An open letter to Mumsnet: Why I won’t be coming back to Blogfest next year

Dear Justine and Mumsnet team,

First of all, thank you for organising Blogfest. I appreciate the effort that goes into it and the difficulty of trying to create an agenda that appeals to a broad cross-section.

This was my second Blogfest. (I also came last year.) I arrived on Saturday morning excited; I left deflated. Maybe there was a degree of sophomore syndrome here: what feels fresh initially loses its lustre second time around. But my issue is not with the content, more the way some of it was delivered.

One of the things I like about Blogfest is its feminist focus. As a dad, it’s challenging but interesting to listen to discussions about the role of women in the world and to hear about LGBT issues, mental health and special education needs. I applaud the way you focus on diversity and minority audiences.

However, the one constituency you are failing is dads.

During Blogfest I aired my disappointment at the lack of recognition that there were (a few) men in the audience. In all the plenary sessions and breakouts I sat in (I spent the entire day in hall one), all the language was about ‘mums’. Never ‘parents’. The only time dads or men were mentioned was as the butt of jokes. (I understand it wasn’t so bad in other sessions, but I can only speak to what I experienced.)

I can take a joke about being a man or a dad. But what matters here is context. A man joke in the context of a balanced debate is one thing. A man joke in the context of men otherwise being treated as invisible is quite another.

Invisible? Surely not, I hear you say. Let me point out some specific comments to explain.

  • At the end of the opening session, there was a comment about the queue for the ladies’ toilets and whether they could use the men’s instead. No mention of men being present.
  • Men were repeatedly belittled via jokes. Sometimes these were aimed at the political and organisational patriarchy, sometimes not. When one of your own team repeatedly makes a wise-cracking apology about how a video that will be shown later features a man not a woman, it sets a certain tone.
  • At the end of formal proceedings, your CEO tells all the ‘ladies’ it’s time for drinks.

It’s not one or two big things, rather a succession of small ones. Sometimes it’s what is said; sometimes it’s what’s not said. Hayley Goleniowska from Downs Side Up talks a lot about the importance of careful use of language in speaking to parents about Down’s Syndrome. Small words can make a big difference. There was a singular failing here.

Anyhow, in amongst a series of broadly positive tweets, I referenced the lack of acknowledgement of men in the audience.

The vast majority of the responses agreed with me but I did also receive a handful of critical or negative comments:

  • “It’s called Mumsnet.” I know, but its tagline is the inclusive ‘for parents, by parents’.
  • “What do you expect when 99% of the audience are women?” I am in no way expecting the bunting to be put out on our behalf but I do expect to not be disrespected. I’m not put off by being in a tiny minority of males at blogging events and I put in as much as I take out. Indeed, I ran a session myself at BlogOn.
  • “Now you know how women have felt for centuries.” I’m not insensitive to this but I’m also of the opinion that two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • “Get back in your box, you pathetic crybaby male worm.” Okay, I may be paraphrasing there but if I look on Twitter or your forums it won’t take long to find someone speaking to that effect.

Of course, I don’t hold you responsible for the actions and words of others. But you do have a responsibility to be inclusive of the audiences you appeal to, no matter how small. By parents, for parents.

What’s most disappointing (and ironic) is this.

I enjoyed the Blogging: A force for good session in which Stonewall’s Ruth Hunt spoke about how she dealt with bishops who deny and denounce the existence of the LGBT community. It was a great example of the importance of bridging the divide between opposing views, seeking first to understand to start building common ground.

That session also raised the issue of online ‘filter bubbles’ and the importance of seeking out diverse, alternative viewpoints to ensure a more rounded picture of our world. And yet I saw virtually no attempt to consider the male elite or even men in general as anything other than an outdated stereotype from 40-50 years ago. That’s quite a filter bubble right there. Where’s the diversity of views?

I understand Mumsnet is more activist than other blogging networks. But when, in the context of a mainstream event, activism turns into militancy, you do yourselves a disservice and risk alienating not just dads but mums too.

There was a comment made in the opening panel that the only way to make change happen was to present “data that even men can understand”. Well, here is some data. My Twitter timeline on Saturday was flooded with likes and supportive comments from mums who expressed their discomfort at the tone of what was being said. Many more came up to me, unsolicited, to say the same. There is more than enough data to indicate a significant minority found the tone of some sessions uncomfortable. A number told me it had put them off returning next year.

I was even told that if I didn’t feel acknowledged that this was my problem. It isn’t. I can walk away at any time and do something else – I lose nothing. It’s not my brand that’s being damaged.

Where do we go from here? There were murmurs of dissatisfaction after last year’s event. I wrote about it, as did several others. But here we are a year later and nothing has changed.

I don’t want to see Mumsnet or Blogfest fail. Quite the opposite. I think it is a great platform that focuses on issues that might not otherwise have a forum like this.

Nor am I suggesting the agenda needs to change. I firmly believe you can promote a feminist message while recognising men can be valuable partners on that journey. Davina McCall achieved that in her keynote speech (the highlight of the day). Sandi Toksvig and Shappi Khorsandi did the same last year.

What I do want is for you to make clear whether you want dads to be part of Blogfest or not. Last year there were four of us; this year maybe half a dozen. If you would prefer to have a mums-only event, I respect that. But please don’t claim to be ‘by parents, for parents’ while actively alienating male parents, many of them stay-at-home dads occupying the traditional mum’s role. You can’t have it both ways.

Yes, man jokes are a quick way to get a cheap laugh. But cheap in the short-term can be costly in the longer-term.

Here, in microcosm, is the cost on an individual level. I enjoyed several of the sessions on Saturday. As ever, I loved the opportunity to connect with old blogging friends and make new ones.

Nonetheless, I won’t be coming back next year.

Some will accuse me of taking the easy way out. But, given that feedback last year went unheeded, I am voting with my feet and my wallet.

I accept you can’t please all of the people all of the time. And I’m not saying you should focus on pleasing me. But I am part of a dad-blogging segment which is sensitive to and supportive of women’s wider role in society. I’m also the founder of what I believe to be the only mixed parenting podcast in the UK, built on a desire to offer a diverse range of views on relevant topics.

Maybe my opinion doesn’t matter if catering for dads at Blogfest is an inconvenience and you would rather focus on your majority audience. But if you do want to be inclusive, then I would ask whether you are happy with how many dads you see at Blogfest each year and how many ever return. Believe me, at the moment your word-of-mouth among dad bloggers – and a fair number of mum bloggers – is not great. It’s up to you whether you want to remain insulated within your own filter bubble and believe everything is just fine.

I’m happy for you to reach out to me to discuss what could be done to bridge the divide. If you don’t, that’s also fine. But unless something tangible and significant changes, my second Blogfest was also my last.

Yours,

Tim

My Blogfest 2016 review

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