‘Beyond Male Role Models’: key issues in working with young men

Back in 1992, I wrote a research report for National Children’s Home (now Action for Children) which endorsed the value – among other things - of positive ‘male role models’ for children, drawing on the views of staff in the organisation’s national network of family centres. So it’s ironic that, over twenty years later, I’ve returned to this topic with a team at the Open University to do research in a number of AfC projects – and come to rather more nuanced conclusions.

Last week we launched the final report of our two year ESRC-funded research project, ‘Beyond Male Role Models; gender identities and work with young men’. Our starting point was a set of ‘commonsense’ assumptions that we have called the ‘male role model discourse’. First, that the problems of young men – involvement in offending and anti-social behaviour, educational ‘under-achievement’ relative to girls and young women, and increasing mental health issues - are largely caused by absent fathers and a lack of men in caring roles. Second, that young men need positive male role models to ensure transition to healthy adult masculinity. And third, that involving more men in young men’s education and care is key to solving many of the difficulties they face.

Research has explored some of the issues involved in education settings, suggesting the need for caution in simply asserting that having male role models in schools is beneficial – indeed the nature of the teaching seems more important than the gender of the teacher.  But until now there had been little research on the relationships between young men and professionals in care and support services, and limited examination of the impact (if any) of the gender of the worker. Our study aimed to address this gap.

We carried out individual and group interviews with 93 people (50 young men, 14 young women, 12 male and 17 female staff) at Action for Children projects in the West of Scotland, North Wales, Cornwall, and Dorset, and two projects in London run by another charity, Working with Men. These included sservices for young offenders, care leavers, young carers, and disabled young people.

In our interviews, some young men and staff used the term ‘male role model’, but there was a lack of clarity about what was meant by it. One of the male workers rejected the term as follows: “I don’t have any aspirations to be anybody’s role model because I don’t want them to be like me. I want them to be far better than what I’ve ever been in life.” In practice, we found that workers in support services – both male and female - act less as role models for young men to imitate, and more as mentors or guides with whom they are able to co-construct new identities and futures. In other words, we observed an active process of negotiation, rather than passive transmission, of values and behavior between workers and young men.

Some young men did appear to gravitate towards those workers who came from comparable disadvantaged backgrounds, although this was not expressed as identification based on class. But the vast majority (including young women as well as young men) valued the personal qualities and commitment of staff above their gender or other social identities. Our research emphasises that young people value respect, trust, consistency, and a sense of care and commitment, in workers, and these qualities are key to developing effective helping relationships. One young man said: “you just know you can trust them”; another that “they have time for me”; a third that “you can always rely on them”.

Another interesting finding was that young men’s masculine identities are strongly defined by their locality, and that young men ‘at risk’ tend to be embedded in local cultures of ‘hypermasculinity’, often with problematic consequences. And whereas many young men aspire to a ‘safer’ and more responsible masculinity, their aspirations are largely shaped by local expectations. For example, young men in the West of Scotland prioritised traditional jobs and the ability to support a family, whereas young men in London emphasised the importance of education and well-paid work. 

Finally, at a time when the funding and futures of support services are under threat, this research demonstrates the vital role that such services play in offering a safe, transitional space in which young men ‘at risk’ can begin to construct better futures for themselves. As one young man graphically put it: “They help you anyway possible. If you’re ever stuck for anything, or want advice for anything, they help you get things off ya back. If it wasn’t for Action for Children, I wouldn’t have f--- all!”

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