Much is made of the importance of positive male role models for young men.

This is particularly a source of concern when looking at vulnerable young men whose relationships with their fathers may be negative or nonexistent, or who don't have trustworthy, reliable or stable male figures in their lives.

A recent report from The Open University and national charity Action for Children, Beyond Male Role Models: gender identities and work with young men, explores the relationships between young men and professionals working in the care and support service fields.

Over two years, young men were interviewed by researchers seeking to improve their understanding of the experiences and needs of young men who used support services, to ultimately to help improve professional practice and inform policy decisions.

"The original project came about because of the concern with the rhetoric of the so-called problem of boys' absence of male role models," explains Dr. Martin Robb, the study's principal investigator and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University.

female helping teen boy

"There has been some research on boys in school and male teachers but not a lot on this subject. We wanted to look at whether the rhetoric was true."

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Contrary to the idea that these vulnerable young men are suffering due to a lack of male role models, Robb and his research team found that gender wasn't the most important quality when it came to relationships between these men and their support workers.

According to Robb, qualities like consistency, respect, being committed to the work and not doing it just as a job, were of paramount importance in building relationships - and those qualities all trumped gender.

"They didn't talk about role models in the way one might expect," he says.

As well as discovering that a committed, consistent carer was crucial in establishing trust and forging a successful relationship between support worker and services user, Robb and his team found that masculinity meant different things to young men growing up in different parts of the country.

"We found differences between masculine identities between communities, and the local context influenced ideas about being a young man, which was surprising because in the media age you think there are universal ideals," says Robb.

"But in the west of Scotland, white working class men valued traditional ideas of masculinity (providing for a wife, getting a 'proper' job), while black men in London were interested in pursuing further education and working in business or the tech industries."

While few of the male participants had experienced positive relationships with their fathers (many were absent), quite a few had good relationships with their mothers.

"A lot of the men were young fathers and the experience of becoming a father was a catalyst for change," says Robb.

"Some were balancing their old lives and former masculine identities with creating new ones and it was quite powerful and moving to hear them talk about their children. They want to construct something different for their kids."

The research also emphasises the importance of the "third space" - a place between the chaos of street life and where these young men hope to end up next - as being extremely beneficial. These non-statutory, informal spaces are run by organisations like Action for Children.

The Beyond Male Role Models project also has implications for policy, much of which is driven by the need for positive male role models at the moment, according to Robb.

There isn't very much emphasis on forging relationships between workers and users of support - and, as this research indicates, perhaps there needs to be.