Why weaponized incompetence happens — and how to stop it
Did you see the viral TikTok that a woman posted last fall, depicting the detailed list that she sent with her husband to the store? It’s been discussed as an example of what researchers call “strategic incompetence” or “weaponized incompetence” — how men (often unconsciously) end up avoiding equitable division of work.
For many women, this is the experience at work as well. Many end up perpetually taking the notes at the meetings, planning events (when not in their job description), doing disproportionate committee work, and what I call “shadow management.”
When women try to raise what they’re doing compared to peers, they’re often told: “We don’t always ask you to do X because you’re a woman; it’s just that you’re so much more organized and responsible than [insert peer’s name.]”
Those who are competent at “office housekeeping” get assigned even more thankless tasks, giving them less time to focus on the activities that lead to promotion.
Socialization starts young
When it comes to gendered tasks, weaponized incompetence can start very early — for example, if girls are expected to clean up after playtime, and boys are permitted to goof off. When you’ve gotten messages from a very young age that someone else will pick up the slack on tasks you don’t want to do, it becomes unconscious later in life. It’s often not even intentional.
Meanwhile, women are socialized from a young age to proactively find ways to support the group. In my book Beyond Leaning In, I use the metaphor of “points” vs. “assists” from basketball, a player scoring a point themselves vs. passing the ball to someone else who does.
Men are more often socialized to care about points in a group setting (their individual contribution), whereas women are often more socialized to care about assists (advancing the collective aims). As a result, women often volunteer to take on extra service activities without even being asked. This can be big things (chairing a committee or becoming a shadow manager) or small things (setting up the tables for an office party, remembering birthdays).
Shadow management: one of the biggest consequences of weaponized incompetence at work
Shadow management is 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 genders, it’s more often a male manager neglecting his staff, and a female manager who’s picking up the slack. 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. In this case, the male manager’s neglect of his duties isn’t just tolerated, but it’s weaponized against the woman who takes on extra responsibilities without recognition, reward, or resources.
The more power, privilege, and security someone has in their job, due to their position or identity (race, gender, background, etc.), the more likely they can avoid a task they find unrewarding without consequence or second thought.
But there’s also an added gender element: if a man says no to an ask from a colleague, it’s seen as a sign of status and strong time management skill, whereas women are viewed as egotistical, overwhelmed, or catty for the same protection of their time.
The extra “mental chatter” many women experience
While interviewing women for Beyond Leaning In, I heard many women lament days or weeks (or more) when they spent the majority of their time at work on extra and uncredited tasks, leading to extra hours on weekends/evenings to get their day jobs done. They felt like they weren’t able to focus on other activities that helped peers gain promotions and recognition.
Additionally, the impact of weaponized incompetence goes beyond the extra work itself. As I’ve depicted in the comic at left, many women feel the need to bite their tongues at work. Women often don’t feel like they can speak up about all the additional labor that they take on. Meanwhile, many women describe a constant “mental chatter” in their heads as they decide what extra tasks to say yes/no to, whether they’ll be penalized if they do or don’t, whether they’ll feel bad if they do/don’t. It’s not just extra work — there’s extra noise/stress/decision fatigue.
How to stop weaponized incompetence
- Develop systemic solutions — For example, people alternating taking the notes at the meetings or a regular practice of someone who has that in their job description doing it.
2. Codify expectations for managers — To address shadow management in particular, organizations must have clear definitions of what managers are responsible for doing, along with accountability mechanisms for ensuring they do those activities. If managers aren’t good at those activities, they need either to be developed or removed from their roles.
3. Create cultures where “assists” are truly valued and encouraged, rather than over-focusing on “points” — This includes expanding the criteria used in hiring and promotion decisions, but also requires attention to day-to-day cultural signals (what types of contributions are praised and listened to in meetings, what do leaders model in every interaction). Last month I convened a few discussion groups with male readers of Beyond Leaning In and asked what recommendations they had for other men who wanted to be better allies. Several noted that they make sure to be the first to volunteer for event-planning committees, knowing that these types of office housekeeping tasks often fall exclusively on women.
For individuals who are victims of weaponized incompetence:
- Make sure you’re getting rewarded for the white space work. If you’re “shadow managing” folks who have absentee managers, are you able to leverage this to promotion into higher management roles? What concrete data can you gather about your overlooked contributions and how they’ve helped the organization succeed, in order to re-negotiate your salary or advocate for other forms of recognition (key assignments, access to senior leaders)?
- Know your worth. Many women and people of color in particular have been socialized to put others and the group first to a disproportionate extent. Personally, I often took on office housekeeping and shadow management because I saw my worth to organizations as “whatever is needed for the good of the group.” I even enjoyed much of it. The problem was that “what’s needed” was often because others (especially male colleagues) didn’t want to do those tasks, not because that’s where my specific talents were going to be most beneficial. We should all be good citizens. But if you’ve been socialized to always put the group first, it’s time to ask yourself: “What are the unique and important things that I bring to the table that aren’t just about whatever the group needs most whenever it needs it? And am I being recognized and utilized for those talents?”
- Mind your boundaries. When I’ve been most “in balance” it was because I set quotas for myself — for example, doing one “gendered task” a week, but no more. These are universal issues, but some environments are better than others. Be honest with yourself about your workplace and whether it’s one where you can uphold your boundaries sustainably or not.
What else would you add to this list? How can we prevent weaponized incompetence? Drop your thoughts in the comments or contact me to chat!
Want to learn more?
Weaponized incompetence is only one of the reasons why professional women are tired of being told to “lean in.” Watch the 3-minute micro-book-talk video below or visit the link to my book below to learn more. You can also view more of my feminist webcomics on my website or on Instagram.
Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equity and What Organizations are Up Against
Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equity and What Organizations are Up Against [Ho, Melanie] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on…
Contact me: https://www.melanieho.com