Remembering My Hat

12th March 2015

Beyond Male Role Models? Gender identities and work with young men. End-of-award conference

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My usual partial and incomplete liveblog from a conference. My own reaction in square brackets.

Kate Mulley

Director of Policy and Campaigns, Action for Children (Joint project between AfC and OU)

This group of young men is invisible to policy, except as villains.

What sold the project to them:

  • Understanding better something that is usually thought about in a stereotypical way
  • making unheard voices heard
  • fitted their strength-based approach – avoiding deficit models (e.g. support that lone dads give their kids)
  • chance to use research in inform policy and practice

Martin Robb – PI

Relationship with Action for Children has been vital – involved in drawing up the bid as well as once fieldwork. Also ‘Working with Men’ group.

Background rationale for project:

‘Male role model’ discourse has become a kind of taken-for-granted explanation and solution to the ‘problem’ of boys and young men. Problem boys lack good male role models (absent dads) and the solution is supplying alternative good male role models

  • Little evidence to support this. Some on education – does the gender of the teacher matter? Answer: can’t tell – too complex an issue.
  • What about the role of women in young men and boys’ lives?
  • Isn’t that a bit reified about gender?
  • What do these young men and boys think about these issues?


(cc) Frank M. Raflk

Mike Ward – Researcher

Individual and group interviews with 93 people at Action for Children and Working with Men projects, UK-wide, range of locations, rural and urban

  • 50 young men
  • 14 young women
  • 12 male staff
  • 17 female staff

Projects recruited from:

  • Young offenders
  • care leavers
  • YP with additional needs
  • young carers
  • care council (young Insepctors)
  • respite centres
  • young fathers mentor scheme


  • Family both a source of support and trouble
  • Many have strong relationship with mothers and grandmothers but ambivalent ones with fathers and step-dads
  • Becoming a father often a catalyst for transition to a more ‘responsible’ masculine identity [supports strength-based approach, not deficit in relation to yound dads].
  • Locality plays a huge role in shaping masculine identities for young man
  • ‘at risk’ young men often involved in hypermasculine cultures
  • Routes to ‘safer’ masculine identities varied by location – west of Scotland often fatherhood and work (traditional working-class masculine jobs) whereas in London it was much more through education.

Sandy Ruxton – Consultant on project

Support services provide safe spaces to help make the transition to a less risky masculine identity. Avoids being on the street, being stopped by the police or engaging with other young men they wanted to avoid. Many of the young men were actually very underconfident about engaging with the outside world.

Practical activities were helpful to building relationships (round the Pool table) or walking and talking.

Qs didn’t mention ‘male role models’ but some young men and staff did use the term but they weren’t clear as what it meant – people close to them but also people they looked up to and didn’t know.

They didn’t look up to ‘celebrity’ role models

The people they meant by role models were more like mentor or guides – people who helped them negotiate and co-construct new identities and futures. Not a passive transmission of values/masculinity (as ‘role model’ implies) something much more active and dynamic. Women were really important in this.

Sense of shared experience and social background between young men and staff was very valuable for some (especially in the west of Scotland projects). Class and race especially (although not named by participants as this).

Brigid Featherstone – Co-I

The young men valued personal qualities and commitment of staff above gender or other social identities.

Had a keen sense of genuine care from workers (and other workers who were just ‘doing it for the money’). Valued respect, trust, consistency, and commitment highly too.

Really clearly that authoritarian masculinity doesn’t work. Hate being told what to do. That’s a really hard task for workers because you have to not be authoritarian but also help them not do really stupid things! ‘Troops for teachers’ initiative not liked – ‘that won’t work with us’.

Lives very precarious – very easily pushed off their trajectory of building the life they wanted. Very poor, very low chance of getting work, benefits cut etc.

(We used to talk about race, ethnicity and class, now we talk about ‘stories’!)

‘Boys need positive male role models’ is lazy thinking

When young men come to services, it is often because they are seeking to make the transition to safer adult masculine idendities and their asprirations (job, home, family) are similar to other young people.

Services don’t need to have male workers to be able to work with young men (or young women). Gender is not as important as care, trust and consistency.

Gender is still hugely important to young men’s lives and being able to identify with staff along lines of gender, ethnicity and class is also often helpful.

Steve Hicks, Uni of Manchester – Steering Group member

Responding to the project findings.

Gender role models can be a smoke-screen – allows you to justify cutting back the Welfare State. Relationships with fathers is what really matter, so we don’t need all these expensive support services.

Good mums, bad dads dichotomy. What’s that doing and where’s it going? What about extended family and friends too?

Irony of being perceived as too authoritarian as a social worker when SWers currently being criticised for being insufficiently authoritative

Hypermasculinity in other arenas of life too, like the House of Commons! It’s not just a working-class phenomenon.

Black young men in this study described a lot of everyday harassment which limited their options very profoundly. Restricted the subject-positions they could access. Doesn’t determine – they had some very creative strategies for resisting racism and questioning racial identities.

Some young women also drawing on masculine identities – trans, genderqueer and questioning [+ tomboy identities or butch?]

Methodological Qs:

  • How do we know when gender is going on in a situation or a piece of talk? Lots of answers to this are possible! Big can of worms. [I want to know more about how the team are going to handle that].
  • Why is gender only invoked as a problem in relation to these young men? Gender doesn’t cause things. ‘It was gender wot done it’ is not an adequate answer.

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