Sarah Ditum

The underlying sexism of the conversation about cleaners and Covid

The underlying sexism of the conversation about cleaners and Covid
(Photo: iStock)
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I don’t have a cleaner. Admittedly, whether I do or not isn’t really relevant to the argument I’m about to make. But quite often when you talk about cleaners, you’ll get a reaction like this: ‘That lazy, dirty Karen, she should clean up after herself instead of farting out columns while someone picks up around her.’ Because people are weird about cleaners. And by weird, I mean very sexist and enormously dishonest.

So I don’t have a cleaner. But God, I have never wanted one more than I do during lockdown. I am not a clean person. Maybe a six out of ten on the clean scale, by which I mean I’ve been inside a Lakeland more than once but can still make a bottle of floor soap last several years. (If you don’t know what Lakeland or floor soap are, then I’m afraid you are a sub-five on the clean scale. Sorry, I do not make the rules.) I would like things to be clean, but I can probably be satisfied with keeping the dust out of my eyeline.

In lockdown, though, that’s impossible. The dust is always there. It’s driving me crazy. And because I’m sharing my house with one other adult, two teenagers and a dog, the dust is joined by other things. A tide of Labrador hair. Peanut butter smears on the cupboard handles. Shoes in surprising places, dirty cups on the edge of the bathtub. All the evidence of our overlapping lives in one crammed space, interlocking maps of mess. Things to be wiped and re-wiped, mopped and re-mopped, day after day.

Whether the government advice that household cleaners can now return to work is sound, I cannot comment (although it seems reasonable to me, with social distancing and appropriate precautions). Ask an epidemiologist. Ask me, and all you’ll get is a strangled cry about how the first thing I’m doing post-lockdown is hiring a cleaner. Cleaning is work, and it’s work that I’d rather not do myself or negotiate with my household. I already have a job, and no one expects me to grow my own grain, fix my own car or slaughter my own pig.

But cleaning is different, because cleaning is not just work – it’s women’s work. In 2016, the ONS found that women do 60 per cent more unpaid work, including childcare and cleaning, than men. There’s an old linguistic slippage that has made the words ‘dirty woman’ become, over time, ‘sexually available woman’. And though standards of propriety have changed, the association between cleanliness and feminine morality has not. A woman who declines to do housework, or who simply points out that doing it is labour, is a bad woman. (A man who does the same? Well, he’s just being a man. No issue there.)

This censoriousness does not stop people from hiring cleaners. The British Cleaning Council reckons the sector is worth £50bn to the economy and employs over 900,000 people; most are women. But it means that there is some spectacular squeamishness about hiring cleaners. Judgement hangs around the subject like bleach fumes: why should she pay another woman to do her cleaning so she can go to work? Mysteriously, men are excluded from this equation. Perhaps the Y chromosome stops them shedding skin cells. The fact that the net result is two employed women rather than zero holds little sway.

This attitude is not the one of the dinosaur right, surprisingly, but the righteous left. The same left that insists ‘blow jobs are real jobs’ decries the woman who hires another woman to scrub limescale out of the bathtub (which she probably shares with a man). It labels her a phony feminist.

All the preciousness about cleaners is really preciousness about owning up to our own filth – and who we expect to deal with it. When you see people accuse me of abusing a cleaner I don’t even have, know that what they’re really saying is: how dare this woman refuse to quietly catch the crumbs she was born to absorb. If you actually do the cleaning, you probably know it’s work that’s worth paying for. Only the shirkers can hang onto the fiction that cleaning is worthless.