Bonobos founder Andy Dunn explains the biggest mistake men make about feminism

Bonobos founder Andy Dunn explains the biggest mistake men make about feminism
Image: Andy Dunn
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Annoyed that he couldn’t find a pair of well-tailored chinos, Andy Dunn created the menswear company Bonobos in 2007. In 2017, Walmart acquired the company for $310 million.

It was an uncommonly good outcome. But what really sets Dunn, 39, apart from other successful entrepreneurs is his interest in talking publicly about insecurities—both his own and those of men in general.

“Being macho isn’t what makes a man, it is being vulnerable,” Dunn recently wrote on Medium, where he regularly analyzes the pitfalls of masculinity. “Poker-faced is easy. Emotive is hard. Stonewalling is easy. Engaging —when you are flooded with emotions—is hard.”

Vulnerability and self-awareness aren’t just extracurricular interests for Dunn. In a Bonobos marketing campaign called #EvolveTheDefinition, his team asked dozens of high-profile men to go on camera and share their definitions of masculinity:

Last month, Dunn stepped down as CEO of Bonobos to focus on his role as senior vice president of digital brands at Walmart, a title he’s held since Bonobos was acquired.

In conversation with Quartz, Dunn explains why he regrets arguing with a female colleague, how tribalism and polarization threaten men today, and why it’s men—not women—who we need to be willing to offend.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

While I did used to think about it, the discussions that Me Too catalyzed between my wife and I took it to a whole new level. For International Women’s Day this past year, I wrote a story about my grandmother, who was a child bride, highlighting both how far we have come and how far we have to go. My wife, Manuela, that night said to me, “I don’t want to be compared to a child bride. I want what you have. I want your male privilege.” It was after midnight. I asked her what to do with the essay. She said, “Why you don’t you just write about all the times you’ve gotten it wrong?” That led to [the essay] Swimming in Privilege, where I thought I’d talk about five times I have experienced male privilege. By sunrise, I had written 17 examples.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

Yes. The main mistake I made was in thinking that feminism was only about thinking progressively. It’s actually about doing, and putting those thoughts into action.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

I recently joined the board of the Network for Executive Women, representing Walmart. I’m excited to roll up my sleeves, learn, listen, and do the work.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

Tribalism and polarization.  We have become good at seeing our differences over our similarities. Sharpening those differences is not going to bring us together. This is not just a threat to men in America, it’s a threat to all of us. What’s challenging is that those differences are interlaced with highly diverging opinions on issues critical to gender equality. We don’t need stronger forces on either side—we need peacemakers and people who can forge compromise, without compromising their principles. Those people are in short supply. They will arrive, and they will come from this next generation.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

I have recently started, mostly pushing at the senior levels to affect change. Data is powerful, but I think opinions, feelings, and hypotheses matter too. The biggest challenges are: coming off as condescending, or pedantic, and feeling like a fraud. Then again, those are the risks we need to take to get the conversation rolling, to ask the hard questions, and to challenge each other.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

While I feel I see things more clearly now, I have a lot of regret for not having begun my career this way. I missed a lot of opportunities, in retrospect, to be an equalizer. And I live with the knowledge that I’m still going to get it wrong.

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

That while I try to take a proactive role in trying to contribute to putting feminism into action and become more of that equalizer, I’m no better than any man for it. I think they know that, though.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

Get over it. Speak louder. The alternative is to go away, or go quietly. After a long history of men oppressing women, it is the men, not the women, who we need to be willing to offend. We have to weather those critiques from other men and be willing to take them on. If we’re not, then we’re not doing enough.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

One time I spent a long evening arguing with a female colleague about how women hold each other down at work and men lift each other up. Such gender stereotyping is not only untrue, it’s unhelpful; it blames women’s predicament of gender inequality on women. I can’t think of a more inaccurate or worse thing to do than to abdicate responsibility for men and heap more on top of women, as if there weren’t already enough. At the Network for Executive Women conference I just attended, I saw a more supportive atmosphere amongst men and women than I’ve ever seen before at any conference.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

Best advice I’ve received: “You catch more flies with honey.” Meaning, it’s better to motivate through recognition and praise than it is through fear and criticism.

Best advice I could give: Listen to the women around you. Be curious about their realities. Don’t question them. Don’t immediately try to solve anything. Just hear it. Only then can the work begin.