Why are good men so hard to find?

The Mayor’s Mentoring Scheme for black men and boys was in the press again recently because a third of the 2000 mentors who have signed up are female. It’s another awkward moment for the beleaguered programme, but also a reminder of how hard it is to recruit men as mentors.

So why are good men so hard to find?

Lots of men are involved with formal volunteering (38% of men in the UK volunteer as compared to 42% of women) so volunteering isn’t the problem.  Men also seem happy to work in professions focussed on children and young people; 38% of teachers in secondary schools are men and more than half of consultant paediatricians* are male, so working with children isn’t the problem either. However, men are significantly underrepresented in professions that feature high levels of pastoral care and closer emotional contact.  Men account for only 20% of members at the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, only 13% of primary school teachers (a quarter of primary schools have no male teachers), and just 10% of the nursing workforce.

It may be that men are put off mentoring because they see it as a ‘touchy-feely’ role with close emotional contact. The language of mentoring, which often refers to emotional bonding and the power of relationships, may serve to reinforce this. Perhaps we can make mentoring more attractive to men simply by focussing more on the activities involved in being a mentor and less on the relationship content.

A few years ago I met with Richard Aston, CEO of the Big Buddies mentoring programme (based, as you may have guessed, in New Zealand). Big Buddies only works with men and boys and it has an interesting way of explaining the mentoring proposition. Every man, according to Big Buddies, needs to mentor to pass on skills and life experience to the next generation of men, whether that’s how to track reindeer or understand the offside rule. Skill sharing, he suggests, is part of the male DNA.

Friendship Works has been steadily increasing the ratio of male to female mentors. From 2000-2006 only 14% of new mentors were male. Over the last 5 years that has increased to 29%. It seems unlikely that this is a societal or attitudinal change; it must be something that we’re doing differently.

In 2009 we changed our name and our promotional materials to emphasize active mentoring over befriending or relationship building. Anecdotally, it seems that these changes have resonated well with men. There are likely other reasons for our recent successes, and it’s essential that we fully understand what they are. We’ve now got fantastic systems in place to track our advertising spend and return and we will use these over the coming years to measure different approaches to recruiting men.

Many boys today do not have close contact with male role models, particularly if they come from socially isolated families with absent fathers. The distant role models that they have in the media are often one dimensional, unrealistic, and negative portrayals of maleness.  As a boy in 21st century Britain, you could be forgiven for thinking that guns, violence, and misogyny are important aspects of being a modern man.

Male mentors can help to plug this gap – and that’s why it’s so important that we understand why men are still underrepresented and learn how to turn this around. What do you think is the cause – or more importantly – what do you think is the solution?  We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.