The Role of Women in the “Bulls–t Workforce”

Why meaningless, spiritually draining jobs have long been a particular scourge for female employees.

Girls at computers looking bored.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

In 2013, the anthropologist and activist David Graeber wrote an essay called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” for the fledgling radical magazine Strike. The response to the piece was so overwhelming that Graeber used it as a jumping-off point for a thorough study of the problem, which is more or less that “huge swaths of people […] spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” To that end, he performed an ethnography of sorts, collecting testimonies from disgruntled workers on almost every continent, color-coding them, and distilling the work described into five distinct types of so-called bullshit jobs so that he might analyze the reasons for their proliferation. The resulting book, Bullshit Jobs, is an “arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization.”

Often, bullshit jobs put the worker proximate to the thing that is the core function of their workplace (the building of bridges for an engineering firm, for example), without being the thing itself. Graeber’s categories are as follows: There’s the flunky (“those that exist … to make someone else look or feel important”), the goon (“people whose jobs … exist only because other people employ them”), the duct-taper (“employees … who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist”), the box ticker (“employees who exist … to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing”), and finally, the taskmaster (“those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others”). In Graeber’s conception, administrative professionals are flunkies; PR execs are goons; anyone can be a duct-taper given the right organizational flaw; quality assurance officers are box tickers; middle managers are taskmasters.

Graeber has an ear for the great quote (“My boss could have easily done my job yet again—fucking lazy turd,” reports one former HR assistant at an engineering firm) and reproduces an excellent selection of anecdotes. Reading these testimonies, you sense that some of his interlocutors are desperately flexing narrative and creative muscles atrophied by the very jobs they describe. It is an obvious relief for them to transmit, at length, the intimate minutia of their workplaces—and, more importantly, to break the maddening taboo that requires us to be grateful that we have work. “It felt like some Kafkaesque dream sequence that only I had the misfortune of realizing how stupid so much of what we were doing was,” wrote one man, “Deep down inside, I felt as if this experience had to be a silently shared one. We must all have known!”

When you talk about people who receive money to sit at a desk, there is always an element of “so what.” People are paid far less money to pick fruit, or clean hotels, or care for old people in homes, and often perform these jobs in unsafe or unsanitary conditions, and these are jobs that are integral to the function of society. But as Graeber points out, the superstructures that facilitate those necessary jobs have been bloated beyond all sense by bullshitization. Bullshit jobs are a form of “spiritual violence,” as he puts it, for the people who have them, but they also create top-heavy corporatized behemoths that stifle wages and mobility for everyone but the people at their uppermost echelons. Bullshit, it turns out, is one of the only things that trickles down.

Graeber also notes that there is some self-selection in his ethnography: His initial call for dispatches from the bullshit trenches was issued online, and he has a particular following—he is a self-described anarchist and well-known for his Occupy activism. So skeptical readers might say, OK, of course a bunch of disgruntled leftists screwing around online during the workday are going to hate their jobs and relish the opportunity to write long emails to a sympathetic celebrity professor. But you only need to cast an eye to the other shore—to the people writing from within the land of bullshit jobs, with counsel for its industrious inhabitants—to corroborate much of what Graeber’s book reveals.

One of the most popular management books of the past three decades is called Influence Without Authority. A so-called management classic released in its third edition in 2016, the book was first published in 1989 and is a catechism for a white-collar workplace where bullshit has proliferated in the extreme. One of the primary culprits of bullshitization according to Graeber is “managerial feudalism”—the “infatuation with hierarchy for its own sake,” which results in “an endless multiplication of intermediary executive ranks.” Influence Without Authority opens thus: “This book is about influence—the power to get your work done.” As its authors, Allan Cohen and David Bradford, put it in their introduction, “When we first wrote about influence in the 1980s, we had to justify its importance to people at all levels of the organization. At that time, the leadership and managerial focus was on how to command better, how to give clear directions and how to ensure compliance. But the world was changing, with a greater need for managing laterally and upward—along with less ability to just give orders downward…We have lost count of the people who hear the title of this book and instantly say, ‘That’s my life.’”

