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India Miller has published 28 articles

Interview: Justine Roberts

India Miller talks to Justine Roberts about social media and its impact on politics
India Miller on Saturday 18th January 2014
Photograph: Hannah Pool

If you’re a typical member of the Cherwell readership, you might never have even heard of Mumsnet – let alone checked out its huge range of forums or began to decipher the bewildering range of acronyms littering the contributions to them. But the ten million users of this parenting website have a significant, ever growing sway in public life – and Justine Roberts, CEO of the website since its very beginning, is right at the centre of it all.

However, when I ask Roberts about whether she envisaged the parenting website she began in early 2000 to garner such sway in public life, she explains that she had never thought about it in such a way when she first conceived the idea behind Mumsnet. “It wasn’t like that in those days; it was about going and starting something and just seeing what happened. The inspiration for the website came from a botched family holiday, leading to a lightbulb moment where I thought, ‘If only we’d known about this before we came.’”

The opportunity for parents to ask a variety of questions: one of the most popular topics on the site is ‘Am I Being Unreasonable?’, ranging in tone from mundaneness (‘To hate when people say they have the flu?’), to anger (‘To want to smash his van into pieces and then pay for it?’), to the somewhat bizarre (‘To want Sherlock to kiss me like that?’), remains a key feature of the website. However, recent coverage of Mumsnet has increasingly focused on the campaigning on concerns relevant to its visitors – from raising awareness of concerns over attitudes towards families with children with additional needs, to a joint campaign with Stonewall addressing the misuse of the word ‘gay’. However, Roberts tells me, the launching of campaigns is not a top down process, but a much more organic one, generated by users of the website themselves. “I didn’t particularly envisage us campaigning when I conceived the idea Mumsnet .Most of our campaigns have come from the user base, often from regarding an issue that affects members of the site profoundly, and always from problems they raise themselves.”

It is clear that for Roberts, the user base is always at the forefront of the way in which the website develops – and recently, she has spent much time defending Mumsnetters in the face of criticism in the media. One such incident is that of the infamous ‘penis beaker’ discussion, which almost crashed the site’s server with more than double its usual traffic, as people flocked to read about one couple’s post-sex cleaning ritual, many of them commenting on Twitter as #penisbeaker went viral. I ask her what she thinks the uproar over the discussion says about the coverage of women in the press. “There is still a lot of prejudice about women and especially about mothers,” she tells me. “I think the ‘penis beaker’ incident revealed two things: firstly, that mothers have sex and talk about it; and, secondly, that strong feelings still exist about what women should and shouldn’t discuss about their sex lives.”

Roberts’s role in changing attitudes towards mothers through her website makes me wonder what she thought about how women were regarded when she was an Oxford student herself, reading PPE at New in the 1980s. “It was a very male-dominated institution and there were some pretty old-fashioned customs. But then it felt like every minority was equally targeted – if you were a woman, foreign, black or gay you’d be the butt of quite a lot of ribbing.”

Of greater concern to Roberts was the representation of women in the workplace she entered after graduating: the City of London. “There was simply a lack of women there,” she says. “It was only one or two women out of hundreds of men on the trading floor. The only female role models who did have children seemed to have to pretend that their families didn’t exist to get on. At the root of it, in my view, is the division of responsibility at home. In so many households, women are still responsible for the all the responsibility concerning the children. They feel guilty because they do too much, and it’s hard to rise up the corporate ladder when you have sole responsibility at home.”

How should we address it? “We should be very clear with our partners; be very clear that having kids is a joint effort. Until you have a more even division of labour at home, it’s still going to be hard for women to be just as successful in their careers as their male counterparts. The fact is that, in a third of households in the country, the woman is the main breadwinner, and the division of responsibility at home should be changing to reflect this.”

All very well, but does Roberts have any sympathy with those who criticise many feminist movements, as well as the Mumsnet user base itself, for being too middle class despite their egalitarian aims? “Mumsnet’s a lot more diverse than it’s characterised. On the site there is are big communities of lone parents, of parents of children with special needs, of gay parents. It’s certainly not just a certain type of parent. And I don’t see how you can do more than spot an inequality and call it out.” Mumsnet's role in lobbying in the interest of its members can only be a good thing - but I can’t help thinking that with such an influential lobby, the case might still be made that unless groups like Mumsnet with a powerful lobby represent a sufficiently diverse body of members, the political sphere will never broaden out as much as we might hope.  

And it is clear that Mumsnet does have significant weight in national politics. The general election of 2010 was dubbed the ‘Mumsnet election’ and its users continue to be targeted by national politicians. I ask Roberts why Mumsnet was so influential in the last national election and whether it will hold such sway in the election next year. “Firstly, the feeling [in 2010] was that the women’s vote was less tribal and more up for grabs; and secondly, it was the first election in this country where politicians had to do social media. ” I tell her about the growing importance of social media in elections back in Oxford and its hand in L J Trup’s winning the OUSU presidency last term, wondering in which direction she believes political campaigning is now heading. “Parties are going to have to engage more than they have in the past; social media teases out more authenticity and that’s a good thing as we don’t want government run by a distant elite run from an ivory tower. The more interaction the better. Brands have the same issue too – you can’t just broadcast any more, but you have to engage fully.”

But it’s not only the political world that faces a dearth of influential women, so I ask Roberts whether women should also be more entrepreneurial, and whether she would encourage others to follow in her footsteps by setting up their own businesses. “Setting up your own business is entering into the unknown. But though women are very unlikely to classify themselves as an entrepreneur, the evidence shows that more small businesses are started by mothers than any other demographic group. What’s important is whether you’ve got a proposition that you believe in. The key thing is, are you offering something different? Because I’m passionate [about Mumsnet] it doesn’t feel like work.”

And has she any advice to those keen to launch their own entrepreneurial careers? “Find something you’re passionate about and work very hard at it. You have to believe in what you do, or it’s unlikely you’ll have the reslience to last the course.” And that authenticity is what, even after a brief half an hour call – all we could fit into Roberts’s hectic schedule – really comes through. She is passionate about her readers, and constantly willing to speak up for them.

In the weeks since our interview, Mumsnet came up against it yet again in a piece written by Nick Cohen in the New Statesman which referred to the ‘Mumsnet racketeers’ when he was not offered payment to participate in a web chat on the site. The response from the indomitable Roberts? A balanced, polite letter to Cohen, which concluded, “Would you have another look at it please?” Yet another triumph for the calm and focused attitude that makes Roberts her such a powerful advocate for a previously underrepresented group of people who, it turns out, have a lot of things to say.

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