26 Mar 2015

Personal qualities are more important than gender in support services for vulnerable young men, Open University research concludes

Beyond Male Role Models

Beyond Male Role Models

Commitment, consistency and the ability to form relationships of mutual care and respect are of greater importance than gender in recruiting staff to services that support vulnerable young men, researchers from The Open University have concluded.

Research tested the assumption that male role models are essential to the development of responsible masculine identities in vulnerable young men. Concern about the lack of male role models has encompassed the private and the public sphere, family and public services, say researchers. A range of commentators has argued that the absence of fathers and the allied absence of male role models plays a significant part in young men becoming involved in crime and in educational under-achievement. By contrast, the research report Beyond Male Role Models: gender identities and work with young men, based on interviews conducted at support services provided by national charity Action for Children, concluded that building relationships of mutual care and respect between support staff and young men is of greater importance.

The aim of the research was to improve knowledge and understanding of the experiences and needs of vulnerable young men, to inform, improve and support professional practice. Additional conclusions of the final report include:

• Negative relationships with fathers are common in young men ‘at risk’ of developing anti-social behaviour, but positive relationships with mothers and strong female influences can contribute to the development of responsible masculine identities
• Young men’s masculine identities are shaped by where they live and the opportunities available to them are strongly defined by locality.
• Shared social backgrounds between support staff and young men can be a valuable tool in developing effective relationships, and in modelling transitions to positive masculine identities
• Young men value consistency, respect and understanding from the staff above gender and other social identities

The research was conducted between May 2013 and March 2015 in collaboration with the national charity Action for Children. It consisted of individual and group interviews with 50 young men, 14 young women, 12 male staff and 17 female staff, mainly from Action for Children services across the UK.

Principal Researcher and Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care at The OU, Martin Robb, said: “Young men have become the focus of a great deal of public and political anxiety, and policy and practice interventions, over the past few decades. Concerns about the importance of ‘male role models’ have become central to popular debate, but until now there has been limited research on the relationships between young men and the care and support services they engage with.

“This research emphasises the value of care and commitment from staff supporting vulnerable young men. The concept of a male role model for young men to imitate is of much less importance than we would expect; support staff consider themselves, above all, as their ‘mentors’ or ‘guides’ in negotiating and co-constructing their identities and futures.”

Kate Mulley, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “This research has gone beyond the stereotypes and given young men a platform to talk about what they need from relationships with support staff.

“Action for Children was delighted to be involved in this project and to help the researchers access our services. We hope this contributes to a much-needed public discussion on the failure to engage young men in positive relationships and the lack of understanding and trust that it feeds.”


Notes to editors

OU media contact:
Christine Drabwell, Media Relations Officer on 01908 654316 or

Find out more about the research: Beyond Male Role Models: gender identities and work with young men:

Full report:

About Action for Children

Action for Children works directly with more than 300,000 children, young people, parents and carers each year. With 650 services throughout the UK we are in communities where you live and work. We help transform the lives of thousands of children and young people each year and we’ve been doing so for 145 years. For more information, visit or follow us on Twitter @actnforchildren.

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