The further down you go on the white-collar ladder, the more confirmation you have of Graeber’s premise. The Administrative Assistant’s and Secretary’s Handbook, put out by the American Management Association and now in its fifth edition, is about 500 pages long and points to the insane mission creep that has characterized administrative work, both through the introduction of new technology and, implicitly, by the proliferation of managers.

“Why are you needed?” the handbook asks. “You are hired to relieve your busy employer of a great deal of work […] Depending on the size of the company, you may also be called on to perform tasks normally outside the secretarial role in sales, banking, billing, payroll, accounting, advertising, public relations, purchasing, and more. Everything you do for your employer must duplicate as closely as possible what he or she would do if not absorbed in work that couldn’t be delegated.” This is as close a corroboration as you could ask for of Graeber’s assessment of the flunky category of bullshit job:

The flunkies end up effectively doing the bosses’ jobs for them. This, of course, was the traditional role of female secretaries (now relabeled “administrative assistants”) working for male executives during most of the twentieth century: while in theory secretaries were there just to answer the phone, take dictation, and do some light filing, in fact, they often ended up doing 80 percent to 90 percent of their bosses’ jobs, and sometimes, 100 percent of its nonbullshit aspects. It would be fascinating—though probably impossible—to write a history of books, design, plans, and documents attributed to famous men that were actually written by their secretaries.

There is a whole category of administrative handbook that is discreetly devoted to avoiding the mission creep of the flunky role, or to at least keep responsibilities to a reasonable level. Communication Strategies for Administrative Professionals, for example, promises to teach its readers “how to communicate what you can do, can’t do, will do, won’t do, need and want.” It has headings like “Setting and maintaining boundaries as an Admin” and “Answering questions you can’t actually answer.” (There’s also a section where administrators can ask themselves, “Do you do coffee?” The book helps them find the answer within.) The Organized Admin, part of Julie Perrine’s All Things Admin book series, promises to “leverage your unique organizing style to create systems, reduce overwhelm, and increase productivity.”

What most interested me about Bullshit Jobs were Graeber’s brief notes on the various special indignities faced by women in the bullshitized workplace. While most people accept that the white-collar workforce is rife with bullshit, Graeber notes that “if one common reaction is to blame government” for the phenomenon of overpaid and underutilized people, it is often women specifically who are perceived as the source of bloating: “secretaries, receptionists, and various sorts of (typically female) administrative staff.” But according to Graeber, “it’s far more likely that the (female) administrative assistant for a (male) vice dean or ‘Strategic Network Manager’ is the only person doing any real work in that office.” He also describes the way bullshitization has affected the working class (as opposed to the white-collar middle class), noting that women feel its effects more often: “traditionally female, caregiving work … has been the main target of bullshitization,” Graeber reports. “Many nurses, for instance, complained to me that as much as 80 percent of their time is now taken up with paperwork, meetings, and the like.”

“We’re a family here,” someone might say about a particular workplace, as though that were a good thing. It’s curious how often the language and structures of domesticity are woven into the language of the workplace. The mother figure is revered in family life. But in many contexts, her authority was strictly moral, her duties administrative, while the father was the landowner, the money holder, the patriarch. In this context, influencing without authority was the name of the game. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was run by the so-called Sultanate of Women, wherein a series of wives and mothers, many of whom had been kidnapped and enslaved in youth, ruled the empire from their subject position, sometimes literally behind the scenes of the imperial court.

