Yes, there is one great contribution men can make to feminism: pick up a mop | Helen Lewis

Our society and capitalism at large depends on the unpaid labour of women. But theres evidence that our gendered assumptions are hurting men too

Last week, I got a cleaner in. Now I know what youre thinking. Ooh, get her, Lady Muck! Or possibly: Typical middle-class feminist, offloading work on to an immigrant woman. Thats because youre sexist. But heres the thing. When the cleaner arrived he well, he was a he. A bloke. I was slightly freaked out. And thats because Im sexist too.

Our association of domestic labour with women is so ingrained that its hard to see its a social construction rather than an immutable natural phenomenon. In her new film Joy, Jennifer Lawrences character has her big idea a self-squeezing mop while cleaning up someone elses glass of spilled red wine. The responsibility doesnt fall on her ex-husband, who bought the booze (in contravention of strict instructions to stick to white) or the person who spilled it. It falls on the nearest available mother.

Of course, it is possible to make a class-based argument against having a cleaner that theres something alienating or repulsive about offloading inconvenient tasks to those lower downthe income chain. But if thats thestandard, we are wildly inconsistentabout applying it.

Jennifer
Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro in Joy. Jennifer Lawrences character has her big idea a self-squeezing mop while cleaning up someone elses glass of spilled red wine. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

Im guessing, for instance, that you might have bought a cup of coffee recently from Pret or Greggs, rather than voyaged to the Amazon basin to harvest your own beans. If youre having fish for dinner, you probably didnt spend this morning in waders, catching the slippery bugger. Most of us dont wire our own houses or service our own boilers, or build our smartphones from scratch. And yet theres a deep resentment of working women who offload their domestic tasks on to someone else, even as we tacitly accept that thats what working men have done for decades.

For the last few years Ive been trying an experiment. I speak at a lot of feminist events, and often these involve an all-female panel. Often, a man pops up in the Q&A, or buttonholes me afterwards to ask why feminism has to make men feel so unwelcome. Arent mens contributions valuable? Absolutely, I cry with all the fake enthusiasm I can muster and there is one, huge contribution that men can make to feminism: the washing up. Or the laundry, Im easy. Or going part-time while the kids are small.

At this point, the light in their eyes tends to die. It turns out that when theysaid they wanted men to be involved in feminism, what they actually meant was have someone listen to their ideas about what feminists are currently doing wrong. Not do a load of boring unpaid work in return for absolutely zero praise. But as a 2012 report for the IPPR put it: On most key issues, the route to modern feminist goals must pass through fathers. Men should work more flexibly, take greater responsibility for caring for their children and their homes, and have the right to reserved parental leave.

I dont blame men for taking one look at this proposition and thinking thanks, but no thanks. Over the last 50 years female participation in the workforce has increased enormously, and the benefits to women are clear: more economic power, and more of thefreedom that brings. You might evencallit empowering, if that word didnt make me want to beat myself to death with a Spice Girls CD. No such incentives apply to the idea of doing more unpaid labour in the home.

And so we are left with a series ofbodged compromises, of which middle-class women employing cleaners is merely the most obvious. I suspect robot butlers as per Mark Zuckerbergs plan to spend 2016 building himself an artificial intelligence that can help around the house might be the next. Perhaps we can just skip the bit where the burden transfers from women to men and pass it straight off tolaundry-folding robots?

A
A robot at a nursing residence in Florence, Italy. I suspect robot butlers as per Mark Zuckerbergs plan to spend 2016 building himself an artificial intelligence that can help around the house might be the next bodged compromise. Photograph: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

These fudges cover up the basic, inescapable fact that our society is dependent on unpaid labour, without which capitalism could not survive. In 2013, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that women report spending an average of 13 hours on housework and 23 hours on caring for family members each week; the equivalent figures for men are 8 hours and 10 hours. We need to make this invisible labour visible.

In the 1970s Selma James and her fellow activists demanded Wages for Housework; more recently, James criticised feminists who allowed the Blair government to decry workless mothers, when those women were often doing more than an eight-hour shift of caring labour. Iain Duncan Smiths welfare reforms have taken this idea to its logical conclusion: from 2017, single parents (largely mothers) will be penalised by the benefit system for not working as soon as their children turn three. Yes, there will be some free childcare available, but not enough. This is outrageous, and has only happened because we dont regard housework and childcare as real work.

The unfairness of our current attitudes was tackled in one of last years most thought-provoking books, Katrine Marals Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?. The answer to the titles question, it turns out, is Adam Smiths mum. Widowed in her 20s she depended on him financially, and he depended on her to have his tea ready after a hard days bashing out Big Thoughts about economics. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the banker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest, wrote Smith, unaccountably failing to add: Oh, and from my mum, who feeds me in return for not starving herself.

Mrs Smith was, of course, a rational economic actor: she got something out of the deal too. But todays working women dont have to wash dishes to keep a roof over their heads. And so a whole social apparatus has formed to convince them to perpetuate the status quo: the cult of the domestic goddess; rhetoric about whether women choose to have children or not, elbowing out any consideration of child-rearing as a social good; even the current bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, wherein Japanese folding guru Marie Kondo talks unselfconsciously about her seminars for housewives and mothers.

So can anything convince men that the domestic burden should be more fairly distributed? I doubt it, but there is now, at least, evidence that our gendered assumptions about labour are hurting men too. Manufacturing, traditionally a male-dominated sector, is in long-term decline; at the same time recent waves of migration to Britain have been majority female (54% of the foreign-born population are women, according to Oxford Universitys Migration Observatory) because many of the jobs available are in the service sector. Men are now being disadvantaged by our prejudices about womens work, which bleed out from housework into the idea that serving or caring for another human is demeaning to a mans dignity.

By the way, my male cleaner was brilliant. He mopped my floor so that I could generate an income from my work you know, the same thing women have done for men for decades.