“Weaponized incompetence” — or “strategic incompetence” — is wearing women out, especially during the pandemic.
https://www.huffpost.com-By Brittany Wong
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images
Weaponized incompetence has long been a problem for women in the workforce and at home. Now there’s just a word for it.
“Weaponized incompetence”: It came on like a whisper on TikTok, then you couldn’t escape hearing the phrase across the app and on other social media sites.
Weaponized incompetence ― or “strategic incompetence” as it’s sometimes called ― is the act of feigning incompetence at any one task (though usually an unpleasant one) to get out of doing it. When someone deploys strategic incompetence, their hope is that someone else will stare them down and say with a huff, “Fine, it’s easier for me to do it anyway!”
When a woman jokingly shared her grocery list for her husband ― a list that included pictures of items and a meticulous hand-drawn map of the store ― it went viral, but for all the wrong reasons: The comment section was flooded with shouts of “weaponized incompetency.”
“I literally do not find the, ‘my husband can’t properly grocery shop’ stories to be cute or funny,” one woman on Twitter said, referencing something that indeed has become a subgenre of humor on the internet. “It’s a dealbreaker to me.”
In another video that made the rounds on TikTok, user @ebonie_qt reacted to a video showing a husband napping after telling his wife he’d “watch” their baby while she showered.
“I never knew there was a term for [weaponized incompetency] until TikTok, I just knew I always hated seeing shit like this,” she said. “You know where the wife asks the husband to do a simple chore that she usually does on a daily frickin’ basis? And he’s either obtuse in doing it the wrong way or he’s just completely negligent and half-assing the task such as this guy right here?”
The hashtag for “weaponized incompetence” currently has 53.5 millions views on TikTok. Conversations on the Gen-Z-beloved app have spurred more in-depth threads on Twitter and plenty of riled-up think pieces.
Some women have noted that the phenomenon plays out in friendships, too, when one friend shoulders all the responsibility for group get-togethers. Some have gone so far as to link it to the orgasm gap: Men aren’t incapable of making a woman come, the thinking goes, they’re just weaponizing ignorance.
Many are noting that the dynamic is ever-present in the workforce, where women or younger workers are expected to pick up the slack and finish tasks others are unwilling or conveniently “bad” at doing.
Unsurprisingly, most of the exasperation and “I feel seen” comments have been voiced by women. As a pop psychology idea, “weaponized incompetence” was bound to go viral during the pandemic, given the duress women have been under at home and in the workplace.
According to a McKinsey poll conducted with LeanIn.org, since the onset of the pandemic, mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to shoulder the majority of household and parenting labor. And they’re 1.5 times more likely than dads to spend an extra three or more hours on chores and child care.
“The pandemic became a breaking point for domestic inequalities in adult relationships, and viral media reactions created viral conversations,” said Sarah Spencer Northey, a marriage and family therapist based in Washington, D.C.
Even before the pandemic hit the U.S., a Gallup study from early 2020 showed that even among egalitarian-minded millennial couples, it’s gender rather than the earnings of individuals that shapes the division of household labor.
Husbands, boyfriends and new dads tend to fall back into their fathers’ and grandfathers’ ideas about how things get done domestically: “I’ll take care of the [relatively] few tasks that need to be done outside; you handle the inside of the house and the lion share of child care.”
“On a surface level, it looks like you’re just nagging about chores to a person who ‘defers’ to your ‘competence.’ But on a deeper level, you’re experiencing not being able to trust and turn to your partner for support.”
– Sarah Spencer Northey, marriage and family therapist
Though it’s not always purposeful ― surely, some people just can’t cook a good meal to save their lives ― it certainly can be, Northey said. At its most pernicious, the therapist thinks weaponized incompetence can come from a deep belief that doing the task is beneath the person.
“It’s a passive-aggressive way of putting that labor back on the person you don’t respect enough to step up for,” she said.
Pretending you don’t know how to manage basics like shopping, cooking and housekeeping is a great way to ensure that a labor imbalance that largely benefits you stays imbalanced.
“The impact on a partner over time is devastating,” Northey said. “It can make you feel crazy because on a surface level it looks like you’re just nagging about chores to a person who ‘defers’ to your ‘competence.’ But on a deeper level, you’re experiencing not being able to trust and turn to your partner for support.”
Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, who mostly works with men, told HuffPost he sees the relationship pattern playing out so much, he has his own term for it: “Faking incompetence.”
“For instance, I worked with a man who claimed he couldn’t put diapers on his child,” he said. “They would always fall off right away so he used this as justification for why he couldn’t help his partner change diapers.”
Of course, women are guilty of weaponized incompetence, too.
“I’ve worked with people ― many who were women, but not all ― who’ve claimed, ‘I’m not good with numbers’ to explain why they couldn’t be a part of managing household finances,” Smith said.
But by and large, it’s women who are conditioned to stare down a mess and figure it’s “easier” to just do it all themselves.
Nateli De Lara, a small business owner in Oregon, has seen both her little brother and her boyfriend default to weaponized incompetence to get out of doing something unpleasant.
