It's time for a real conversation about sharing housework
Published 21/03/2016 | 02:30
Have you seen that wonderful Indian ad entitled "why is laundry only a mother's job?" that's been doing the rounds online recently? In it, an elderly man watches his adult daughter arrive home from work and get straight into housework while taking a work call on her mobile. Her husband is on the sofa with his laptop and watching TV.
As he watches this scene unfold, the father writes a letter of apology to his daughter for setting her the wrong example. He says: "When I never helped your mom, you learned from what you saw and your husband must have learned the same from his dad." He goes on to apologise on behalf of every dad who set the wrong example.
It's a powerful reminder of that fact that housework is still seen as women's work. Commenting on it, Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook) said: "This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen - showing how stereotypes hurt all of us and are passed from generation to generation."
This is a theme that Melinda Gates wrote about recently when she and Bill published their annual letter outlining their philanthropic priorities. She said: "Globally, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work. Men spend less than half that."
Melinda goes on to outline how the fact that in every part of the world women are engaged in substantially more unpaid work than men means that they are not able to concentrate on their education or their careers.
She goes on to say that if women had the opportunity, they would "spend more time doing paid work, starting businesses or otherwise contributing to the economic well-being of societies around the world. The fact that they can't holds their families and communities back."
When I made the decision after child number three arrived to resign my job in order to do the childcare myself, I also took on all the domestic chores. It was a fair arrangement and I will freely admit that it was a relief not to have to remind him of his chores or argue over who was going to do the grocery shopping each week.
But most of all, I realised how much all our mental (and probably physical) health was improved by living in a relatively ordered and clean house. And that, right there, is why I think we need to reframe the conversation about housework.
Housework is seen as drudgery. It is seen as menial work, requiring no particular skill. Is it any coincidence, I wonder, that the work of cleaning, along with the work of caring are among the poorest paid jobs in our society and both were traditionally seen as women's work? Yet society cannot function without carers and cleaners.
We have a problem with the 'housework brand'. Having a clean and ordered home is not some added bonus of having a wife of female partner. It is vital work and without it our lives would descend very quickly into chaos. It is the work that allows us to have homes that are soothing and relatively calm, allowing us to recharge our batteries after a busy day.
Study after study reveals that in households where both partners are working full time, men are still falling far short on doing their fair share. I don't believe that men are consciously sexist about avoiding housework, but I do think that that Indian commercial has hit on an important truth. Men have been conditioned to accept that the woman makes the home and the man pays for it. And I know that many readers will immediately think "But my husband is great, he does lots of housework" - but the studies show again and again that these men are in the minority.
When I was growing up, my poor mother would occasionally have a major hissy fit about no one else in the house doing anything to keep the place clean and tidy. Feeling guilty, I used to say to her: "Why don't you just tell us what needs doing and we will do it?" This used to cause a further explosion as she hissed through gritted teeth: "I shouldn't have to tell you, surely to God you can see what needs to be done?" I may have had a similar conversation with my other half and my children on occasion. When women go about the chores, silently and diligently, are we are facilitating the unconscious bias that housework is women's work?
Housework was women's work. As was childcare. But as women participate fully in the workforce, we must ensure that society places proper value on both endeavours. The first step may just be in ensuring that our husbands and male partners pick up their socks - both literally and figuratively.