The Times yesterday ran some features on what it means to be a 21st century woman, which highlighted one of my gripes against a particular form of feminism - its elevation of ambition.
For example, Kathy Lette complained about the glass ceiling, Mary Beard decried the fact that it was not a compliment to call a woman ambitious, and Noreena Hertz advised young women: “Don’t feel guilty about striving for power.”
What all this omits is that ambition - in men and women - is a bad thing.
Now, to be clear, I do not mean ambition in pursuit of excellence. It’s admirable to want to be the best musician, athlete, economist or street-sweeper.
Instead, the problem is with ambition in the pursuit of what MacIntyre called the goods of effectiveness - power and wealth, the sort that Noreena advocates.
Such ambition can be corrosive for an organization. It encourages workers to invest in general skills - the sort that can be assessed by one’s superiors - rather than technical ones, with the result that average productivity declines. It causes us to regard our fellow workers as rivals rather than colleagues and so impedes the cooperation and open communication that is necessary for corporate success. It diverts effort away from productive effort towards zero- or negative-sum office politics. And it leads to the Peter Principle and its modern variant, Putt’s law.
Let’s put this another way. The skills you need to be a good senior manager are extremely - vanishingly - rare. You need to be good with people, a good decision theorist free from cognitive biases, able to process vast amounts of fragmentary and diverse information, and have some kind of grasp of a wide range of technical skills. Very few of us, if any, have such abilities. It follows that most people who aspire to top management jobs are ill-equipped to do them*. They are, therefore, guilty either of a lack of self-knowledge and over-confidence, or of appalling selfishness - they want the job even though it would damage the organization.
So, far from applauding ambition we should, in most cases, oppose it.
Of course, everything I’ve said applies to men’s ambition as well as women’s. So why pick on feminism? In one big sense we shouldn’t. But there are two things that worry me.
One is that this particular form of feminism helps to legitimate ambition. And people are never more ruthless than when they believe they have right on their side.
The other is that feminism - in this sense - is a diversion. In encouraging women to climb up hierarchies, it deflects attention from the question: should our economic and political life be structured hierarchically at all?
In this sense, one form of equality, equality of striving, displaces another more valuable form of it.
* I suppose you could defend an ambition of the sort “I’m not as bad as the other people who want the top job”, but I suspect very little of it takes this form.