“Personally, I believe a lot of it has to do with how someone is raised,” she told HuffPost. “When I talk to other women about it, it has to do with men being coddled by their mothers. Some say it has to do with cultures as well, and that may be the case sometimes, [but] it isn’t always; my mom is white and my husband’s mom is Latino,” she said, implying that both women experienced it.
Growing up, De Lara said she was doing dishes by the age of eight and doing laundry, vacuuming and cleaning the house as a preteen. Meanwhile, her 14-year-old brother still has their mother doing his laundry. He rarely washes his own dishes and never cooks for himself, claiming “he doesn’t know how to do it,” she said.
When he comes to stay with De Lara and her husband, he “magically knows” how to do all that and more, she said. (She hears her brother is suddenly capable of doing “adult things” when he stays at their dad’s house every other weekend, too.)
“It’s clear that my brother has figured out how to manipulate our mother, so he doesn’t have to do the task,” she said. “The sad thing is, when he finds a partner one day, he will most likely do the same thing to them.”
“I would ask [my partner] to clean the bathroom on his day off, I would come home to it not done and him saying, ‘Well you like it done a certain way, I just can’t do it.’”
– Nateli De Lara, small business owner in Oregon
When De Lara moved in with her now-husband, she discovered he pulled some of the same tricks.
“I would ask him to clean the bathroom on his day off and then I would come home to it not done and him saying, ‘Well you like it done a certain way, I just can’t do it,’” De Lara said. “I would try to teach him and he always ‘forgot’ how to do it.”
To his credit, he’s working on it.
“He really pushed back for a while, but once I started showing him other women who go through the same thing and they talk about how they feel, he started to see the issue.”
A failure to wash dishes resulted in writer Matthew Fray landing a book deal. In 2016, Fray wrote a viral blog for HuffPost titled “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By The Sink.”
“[My wife] didn’t want to be my mother,” Fray wrote in the blog. “She wanted to be my partner, and she wanted me to apply all of my intelligence and learning capabilities to the logistics of managing our lives and household. She wanted me to figure out all of the things that need [to be] done and devise my own method of task management. I wish I could remember what seemed so unreasonable to me about that at the time.”
Fray, whose book “This Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships” is due out in March, now works as a relationship coach, helping other men course-correct before they blow up their marriages.
“There’s nothing wrong with ignorance. A person can’t know what they don’t know. But there is something very wrong with willful ignorance,” says Matthew Fray, the author of the upcoming book “This Is How Your Marriage Ends.”
Fray’s not entirely comfortable with the term “weaponized” because it suggests some form of manipulation, and he says most of the men he works with aren’t actively looking to cause their partners consternation.
But still, he wants the men he coaches to know that shirking responsibilities time and time again will corrode your spouse’s trust in you.
“In my case, it was an item of laundry on a piece of bedroom furniture,” he said. “Giving gifts that failed to consider something meaningful that she had shared with me previously. Saying or doing things in the company of others that failed to consider how she’d feel about it afterward.”
Of course, these aren’t unique behaviors, he said. “They’re more or less the everyday blueprint for eroding trust with our partners and destabilizing previously healthy and functional relationships.”
As Fray sees it, the problem isn’t ignorance. “A person can’t know what they don’t know. But there is something very wrong with willful ignorance. Willful ignorance is weaponized ignorance,” he said.
At work, women deal with weaponized incompetence, too.
It may have taken a pandemic to make “weaponized incompetence” go viral, but it’s something that women have discussed behind closed doors at the office for a long time, said Melanie Ho, an organizational consultant and the author of “Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equity and What Organizations Are Up Against.”
“In a previous job, I had a group of female co-workers where we’d joke about our ‘gendered task of the day’ every time we did something that wasn’t an official responsibility but that women did to disproportionate extent,” she said.
Like in the home, the pandemic exacerbated things.
A study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company suggested that women leaders and managers took on even more invisible work during the pandemic. As the researchers explained, women take necessary tasks that benefit office culture but are often seen as “office housework.”
Fixing this dynamic might require helping an employee with a new baby deal with work-life challenges, ensuring that everyone’s workloads are manageable during the pandemic, or championing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs.
Everyone has been asked to do more with less during the pandemic, but for women, there’s often an unspoken expectation that they will seek out or recognize and gratefully take on additional tasks and responsibilities, said Melody Wilding, author of “Trust Yourself” and executive coach to sensitive high-achievers.
“For example, I coach a number of female leaders who have been expected to assume management of entire teams after a colleague left, without being granted a raise, promotion, or more resources,” she told HuffPost.
The extra emotional labor is “unbearably draining,” Wilding said.
One study found that during the pandemic, women leaders took on more “office housework” than their male peers.
But it’s not just the “invisible work,” like making sure a new hire gets acclimated to office life, that male employees seem to evade.
Alexandra, a 30-year-old in Mexico City who used to work in the destination management industry, said she lost count of the times her bosses couldn’t get their heads around tasks that in many cases, they had originally taught her how to do.
