A friend of mine - let's call her Kate* - told me a story the other day that may ring a bell with some working parents. It was the school summer fair and the parents of her daughter's class had volunteered to organise a Mad Hatter's tea party. This involved lots of preparation and, as the day approached, a flurry of WhatsApp messages, all of which referred to the "mums" who would be putting together what was effectively a pop-up café. Kate (who'd volunteered to make fairy cakes, find local sponsorship and serve tea) pinged a message to the group: "What about the dads?"
"There was just silence; the equivalent of WhatsApp tumbleweed," says Kate. "Even though both parents in most families at the school are working, it's somehow taboo to question the fact that the school bake sales, discos and all PTA meetings are run almost entirely by women. Why is that?"
There is little doubt that this is true. In fact, when it comes to most school parent-teacher associations (PTAs), or parents-and-friends groups, it's as if men don't exist. Even when both parents work full time, if either chooses to commit any time to the PTA, it will likely be the mother. According to the charity Parentkind (which promotes parent-school cooperation), 46 per cent of PTAs don't have any fathers at all on them (despite men making up 50 per cent of the parent body).
That doesn't always extend to school boards, where the roles of parent governor often seem to be held by men. If I were feeling sexist, I'd say it's because they are happier to be involved with something that doesn't require any sweeping up, ringing around to compare bouncy castle quotes and filling "jolly jam jars".
Some men's aversion to helping at school can be more extreme than just not showing up for duty. Alison, 45, is a lawyer in a big City firm. She recalls a low moment in her marriage a few years ago. "I was feeling out of touch with my kids' school because I worked so hard, so I volunteered as class rep for my eldest," she says. "I was dutifully sending out helpful emails. Then one night my own husband sent me a reply to an email asking to be taken off the distribution list. Incredible."
Actually... not so incredible. When my children were at nursery, a dad did the same thing, emailing the entire group saying "Can someone please take me off this list?" His wife was a barrister and worked crazy hours. Did she leave the list, too? No, she did not.
Because, despite it being 2019 and both parents bearing equal responsibility for their children, and despite the fact that state school PTAs raise vital cash for many schools caught in a state-funding gap, the PTA is more often than not seen as "women's work".
Jenny, 50, has three boys, runs a busy architect's practice and is a very active member of her school's PTA. "I was always amazed that it was only women involved, except for the one day of the year when the men would set up the barbecue and run the bar at the school fair, which apparently was all they needed to do for the whole year. I don't think I ever saw a father at any of the PTA meetings."
Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother of All Jobs, an examination of the state of working motherhood today, thinks this is a complicated subject. "There's a lot going on here," she says, "and there's not one reason for it. Guilt plays a big part, in that men almost never feel guilty about not helping to sell school raffle tickets - while many women do.
"Another factor is access; if you are in a big school that expects you to leave your child at the gate and go away, being on the PTA means you are able to see inside sometimes and know more of what's going on, which is a type of insight that on the whole is more important to women than men."
But what it amounts to is just a whole load more unpaid work for women, says Gemma Hartley. She is the author of Fed Up, which addresses the fundamental unfairness of gender divides such as this. It's called "emotional labour" and, says Hartley, it's just not fair when it is dumped on just one person.
Although many people - including some women - sometimes justify this imbalance with the explanation that women are simply "better at it", Hartley rejects this notion out of hand. She believes that women have been - consciously or unconsciously - trained to take on these extra "caring" tasks since birth. "We were all born with a similar aptitude for emotional labour," she writes, "but only half of us were trained in it as we grew up. That's why, on the surface, it appears that women are 'naturally' better at it than men."
As a result, many women never think to ask their husbands to get involved, assuming that they will just say no, or make a mess of it. Because, according to Hartley's theory, we all just assume through rigorous social conditioning that the PTA is no place for a man. While that may suit some men down to the ground, for men that do want to get involved, it creates a fairly hostile environment. And so the cycle continues.
Dylan, 45, who spent four years on his schools' PTA, including a stint as chairman, feels that PTAs are often fundamentally prejudiced against men. "As a man, you are going to be in the minority on the PTA. Things are OK at school events if you just turn up and do as you're told. The problems come when you speak up and suggest new and different approaches. If you've run a fundraising team, or managed corporate clients, you'd think you'd know how to do PTA: but you'd be wrong."
Dylan is definitely not alone in his experience. It's a common refrain among some women that the PTA is better off without men anyway. Perhaps it's as hard for men to break into a traditionally women-only sphere as it is for women to do the opposite.
Sure, many men don't want the extra workload that comes with being on the PTA - but they are also put off by the thought of alpha mums making them feel unwelcome or like a spare part.
Hartley says: "Men are subject to the same false message women perpetuate: that they just don't get it. 'They' could never do what 'we' do. They don't have the natural skills necessary to take over emotional labour. When you hear about your incompetence often enough, it starts to sound true - so you don't participate."
In conclusion, perhaps women are as responsible for the dearth of men on the PTA as men are. But, whatever the reason, it's such a shame. There are many men who would have a huge amount to offer schools badly in need of brilliant fundraising ideas. So perhaps it's time for men to step up - and for women to make them feel more welcome when they do?
* Some names have been changed
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