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When is knowledge not power? When you’re a woman picking up the pieces

A handy and hilarious list of things women should pretend not to be able to do at work has hit a nerve, says Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

Women are forever being told what they should do in the workplace: lean in; speak up; ask for more etc etc. But what about the things they shouldn’t do?

Comedian and writer Sarah Cooper compiled a handy list in this week’s Financial Times of the “Six things working women should pretend they can’t do”. The one thing you actually should do is read it because it is hilarious. From note taking, party planning, cleaning out the office fridge and social media, Cooper mocks how the jobs that no one wants in an office have been attributed to women and so-called feminine instinct, and the best thing you can do to avoid landing them – and the dreaded eventuality of these tasks taking over your actual job – is to play dumb. “Fight against any urge to nourish, feed or clean up after your co-workers, or yourself,” she writes. “But Sarah, you say, what if I love firing up the espresso machine? Or if the sink is a mess and I want to rinse a few dishes? Don’t. It is a trap.” More advice: “Unless your job is social-media marketing, never expose your expertise. Otherwise you will be creating decidedly non-dank memes suggested by the CEO at 3am, wake up late, miss an important client call, get kicked off the project, take your frustration out on your husband, get a divorce and wind up on a dating app, unable to comprehend what your life has become.”

It’s funny because it’s so close to the bone. How much of your job is clearing up other people’s mess, both literally and figuratively? How often do you wonder why you’re the one charged with the task of remembering birthdays or coaxing criers out of the toilets? I knew a woman who used to bring her leftover dinners in for one of the men in an office. He earned good money and he was a grown-up but, nonetheless, women often find themselves looking after shit that isn’t really theirs at all.

Playing dumb might not be the feminist workplace utopia we’ve all dreamed of, but, for the time being, needs must. And I feel like Cooper only scratched the surface. There are way more things women should pretend not to know: like pretending to have no idea what women your age are reading at the moment when you’re asked to come up with book suggestions for a niece’s birthday. Or pretending that you have never once mediated between two warring women and wouldn’t have a clue what to say. Or pretending you have zero social skills and weren’t brought up politely, relentlessly smiling come what may, so you can’t possibly be put next to the difficult client that no one else knows how to deal with. In short, pretend you are an unhelpful, childish arsehole.

Pretend you’ve got zero interest in clean sheets or towels. Wait until the smell of damp towel gets so bad, someone else stops pretending they don’t know where the washing machine is

Of course, pretending not to have the skills that some men assume are in our DNA as opposed to in our long, tired history of sex- and gender-based oppression isn’t restricted to the office. How about the home? Pretend you’ve never cleaned a toilet before. In fact, pretend you’ve never even seen one before. Pretend that you have no idea how to correctly stack a dishwasher and if you were to do it, a ladle would get stuck, cause an explosion and destroy the entire kitchen. Pretend you’ve got zero interest in clean sheets or towels. Wait until the smell of damp towel gets so bad, someone else stops pretending they don’t know where the washing machine is.

And why stop there? Pretend you’ve lost your diary so, nope, you can’t remember anyone’s birthdays. Especially not your mother-in-law’s. Pretend you’ve lost your voice, too, so when you go to social occasions and find yourself doing all the work because they kind of just want to be at home watching TV, they can feel the full force of their own awkward silence and then talk laboriously to fill the gaps. Why not try and pretend that, when you feel unwell or are having a period, you’ve forgotten how to grit your teeth and just get on with it. Pretend you don’t know where Boots is so you can’t stock up drugs that will keep you going. Pretend that you are not used to dealing with illness or period cramps as if they are a small irritating fly, not a debilitating reaction. See how your partner likes it when you lie on the sofa, wondering if you are, in fact, actually dying.

And, hey, there’s the street, too. Pretend you’ve got your headphones on so you can’t hear what the bloke across the street seems to be saying. Pretend you can’t open your legs more than an inch wide when sitting on the Tube, so you can't be annoyed by manspreading. Pretend you are an alien from outer space, can’t read English, and so have no idea what that billboard with the skinny blonde woman is trying to tell you for the 17th time that day.

See, there’s so very much more we could pretend at. And, the next time someone tries to tell you what you should be doing to make yourself happier or more successful, remember all the things you shouldn’t be doing first. Women playing dumb might be the smartest thing we can do. Because when it comes to being a woman, sometimes knowledge is not power – it’s just more work.


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