Influence Without Authority, has, now, a chapter on “Gender and Influence,” co-written by a female colleague who gets her name on the chapter but not on the book itself. (“We are deeply grateful to Nan Langowitz, who suggested the idea for a chapter on gender and added so much to our understanding and perspective that we asked her to coauthor it,” the authors reveal in their acknowledgments.) Oddly enough, the chapter is less about the deep well of experience women bring to this topic based on their historical subjectivity than seemingly geared at avoiding lawsuits: “While there are no guarantees, we believe that greater awareness of the dynamics and complexities of gender, especially as gender expectations are changing, can be helpful.” The book itself, incidentally, is dedicated to the authors’ wives: “our toughest and most supportive colleagues,” who “have taught us the essence of mutual influence in strategic alliances.”

Graeber’s theory of the runaway bullshitization of work involves the discrepancy between “value” and “values.” A misguided fetish for the former is how we got into this mess—a long journey from and through Christian theology, industrialization, producerism, and consumerism, and a societal reversal after which esteem began to accrue around capital rather than labor. Value, in this grasping lineage, is fundamentally at odds with values, which, Graeber writes, have to do with how “society be best arranged to produce the sort of human beings one would like to have around.” Throughout the book, Graeber cites feminist economists on the “caring labor” that is often left out of mediations on “values.”

Elsewhere, he traces a line that travels directly from women’s role in family bullshit to a particular kind of bullshit job: “Throughout history, prominent men have wandered about oblivious to half of what’s going on around them … it was typically their wives, sisters, mothers, or daughters who were left with the responsibility of performing the emotional labor of soothing egos, calming nerves, and negotiating solutions to the problems [men] created.” (The concept of emotional labor comes from scholarship of the workplace, as Graeber cites elsewhere in the book. The term was coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart, about workers—among them flight attendants—for whom the performance of emotion was required.)

Some of Graeber’s statements might read as sort of hyperbolic unsubstantiated gestures to acknowledge the overall struggles of women. But in the course of my own working life, I have spent years in administrative jobs and thus had long stretches of time in lumpy office chairs to think about work, and I appreciated what he wrote. I have also, for my sins, read a number of administrative handbooks. Who Took My Pen … Again (2012), a cheerful self-help book that is also a document of psychological torture for anyone who has chafed against the traces of administrative life, puts it baldly: “Your value comes from your remarkable interpersonal skills—communicating clearly, decision-making abilities, maintaining calm, providing conflict resolution, being adaptable and flexible.” What does the admin bring? “A soft touch in a hard-touch world.” A maddening example of what this looks like is provided early in the book:

Kim is a fantastic example of accountability in action! As a corporate executive assistant for a busy architectural firm, she supported two presidents who often assigned her huge tasks and giant projects without much detail. Even more challenging was that the two executives were big on dreams but short on cash. The company motto was ‘Attempt the impossible!’ and that happened a lot. Her standard response to any request they gave her was a sparkling smile and a confident, ‘Certainly! We can do that!’

One of the things some women fear about motherhood is that they will embody the role so completely it will lead to the death of the self. But selfless is a term we use to compliment mothers, and the consummate female administrative professional is likewise invited to submit to this happy abnegation. Who Took My Pen … Again and books of its caliber lean in hard to this idea: “If you accept a position to assist a leader, then you are accepting whatever comes with that.” Some admin books are explicitly concerned with demonstrating the admin’s value, both to her boss and to herself. Not “Just an Admin!” is the title of one of these books—anyone who has stayed home with children will hear the echoes.

Often the connection between this kind of work and a traditional notion of womanhood is eye-poppingly explicit. Who Took My Pen … Again counsels, “When making a decision you may consider, ‘What would my leader do?’…The more you do this kind of thinking, the more empowered you become and the stronger the connection is with your leader.” Jewel in the Leader’s Crown, written by a former executive assistant to extremely high-powered figures in European finance and government, is a bonkers example of this sort of book and includes a “six-prong setting” model of administrative excellence that includes “Die-Hard Dependability” and “Megawatt Sparkle Consistently.” In this book, the metaphors are somewhat garbled (you are the jewel in the leader’s crown, but you are also a jewel in your own engagement ring, and you are also polishing your inner jewel), but the fundamental nature of the relationship is clear: “As executive assistants, sometimes we become so caught up in how busy our job is and the many tasks we must complete that we can forget our sole purpose is to support our executive.” This line was so gruesome I almost had to put the book down. “Be intuitive and proactive to the needs of your executive. Does he need to keep snacks in his credenza for late work days?”

