Woman's grocery list for husband goes viral and sparks conversation about men's 'strategic incompetence'

·8 min read

The grocery list was beautiful, meticulous, a combination of text and photos painstakingly organized. Each item featured a cut-out photograph, so there could be no mistaking it for a similar item, and included accompanying lines for quantity, aisle and price. The list came with a hand-drawn map of the store. Perfect, some education experts say, for a child working on gaining independence during their first time grocery shopping.

Except this list wasn't for a child. It was posted by a woman on the social media platform TikTok with the onscreen text, "When I have to send my husband to the store."

Some people thought the video was a joke, and while it may have been intended as hyperbole, many users on the platform cited it as an example of what gender experts call "strategic incompetence," a tactic used by men – sometimes consciously, sometimes not – to avoid equitable division of family work. It is also referred to as "weaponized incompetence" or "performative incompetence," in which men pretend they are unable to perform certain tasks so women will do them instead.

On TikTok, the term #weaponizedincompetence has 3.5 million views.

"Incompetence has its rewards. It allows men to justify the gender-based distribution of domestic labor," said Francine M. Deutsch, Professor Emerita of Psychology at Mount Holyoke College and author of "Creating Equality at Home: How 25 couples around the world share housework and childcare."

Men in heterosexual relationships who fake incompetence at home or blame their poor performance on women's unreasonable standards (ones sociologists say women have been socialized to maintain in order to be viewed as "good mothers" and "good wives"), harm women by placing the disproportionate burden of family work on their shoulders.

According to the Pew Research Center:

  • 74% of mothers say they do more to manage their children’s schedules and activities than their spouse. Only 3% say their husband or partner does more.

  • 59% say they do more household chores than their spouse, with 6% saying their spouse does more.

  • Just 39% of fathers say they were doing a “very good job” raising their children, compared with 51% of mothers.

"There's this assumption that women have the skills needed to complete childcare and housework, which means that we then stereotype men as having fewer skills or greater incompetence in this arena, but the reality is that no one is born knowing how to get a stubborn stain out of a shirt in the laundry or to scrub a pot effectively," said Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University. "We learn how to do this. We are socialized from a very young age into learning what men and women can and should be responsible for."

Ruining the laundry, ignoring the children

More than two decades ago, Deutsch interviewed hundreds of couples for her book, "Halving it All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works," and found men employed many strategies of resistance to avoid participating equally at home. They included strategic incompetence, passive resistance – where men sit back while women repeatedly ask, nag and cajole – and praise, which may be sincere, but which Deutsch said also has the "insidious effect of keeping the work within women's domain."

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Deutsch said one husband she interviewed told her, "It would be a struggle for me to do the laundry. I don't do it as well as Robin. I think she's better with that sort of peasant stuff of life."

Strategic incompetence can look like a man ruining the laundry, leaving grease on the dishes or ignoring the children. It can sound like a husband who says, "I'm just not very good in the kitchen," or that his daughter's shirt buttons are too tiny to fasten himself.

Collins said she once interviewed a successful working mom in Washington, D.C., married to a man who also worked full-time. The woman told Collins one night she asked her husband to take steak out of the freezer to thaw so she could cook it when she got home. He didn't.

"She said 'Caity, I'm embarrassed to say this out loud, but my husband works from home. He's home all day long, and he could have taken the meat out of the freezer at any point in the day while I'm out at the office, so I can come home and cook, and he couldn't even do that.' She was embarrassed to tell me this because her husband was a very, very successful white-collar professional in D.C." Collins said. "These are smart, capable men, and they weren't really successful in helping their partners feel less stressed at home."

The problem with saying, 'but men were never taught'

Deutsch said some of her detractors argue incompetence is not a strategy. It's simply that men weren't taught how to perform these tasks.

"If you think about it for five minutes, you'll realize that's ridiculous," she said. "Many women today, my husband and I, neither of us had ever held a newborn baby before our child was born. We both were novices."

Deutsch said she once interviewed a machinist who couldn't figure out how to do the laundry. She's talked to men who are employed in high-level management who did not contribute to the overall management of their homes.

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"It's one of the most intractable gendered things. And the men constantly said to me things like, 'She's just more organized than I am.' Well, some of these men were managers at work," she said. "It's not an issue of competence. It's motivation. If you want to learn how to cook, do the laundry, take care of children, manage the household chores, certainly most men are capable of doing this."

Why women are sometimes unwilling to let go of the work

Deutsch said some men are likely consciously manipulative, while others have simply learned there are benefits to doing less. And many women continue to do the lion's share of managing their homes, Collins said, because they have been socialized to believe it is their responsibility.

"It makes sense that women are unwilling to just let these tasks drop completely, like the laundry, changing diapers, helping with homework, scheduling doctor's appointments," Collins said. "Women aren't really willing to let those things fall by the wayside and so they step in when their partners fumble to do the work, but there is no safety net for them when they don't do those tasks."

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A woman who runs her household well is viewed as a "good woman," which is why so many women have high standards for family work. It's an authentic pressure but can have a backfire effect, leading to what gender experts call "maternal gate-keeping," when some women prevent partners from helping because they don't think they can complete the tasks as well.

There are times, Deutsch said, when women must relax standards in order to achieve equity at home. Men also can't blame their lack of participation on those standards, especially because some are non-negotiable.

"Some standards are really important," Deutsch said. "If the kid's in the swimming pool, somebody has got to be watching them."

'It's a lot of work to try and be equal'

Getting men to participate equally at home is its own kind of labor, in some ways more daunting than household tasks.

"It's a lot of work to try and be equal," Collins said.

Collins says the popularity of these videos on TikTok shows women have found an outlet for expressing frustration with their partners. They have also captivated an audience that's encouraged them to demand better.

"We do not teach women to express anger or rage at all in their lives and certainly not in the context of their families and in their relationships. We socialize women to put up with a lot that isn't acceptable," Collins said. "What you're seeing on TikTok is a way women have found to express themselves with a veiled, kind of loving humor. But what you're also seeing is people saying, 'that's pretty messed up. You can expect more.'"

Deutsch said some men won't change. Other men can and will. But developing more empathy for their spouses may not be the right catalyst. Some degree of appreciation is likely already there, and the increased help a husband provides a burnt-out spouse at her wit's end is not likely to last. For work to be shared at home, men need to believe equality matters. Women need to recognize they deserve it.

"Equality is more straightforward than helping," Deutsch said. "Helping is very ambiguous. How much help is required? When you commit to equality, it's not ambiguous. It's very clear what equality is. Maybe you'll negotiate about a particular thing, but it's a principle that you can always look to and ask, 'are we equal now?'"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Men weaponize incompetence to avoid housework, caring for kids