Will Wilkinson wants more people to be more like Will Wilkinson

Perhaps you’ve read the blog post in which new media thinker Clay Shirky called on women to be more like men in being over-ambitious professionally, and not hesitating to be a little obnoxious in getting what they want. I loved the post.

Will Wilkinson responded by writing that it perplexed him. Because, after all, if men get ahead at least in part by being obnoxious, isn’t the problem with men? Shouldn’t we be calling on men to be more feminine, rather than women to be more masculine? That’s a perfectly valid argument. The only problem is that over here in the real world, that’s not how life works.

Will cites approvingly The American Prospect‘s Ann Friedman, who writes :

Just as self-defense classes are not a solution to the problem of campus rape, self-advancement classes will not, on their own, improve things for women in the professional world.

That’s actually a great comparison. Self-defense classes are like ambition for women in that they actually work.

I don’t know about anyone else, but ever since I got married, I think a lot about women, and the role women play in society. Because of my wife, of course, but most importantly, because of the daughters I will one day (inch’Allah) have.

Every time I think about women, or “women’s issues”, I think about my daughters.

We lived for centuries in a world where technology and culture limited women’s possibilities. But sadly today, in the West, the most limiting factor in women’s economic fortunes is women themselves. For example, women without children have the same salaries as their male counterparts.

The idea that my daughters might, for just one second in their life, think that their potential is less than that of a man, that their horizons might be limited, fills me with a mixture of pain, sadness and fury.

Shirky’s post addresses this by calling on women to level the playing field with men. What I liked most about it is that it’s pragmatic. It doesn’t put forward a grand theory of gender backed by partial studies in neurology or genetics or psychology or cognition or astrology. It simply draws simple lessons from everyday observations: women don’t do nearly as much as men to advance themselves, and they should. EDIT: Nor does Shirky claim that this would solve all the problems women face in the workplace. But it’s a good starting place.

Will’s high-minded response fails at a simple reality test. We can’t ask men to not be obnoxious when advancing themselves for the same reason that Iran won’t give up developing nuclear weapons just because it would be nice.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Bill Gates’ testimony in the case of United States v. Microsoft:

He argued with examiner David Boies over the contextual meaning of words like “compete”, “concerned” and “we”. (…) As to his demeanor during the deposition, [Gates later] said, “Did I fence with Boies? … I plead guilty. Whatever that penalty is should be levied against me: rudeness to Boies in the first degree.”

This is a man who is cornered, who might be lose the company he spent 20 years to build, and he doesn’t give an inch. He fights tooth and nail, to the point of absurdity. Well, that’s not very nice. Perhaps we should make it so that men like that are nicer. But if Bill Gates was a nicer guy, we wouldn’t have a nicer Microsoft, and he wouldn’t be a nicer Bill Gates. He wouldn’t be Bill Gates at all. Some other guy who every once in a while acts like a bastard would be Bill Gates. Maybe this guy.

Will is a stalwart defender of free markets, God bless him, but free markets are based on competition. And the reason why competition works is because the people who win competitions are, well, competitive. That’s what all that stuff about animal spirits is all about. What Will is proposing is a sort of cultural socialism, where those who have more drive are coerced into toning down so that the rest can catch up. I don’t think that would work much better than socialism in other areas.

So yes, actually, women need to man up. You don’t show up with a knife for a gunfight.

And I intend to equip my daughters with rocket launchers.