Kaylene is a first year LLB Law student from Malaysia. Her interests are politics, feminism and racism against Asians. Outside of university, you can likely find her in a Waterstones or exploring London.
Weaponized incompetence, also sometimes known as strategic incompetence, is an old phrase coined many years ago that has been making a reappearance after several videos on the social media app, TikTok, went viral. One of these videos, which received over 1 million views, is of a woman creating an incredibly detailed grocery shopping list for her husband that includes pictures of the food items and a map of a grocery store. Although this was meant to be a heartwarming video about ‘married life humor’, the video sparked wide debate and criticism. This begs the question: Is the husband truly so incapable?
The answer? No, he is utilizing weaponized incompetence.
Weaponized incompetence has been defined as the act of feigning the inability to perform a certain task to get out of it. Some examples of weaponized incompetence include “You do it so much better than I can, why don’t you do it?” or “I can’t do it the way you like it done, can you do it?” or purposely doing a task badly so that you will not get asked to do it again.
This phenomenon has been observed predominantly in heterosexual relationships, with men commonly being the perpetrator and women being the victims. Although people in non-heterosexual relationships and women are also guilty of weaponized incompetence, this discussion will focus on its occurrence in heterosexual relationships.*
Weaponized incompetence affects women throughout all stages of life, although most women likely first witnessed weaponized incompetence within their family. It often starts with a differential treatment of daughters and sons. One woman discussed how at 8 years old she was doing multiple chores, yet at 14 years old, her brother claimed to be unable to cook or do the dishes when at their mother’s house but ‘magically knows’ how to when at their father’s. The cycle of taking womens’ labour for granted and even exploiting it starts from a young age and is thus very hard to break free from. As a result, weaponised incompetence is also frequent in personal relationships. This imbalance has become even more apparent due to the pandemic as the unequal burden of work cannot be disputed anymore when most people have been working from home for the past two years. Studies conducted during the lockdown showed that a majority of household labour amongst heterosexual couples predominantly fell on cis women.
Moreover, this issue is not exclusive to personal relationships but extends into the workplace. Women in the workplace have reported that there is an unsaid expectation for women to take on extra work for no benefit. Studies also support this as it was found that during the pandemic female leaders took on even more of a burden than usual. Some women discussed how simple tasks, some of which their boss had previously taught them, now fell to them as their bosses claimed they were ‘unable’ to do them or that they were careless and made mistakes when performing the task. In the end, the women just gave up because it was easier to just do the task themselves. Simply put, weaponized incompetence infiltrates every aspect of women’s lives.
‘Why should you care about weaponised incompetence?’
Weaponised incompetence is a very important issue because the imbalance of labour evidences an undervaluing and exploitation of a woman’s work. A post from the Huffington Post titled, ‘She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes By The Sink’ by Matthew Fray, articulates this very well. Fray never put his drinking glass or dishes into the dishwasher despite his wife asking him to and he never thought much of it. Although he did not realise it at the time, ‘every time she’d walk into the kitchen and find a drinking glass by the sink, she moved incrementally closer to moving out and ending our marriage.’ On the surface what seems like a simple chore, which could be easily done, greatly affects women. This imbalance of labour shows women their partner’s unwillingness to learn or contribute and proves that their time is not being valued.
In a relationship, women end up being expected to handle everything from the simplest things like planning the grocery shopping to raising children. This takes a toll on the relationship, builds resentment and frustration, and affects women’s mental and physical health. The consequence of weaponised incompetence in the workplace are also similar. Women are shown that they cannot rely on their male co-workers and that there is an unfair expectation of them taking up a caretaking role, even in the workforce. This burden is absolutely draining and exhausting.
There has been much discussion on how to tackle the issue of weaponized incompetence. Some suggestions range from women educating men, setting boundaries, and trying to help them become better in general. In these scenarios, the burden of correcting men’s behavior once again falls on women. However, as there is no simple way for women to just let go of all the work and allow things to fall apart, they also cannot just escape the cycle. To really change things, there needs to be a major shift in how society views weaponized incompetence. Instead of minimizing it or laughing on the Internet about men being incompetent, we should learn to take this problem seriously.
No woman woke up one day and knew how to do chores or how to take care of a child – they all learnt how to do it. Weaponised incompetence has never been about actual incompetence, it is an issue of laziness and taking advantage of free labour which has been taught since young. As more women recognize the value of their work and its exploitation by men, they are demanding better for themselves.
Wong, Brittany. “’Weaponized Incompetence’ Screws Women over at Work and in Relationships.” HuffPost UK, HuffPost UK, 27 Jan. 2022, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/weaponized-incompetence-women_l_61e71983e4b0d8b665717814.
Fray, Matthew. “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 14 Jan. 2021, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/she-divorced-me-i-left-dishes-by-the-sink_b_9055288.
Zhou, Maggie. “Why Is ‘Weaponized Incompetence’ Blowing up on TikTok? Because Too Many of Us Do It.” Yahoo!, Yahoo!, https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/why-weaponized-incompetence-blowing-tiktok-182817898.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAFjyLTBSAJmDC-_j8iC8uRAl346ac_GkfhU9tIkOD563gLDqANMwIMPXSltn1ZfNG6C2iA8krn05eXvGh0rONi99CdmkEESZumBaIlRweDB4f6eNTnO9V3BDE_XdYyb8fIuk8nDujWWxJEOLBnOztJmcIjzsOttSWWQnUfhr6BWR
Gritti, Davide, et al. “The First COVID-19 Lockdown Did Nothing but Confirm the Gendered Division of Domestic Chores.” British Politics and Policy at LSE, 8 Mar. 2021, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/lockdown-gender-domestic-chores/.
Dastagir, Alia E. “Woman’s Grocery List for Husband Goes Viral and Sparks Conversation about Men’s ‘Strategic Incompetence’.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 17 Sept. 2021, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2021/09/15/men-weaponize-incompetence-avoid-housework-caring-kids/8336253002/.
[Feature image sourced from Mamamia]