03/02/2014 08:58 GMT | Updated 04/04/2014 06:59 BST

The World is Changing: Let Men Talk About It

It's easy to mock the Southbank Centre's Being A Man Festival that explores what it means to be a man in the twenty first century. Why mark out these three days, when they seem to be doing a pretty good job at dominating the other 362 of the year?

A festival for men? The whole frigging world is a festival for men.

It's easy to mock the Southbank Centre's "Being A Man Festival" that explores what it means to be a man in the twenty first century. Why mark out these three days, when they seem to be doing a pretty good job at dominating the other 362 of the year?

Nearly half the delegates at Friday's event are women and I suspect many of them are here to see if masculinity is the new feminist issue. I'll admit I went with that agenda, and was immediately and rightly reprimanded for it. The Southbank's Artistic Director Jude Kelly greeted the room with a warning that "this isn't about how men can improve themselves for women" and a plea that the women allow the men to be heard, the latter provoked laughs from the room - it's not a problem men tend to have.


But those assumptions are part of the problem and it becomes instantly clear that there are deep-rooted issues with our society's construct of masculinity - the way it teaches boys to distrust their emotions and value aggression, and the insecurities this breeds. Throughout the day we are reminded that suicide is the biggest killer of young men under thirty and I think this statistic itself warrants three days trying to work out why.

But we can't deny that we do live in a patriarchal society. Yes boys are under-performing at school but women still earn 15% less than men and make up only 17% board directors of FTSE 100 companies. And perhaps the family court system is bias in favour of mothers but the courts fail women too when conviction rates for rape remain appalling low and for FGM are non-existent. I know this defensive attitude isn't helpful but at times it's hard to feel passionate about giving men a helping hand in the few spaces we've managed to dominate.

And the men here seem very aware of the privileges they benefit from. Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of female rights campaigner Malala, said sometimes he feels ashamed to be a man. Later poet Simon Armitage recalled watching the 10 o'clock news with his wife and the first twenty minutes were horrible things men had done to women. He said he felt ashamed and embarrassed to be watching it with her. I've never felt ashamed to be a woman. I do believe judgements come faster and harder for women but, for me, those judgments always seem to come from outside. I can't imagine the internal conflict it produces to be ashamed of your own gender.


Covering the event for London360, we asked panel chair Jon Snow to name a positive male role model in his life. After the classic stalling tactic of repeating our question back at us he admitted, "I can't call one to mind, I really can't. Most of what I've learnt has been from women."

He'd already given us compelling answers about why this festival was important but it was Jon's inability to answer this question that sold the case to me. Because I don't know any woman of his intelligence and self-awareness who couldn't cite at least three female role models with ease. The advantage of being the underdog for so long is having countless examples of incredible women fighting the system to inspire us.

There are so many things that are hard about being a woman but there are countless places where we can talk about it, not least with our own friends. If men don't have those spaces or feel permitted to have these conversations it's not surprising that 95% of our prison population is male or that so many of them take their own lives. The dozens of wrongs we face doesn't make this one right. We shouldn't apologise for fighting for female equality. I certainly won't shed any tears for bruised egos as we take those boardroom places and parliamentary seats from them. But as the world around them changes, men shouldn't be mocked for questioning their place in it. A generation of happier, more open and more emotionally intelligent men can only be a good thing for everyone.