firm and all a suddenly, we’re amazing. It is simply that we have a better understanding of diversity it is making our approach to things which traditionally weren’t about diversity, better. We have made our business better because we understand how people experience it. And that’s through Diversity. We back that up with leaders who are skilled, passionate and trying to lead their own partner cohort. We create the right platforms for people to get involved. My job now is to make sure we are all saying the same thing though and it’s a beautiful problem to have.

Yes. One more question. Does inclusion require also political change or effort?

I’ll answer this from the stand point of an individual and then from the stand point of the business because they could be very linked or they could be very different. I mean, for the individual, the personal is always political if it’s got something to do with you or something to do with another person and how they experience the world. We must make a stand because it’s not okay any more just to be non-discriminatory or say, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, woman, gay as long as you can do the job.” You’ve got to be actively inclusive. Businesses on the other hand, have got to deal with the reality of the world and the environment that they’re in. They must deal with the risks of trying to create an equal society. Not everyone wants that to happen. I think that business has got to decide what it wants to be and the legacy it wants to make. But I would suggest that businesses remain flexible because they’ve got to work in whatever regime is in power, and those things change; laws change.. Businesses have got to be adaptable whether “this is the right thing to do” or “there’s the right business case” for it. And believe me, much of the debate is wasted on triviality, but while that’s happening, the rest of us are trying to move things.

Thank you, Daniel. Oh, we need a prime minister in Italy… if you are available

I’m coming, I’m here! right now!

PUBLISHED ON DIVERCITY IV, SEPT 2019

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