For a while after Britain went into lockdown, more than a third of all conversations on Mumsnet related to coronavirus. In what might be viewed as a happy reflection of lives slowly creeping back to normal, Covid-19 now accounts for less than 10 per cent of forum debate.
But, if immediate worries around the crisis have abated a little, that is not to say we are all now out of the woods. “Women are more likely to have been furloughed and made redundant,” Mumsnet’s co-founder and chief executive Justine Roberts points out as we chat in her back garden in Islington, North London.
“It’s almost assumed that because women are going to have to pick up the childcare, domestic, homeschooling stuff that they’re going to be less valuable employees,” she says.
With schools closed to most pupils since March and many of the usual childcare options still off the table, the large community of mothers who use the site to vent their frustrations, and seek advice from millions of others, have often found themselves shouldering most of the additional burden, and need things to change.
Roberts, 52, whose four children are aged between 14 and 21, has watched the situation play out in long and passionate Mumsnet threads, in which the recurrent refrain is: “I cannot understand how my husband can’t see that the laundry needs doing and the kids need entertaining, and he’ll do it if I ask him but why do I have to ask him?”
It’s nothing new, of course. But lockdown has arguably brought things to a head.
“Studies say [women] do 60 per cent more unpaid caring work… Covid has made [that] much more visible,” says Roberts who, last month, joined more than 50 other public figures in signing a letter in the Telegraph calling on the Government to take concrete action to halt the long-term effect of the coronavirus pandemic on women. The letter kicked off this newspaper’s Equality Check series, which focuses on the high price women are paying in the current crisis, part of which stems from what Roberts calls “the grotesque inequality that exists in British households.”
Here is the letter in full, which is signed by business leaders, MPs and senior figures in fashion and sport:
Her own lockdown has been a mixed bag, by the sounds of it. At Mumsnet, she has had to make 18 people redundant and furlough others, as the site has seen its media advertising roughly halve. “It’s awful,” she says of the redundancies. “Because obviously it’s on my mind that it’s a really difficult time to get a job.”
She is anxious about the prospects of the business, too: “It’s worrying at an immediate level, clearly, when your revenues fall in half. That’s tough, and everything becomes about shoring up the cash flow so you survive.”
However, at home there have been some silver linings. Her 21-year-old twin daughters had been away at university, and she has enjoyed having them home again. Given her children’s ages, she has also been “quite lucky” in largely swerving the dubious pleasure of home-schooling. “The extent of the knowledge left in my brain doesn’t really go beyond about age 13,” she smiles.
Still, it’s not all rosy on the home front: her daughters, currently in the second year of their degrees, will likely graduate during a major recession. Roberts rates their chances of finding work as “highly unlikely” and feels sad for them that they are not experiencing the “really fun year” she remembers her second year at New College, Oxford, to be.
And what of the division of labour in her household at the moment? “I wouldn’t say it was 50:50 but I’ve been banging on about it for years… You go into marriage with an expectation of equality, and I’m married to a feminist [Ian Katz, director of programmes at Channel 4], so I totally expect that. But somehow or other, usually when you have children, you stumble into a more old-fashioned, traditional model that you struggle to get out of unless you have an explicit conversation [about it]…
“You have to almost have an annual review…with spreadsheets, and [say] not just ‘please do these things when I ask you to’ but ‘actually take responsibility’.”
Since Mumsnet launched 20 years ago, it has seen a major shift in its users’ demographic: initially, about a third were stay-at-home mums. Today that proportion has dropped to about 10 per cent. The change reflects the broader movement of women from the home into the workplace, which Roberts believes requires a wholesale rethink of the household. “The old-fashioned model of breadwinner/homemaker just doesn’t exist any more, and yet we’ve got the legacy of women still doing the home-making, so that needs to change,” she says.
Roberts believes the Government should treat the childcare sector as essential infrastructure, and has previously suggested that having two people (ideally at least one man) job-share in the Cabinet would send out a powerful message for long-term change. She knows as well as anyone the challenges of juggling it all; after working as an investment banker and then a sports journalist, she set up Mumsnet when her twins were babies. Eleven years later she founded its sister site, Gransnet. In 2013 she was named the seventh most powerful woman in the UK by the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour power list.
To this day, Mumsnet remains the UK’s biggest network for parents, with around seven million unique visitors each month. Roberts prides the site in giving parents a platform for frank and unfiltered discussions – including those relating to the often fraught topic of transgender issues.
“I’m wholeheartedly in support of trans people’s rights to live dignified lives free of harassment and I believe Mumsnetters agree with that too,” she says. “But I think parents ought to be able to discuss, as they do on Mumsnet, everything about their children, [including] the issues thrown up by children wanting to transition at early ages, and I don’t think having that discussion is wrong or transphobic.”
It is, of course, only one of a great many subjects under discussion on the site. At the time of writing, trending topics include the merits and demerits of moving up North for a bigger house; and what to do if you don’t like your wedding dress. Also, says Roberts, there are threads that say “am I being unreasonable to have enjoyed lockdown?”
As she says: “For lots of people, it’s provided an opportunity for a reset. It hasn’t been 100 per cent bad for everyone.”