The preface of The Administrative Assistant’s and Secretary’s Handbook claims that “Being a top-notch administrative assistant in the business or the professional world is a satisfying and rewarding career in itself. It also provides, for those who want it, an excellent opportunity for advancement.” But to return to Graeber’s ideas about the bullshit workforce, success, in these roles, often means that you reproduce your own role as a marker of your own success. In the introduction to Who Took My Pen … Again, author Joan Burge, the self-described “pioneer of the administrative training industry” who built an empire on admin-related conferences and publications, cites her own “chief executive assistant Jasmine Freeman,” who herself “interviewed her administrative assistant, Michele Busch,” to come up with the text of the book. You couldn’t ask for a better of example of what Graeber calls “managerial feudalism,” and how it is reproduced all down the chain.

The administrative job’s innate dissatisfactions are written between the lines of these books. The author of the Jewel in the Leader’s Crown writes, “I asked my managers what they were reading, and I got on the same page. I checked daily share prices and found myself excitedly observing trends … Within a year, I found myself managing a small team with budget accountability.” What were her responsibilities? Planning “company-wide functions such as Family Fun Days and key celebrations.”

The women fulfilling these maternal roles in the workplace are often mothers themselves. “Clear away anything in your work space that distracts you (whether it is numerous family pictures or non-work-related items),” reads one tragic section in Who Took My Pen … Again. Counseling her readers not to miss family events, the author of Jewel in the Leader’s Crown reproduces the entirety of “The Last Time,” a very sad anonymous poem about missing the key moments in your child’s life. (“There will come a time when you will feed/ your baby for the very last time.”) She also writes about the administrative duties of her domestic life: “Every evening, like many, I’m greeted with those essential household chores…I have a household binder with carefully planned checklists.”

Graeber is careful to say that he doesn’t write books with a prescriptive premise; he is just observing a phenomenon, not suggesting a cure. But to the extent that Graeber does offer an alternative to bullshit jobs, it is in the form of universal basic income, which he compellingly defends in a short conclusion. What fascinates me about UBI is that it is linked, in Graeber’s telling, to the Wages for Housework movements, which were aimed, among other things, at allowing women who could not support families alone to leave abusive relationships. The movement did not bring about UBI, but it made material changes to women’s lives; as one interlocutor told Graeber, it is now customary for courts to take women’s household labor into account when deciding divorce settlements and alimony payments.

This gets to the strange paradox you run up against when you ponder women’s bullshit place in the bullshit workforce, and one of its bitter ironies. Women who have children and don’t work outside of the house have to stay home with the children, which many women can tell you is no picnic. Moreover, having children is expensive, and life is expensive. Many women need to work to support their children, whether they are single mothers or part of a couple. But to join the workplace, you have to pay someone else to watch your children, unless a partner or relative is able to take on the job at the expense of their own paid employment (or their retirement). And if you don’t have specialized credentials, the Catch-22 is even trickier; once you’ve found someone to watch the child, the kind of job you are likely to be considered eligible for is either low-wage caring or factory work with its own set of literal dangers (not to mention frustrations), or it is in an office where there is central air but the work is bullshit. And once you’re at the job, you’ll likely miss the hell out of your kid.

How child care and home life will fit into the world without bullshit jobs is the subject of another book, one I’m not faulting Graeber for failing to write. On the contrary, I’m grateful to him for providing such an excellent framework for thinking about the white-collar workplace—a workplace women of my generation and class were taught from birth to aspire to join—and being honest about what sometimes awaits us therein: bullshit, and lots of it.