To what extent, if any, does there exist women's work and men's work? Although I imagine most people understand the question clearly, let me express it differently. Is there work that inherently should be done by women as opposed to work that should be done by men? Or as followers of Jesus Christ are we called to offer a different model, a model of mutual servanthood?
I raise the question because of a recent conversation with a friend of mine. She is a single mom raising a teenage son. She works hard both in and outside the home to provide for herself and her son. But when she asks him to do household tasks, he often responds that these are “women's work” and she should do them. They live in a non-Western culture where gender roles are much more distinct and strong than they are now in the West, so his response is acceptable within the cultural norms, although she has done her best to raise him to a different standard. But his response ignores the fact that his mother by necessity must perform many tasks that would culturally be “men's work” and that she is weary and exhausted, while he spends his time hanging out with his friends. (There are also issues here of respecting one's parents, but that is a different topic.)
When I hear stories like this I become angry. I become angry because of a mindset that continues to perpetuate gender inequality even now in the twenty-first century. I simply do not believe that there are roles, or work, that belong by their very nature to women or men. (I make exception for child-birth, which biologically cannot happen naturally any other way. But even in this the husband can take a more active role than he has traditionally and continues to take in many cultures around the world.) I acknowledge that some work may be more suited to a man or woman due to the nature of the tasks required and the physical characteristics of men and women. But I object to saying that any particular work or role should be done or belongs to men or women. I know many women who are physically stronger than I and therefore more suited to tasks that might be considered “men's work.” At the same time men are also capable of performing work that traditionally has been assigned to women. I don't see any valid basis to argue for an inflexibility delineation of tasks into the categories of men's or women's.
Thankfully in Western cultures we have progressed far in this area (which is not to say that we do not still have room for improvement) But many cultures around the world lag far behind. Unfortunately many people I know who go to work in these cultures do not want to confront this issue because they feel it is a matter of cultural preference. I recognize that it is culturally defined, but I also assert that it can be cultural redefined and offering an alternative example can be a powerful way to begin that process. But we must be willing to risk ridicule and rejection along the way. While living overseas I once was sweeping the sidewalk outside our gate. Our neighbor, another foreigner who had lived longer in that culture, informed me that I was “shaming” my wife by doing work that culturally she was expected to do. Why should it be shameful for a husband to help his wife with the burdens of daily life? And why should I care if others think that way?
I also find it unfortunate that believers often lag behind in this area. Thinking again of people I know who serve cross-culturally, I am disappointed that they do not more actively challenge their local friends and converts in this area. Perhaps it does not seem to them to be a core issue of Christian life. But is that the case? Christ came to transform society, not to simply save souls out of it. What a powerful example we could offer if we as believers modeled not a gender-based division of labor, but rather mutual servanthood. Instead of refusing to do a task because it might bring shame or would be considered the work of the other gender (and most often it seems men have the problem with performing “women's work”), couldn't we offer a powerful model of servanthood by looking for opportunities to serve our brothers or sisters at the point of their need? If a sister (woman) needs help cleaning or cooking, or in any other task, why can we brothers (men) not step up and offer to carry that burden? (Again, women seem to be quicker and more willing to offer this service to men, but the same question could be asked of them.)
The same friend of whom I wrote initially also has a task to help organize a seminar for women. Among other responsibilities she must help with organizational and administrative needs. This comes on top of her many other duties and responsibilities in life. When I heard this, I thought that this would be a great place for the Christian men in the community to step in and offer to help their sisters. Then the women could focus on the direct ministry to women, while the men could offer a powerful example of Christian servanthood by providing for the needs of the women. I expect they would receive a lot of cultural criticism, shame and ridicule for doing so, but at the same time they could offer a powerful testimony of what a life transformed by Jesus Christ looks like.
So let's put aside the outdated concepts of “men's work” and “women's work.” Instead let's adopt an ethic of mutual servanthood and look for opportunities to serve each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, that's the model he gave us.