By Brigid Featherstone, professor of social work at the Open University
Boys and young men have become a focus of public and political anxiety, and of policy and practice interventions, over the past few decades.
Concerns have encompassed their apparent educational under-achievement relative to that of girls, high rates of suicide and mental health problems and concern about offending and anti-social behaviour.
Indeed, boys have increasingly been defined in media debate and public policy as ‘at risk’ and as a ‘risk’ to others. One answer often offered as to why they are having or causing problems is that they lack male role models, although there is often frustratingly little detail offered as to what a role model is or what might a role model offer young men.
Gender of social workers
There is some research on whether the gender of a teacher makes a difference to young men, but we know very little about whether the gender of a worker in support and social care services is considered important by the young men themselves and their workers.
‘Beyond Male Role Models: gender identities and work with young men’ is an Open University research project supported by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council. It ran from May 2013 to April 2015, to explore the role of gender in relationships between young men using a range of services and the adults who work with them. It developed in close consultation with Action for Children who provided access to a range of their services across the UK.
Working with Men, an award-winning charity working with boys and young men, supported the research in many ways including providing access to boys from minority ethnic backgrounds. The services and groups accessed included: offenders; care leavers; young people with learning support or behavioural needs; carers; fathers; men on a mentoring project and disabled young people at a respite centre.
Fifty young men were interviewed either individually or in groups, 12 male staff and 17 female staff. Fourteen young women were interviewed to get a comparative perspective.
Commitment above gender
The main findings were that young men using support and social care services value the personal qualities and commitment of staff above their gender, ethnicity or other social identities. They value respect, trust, consistency, and a sense of care and commitment, in workers, and these qualities are key to developing effective helping relationships.
A sense of shared experience and social background between young men and staff can be valuable in developing effective relationships and in ‘modelling’ transitions to a more positive masculine identity. Although the term ‘male role model’ was used by some young men and staff, there was a lack of clarity about what was meant by it.
Workers in services would appear to act less as role models for young men to imitate, and more as mentors or guides with whom they are able to negotiate and co-construct new identities and futures.
Support services, especially those that are centre-based, provide a vital ‘third space’ in which young men can make the transition to safer and less risky adult masculine identities, with activities providing the gateway to practical advice, emotional support and the building of healthy relationships.
Important questions for recruitment
The research raises important questions about the relative importance of gender and other social identities in recruiting staff to work with vulnerable young men. Gender identities and relationships inform young men’s lives in important and complex ways, and being able to identify with staff along the lines of gender, ethnicity or shared social background certainly plays a role and should not be overlooked.
However, effective work with young men seems to depend above all on personal qualities and commitment, and on the ability to form relationships of mutual care and respect.
Moreover, a t 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.
Within these services, the paramount importance of helping relationships based on care, trust and consistency has been demonstrated, pointing to a need to make relationship-building central to staff training, team development and performance agendas.