“With one boss, he’d botch the formatting for a new line item in a contract so horribly, someone always had to go in and redo the whole thing,” she told HuffPost by email. “Another boss ― also a white middle aged man ― would consistently make price adjustment mistakes, meaning someone else on the team would have to correct each individual line item, and he was the one who taught me how to adjust the prices in the first place.”
In both instances, she and her co-workers eventually just gave up on the men. It was quicker to do it themselves.
“We knew that we couldn’t rely on them so we just took on their work,” she wrote.
“In the end that’s what weaponized incompetence is all about, manipulating others to do their work for them, except in the office you have a lot less power to confront your boss about these issues than you do at home.”
“It’s simply expected that women play this caretaking role, while men can be excused as ‘not good at that’ and permitted to focus elsewhere.”
– Melanie Ho, an organizational consultant
Ho said that some women she talks to bring up something she calls “shadow management”: when a supervisor neglects to support and develop their staff, and a colleague ends up filling in the gap by assuming extra mentoring or unofficial management responsibilities.
“Although this can occur with any gender, it’s more often a male manager neglecting his staff, and a female manager or other employee who’s picking up the slack,” Ho said. “It’s simply expected that women play this caretaking role, while men can be excused as ‘not good at that’ and permitted to focus elsewhere.”
How do we turn weaponized incompetence into competence?
The easiest way to curb weaponized incompetency is to call it out ― repeatedly and without reservations or worry that you’ll hurt someone’s feelings.
“You can take a different approach at different times, but don’t just accept it and be silent,” Smith said. “Too often partners ‘settle’ and ignore it to avoid conflict and frustration that comes from trying to reason with someone who’s not being reasonable.”
Emphasize that all you’re looking for is effort and that you want that effort made consistently.
Don’t be deterred “if they focus on their inability to do the task or claim the end product will be of poor quality,” he said.
Then, take a step back and trust that your partner is fully capable, or at least capable of learning any one chore that you’ve been doing.
If you’re the incompetent one, recognize that feigning ignorance or not taking the time to learn something is hurting your partner. He or she needs an adult partner — a fully capable peer, not a dependent.
Truly struggling to thoroughly wash the dishes or replace your car’s air filter because no one ever taught you? “How-to” videos on YouTube are a godsend.
In therapy, Sarah Spencer Northey reminds spouses that they’re a team: “Less work for you does not equal less work for the team. Less work for you often nets more work for the team when you look at it from that perspective.”
In the grand scheme of things, completing household chores and making sure your kid gets to the doctor on time are as important for keeping the love alive as having regular dates, physical intimacy or other ways of connecting.
“I’ve had a few couples where someone was highly motivated towards romantic gestures but less motivated to do chores,” Northey said. “When it was reframed as romantic and a way of showing love, it was easier to stay motivated to do it.”
If there’s a certain chore you hate, it’s OK to admit it and negotiate your shared household tasks list, the therapist said. Just don’t throw in the towel and give up.
“Try to think of yourself and your partner in a team or system context,” Northey said. “Less work for you does not equal less work for the team. Less work for you often nets more work for the team when you look at it from that perspective.”
In the workplace, it may take a little more finesse to call attention to workload imbalances and colleagues who shirk responsibilities. Still, it’s completely doable, Ho said.
Ho used the hypothetical example of a woman who, for years, has disproportionately been saddled with planning staff appreciation events. The task has been handed off to her so often, she knows how to do it like the back of her hand.
“Everyone decides that she should take on the continued responsibility, rather than having her colleagues get more practice so that it becomes as second nature to them as it is to her,” Ho said.
The woman’s colleagues no doubt realize it’s an easy feat for her to pull off these events. What they may not realize is how time-consuming it all still is, and that their co-worker is working an extra hour every night in the lead-up to the event, just so she can get her actual work done.
When calling attention to an imbalance like that, Ho said you have to tread softly and use the framework of “intent vs. impact.”
“When I’ve had discussions like this, I’ve told colleagues that I believe that their intent isn’t to take advantage of me, and they care about having an equitable workplace, but what they’re doing — their impact — isn’t matching their intent,” Ho said.
“The good intent is important to recognize, but it doesn’t negate the bad impact. And so they’ve got to change that.”
Then you can engage your co-workers in conversation about your current workloads and see what can be shifted around to balance the scales, Wielding said.
“Practice pushing back,” she said. “If you’re asked to take on an extra task in a meeting, you might say, ‘My plate is full at the moment. Maybe someone else has the bandwidth to fit this in?’”
If your colleagues don’t complete an assignment, don’t rush to fix it.
“People have to face the consequence of their actions in order to change,” Wielding said.
Culturally, there’s something we can do about weaponized incompetence, too: We can stop minimizing it. The internet’s tendency to laugh off woefully underdeveloped husbands is probably more harmful than we realize, Northey said.
“It’s not cute or funny. It’s unfair and stressful to women,” she said. “Partners need to be talking about putting their family system back into a fair balance. And we need to stop seeing the perpetuation of power imbalances as something to endure, and instead recognize it for the very real betrayal that it is.”