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Ford Foundation chief Darren Walker on the benefits for men who live with empathy

Darren Walker
By Leah Fessler, Kemi Lijadu
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Darren Walker is in the business of hope. Raised in rural Texas with limited means, his career path cut across industries including law and investment banking, and has culminated in philanthropy. Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the United States, with an endowment of upwards of $12 billion and about $600 million in annual grant making.

In 2015, two years into his tenure, he made an announcement that shook the philanthropy world. The Ford Foundation would change the way it gives, so that all grants would be geared toward dismantling inequality in its myriad forms.

From the get-go Walker has emphasized the importance of addressing global gender inequality, thus investing in girls and women across the globe. A recent example is the foundation’s role as a founding partner in the Girls First Fund, a donor collaborative to end child marriage. (Every year, 12 million girls are married before they reach their 18th birthdays).

In this interview with Quartz, Walker explains how the Me Too movement strengthened his commitment to creating a more just world, why you shouldn’t need to look to your personal connections with girls or women to be a feminist, and why the journey toward progress is not a comfortable one.

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?

I’m a gay black man who grew up in the American south, so I’ve been acutely aware of discrimination since I was a child. That also means I’ve been intimately acquainted with the ways discriminations intersect—whether related to race, gender, class, sexuality, or some perceived clash between them. We’ve seen a lot of progress when it comes to entrenched sexism and homophobia and racism in this country, but there are still so many unresolved issues and deep-rooted inequalities we have yet to really grapple with. These issues are everywhere, and so of course they manifest in the workplace.

The Me Too movement has really underscored for me the courage it takes to speak truth to power—and the necessity of it. So many of the women who have stood up and told their stories have done so despite serious personal risk, and have faced some really disturbing, and at times discouraging, backlash. That’s heroic. It’s through that kind of bravery that change happens. It’s incredibly important for men to stand with women as allies, to show that gender-based inequality is everyone’s problem, and fixing it is a collective responsibility.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
No inequality or injustice exists in isolation.

I proudly identify as a feminist. How could I not? Feminism is simply the understanding that women are full and equal people, deserving of equal rights and opportunity. My feminism means addressing inequality in all its forms, because no inequality or injustice exists in isolation. That’s why it’s important to tackle the underlying structures and narratives that undermine fairness and equity. It’s not just about addressing individual problems, but the larger systems that enable them.

On a personal note, I was raised and always surrounded by strong women, all of them powerful in their own ways, despite their struggles. But it’s not just about looking to the women in our own lives to understand why feminism matters. As a culture, we should be able to recognize the principle that all people deserve to live with dignity, without needing to look to our personal connections for proof.

3. What do you do on a daily  basis to advance gender equality?
I’ve committed to never being a part of a panel without gender diversity.

At the Ford Foundation, we have put policies in place that emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion in hiring decisions as well as in our overall workplace culture, because we believe it’s important to model the kind of change we want to see in the world. This isn’t always easy. But the challenge of it is important, and I think quite telling. We have to recognize that gender inequality is a pervasive problem with a long history of being ignored, and from there, take concrete steps to fight bias, including our own implicit bias. The goal is a workplace, and a world, that is richer because it respects and reflects the ideas and experiences of all people.

While policies matter, culture matters, too. In staff meetings, managers need to ensure that women speak up. And we have to demand equity. For example, I’m shocked at the number of all-male conference panels. I’ve committed to never being a part of a panel without gender diversity. It happens far too often, and it’s simply unacceptable in 2018. It feels like a small but important step, and one I hope other men, and members of other over-represented groups, will consider taking, too.

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

The way we’ve constructed our idea of masculinity is extremely harmful. Culturally, we’ve defined maleness in ways that limit and preclude men from being open, vulnerable, and authentic. As a black gay man, I see how this manifests in being on the “down low”—the phenomenon of men “passing” for straight because of cultural pressures and expectations to conform to an idea of black masculinity. While this issue isn’t limited to black men, it’s quite acute because of the constrained ways we’ve defined masculinity that prevent the full growth and development of men.

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?
People do get defensive, but increasingly, silence is complicity.

I do, yes. I think it’s important to call people out when you see bad behavior, whether it’s among colleagues or peers or close friends. The Me Too movement shows us the importance of speaking up, and men’s role in that is to speak up among other men, in spaces that are too often assumed to be kind of “safe spaces” for sexism. Sexism persists precisely because men don’t speak out about it, because it’s uncomfortable. The journey toward progress can be uncomfortable.

The same is true for calling out racism, or any kind of prejudice. These conversations are hard to have, but change starts by talking honestly to the people you know.

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

That I need to be more vigilant about creating a world of gender equality.

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

I would hope they know that I am committed to realizing a more just and fair world, that I come to work every day with that goal in mind. That I hear them. And that I’m listening.

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?

I would tell them what I have told some of them: Welcome to the 21st century. I know it’s important to meet people where they are. But I admit it can be hard to be patient with people who have this idea that they “can’t win.” It’s not about winning. This is not a zero-sum game. I’d challenge them to look closely at what they think they’re “losing,” and why.

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?

I wouldn’t have assumed that because my organization is a progressive social-justice foundation that we wouldn’t have the same issues of gender bias present in other organizations.

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

Men who live with empathy for others live longer and happier lives.

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