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Inspiring inclusion across the nations


In a recent blog, we explored the unique identity of, and challenges faced by, youth work across the UK nations. Since then, YMCA England & Wales has held its first Four Nations Youth Conference to foster its UK-wide connections, with plans to hold a second event over the coming months.

Among colleagues’ brilliant sessions was one from YMCA Scotland’s National Programme Director Colin MacFarlane on positive masculinity, highlighting the importance of providing inclusive support to boys and young men, alongside girls and young women, in ways that celebrate their differences and empowers them to be the best possible version of themselves.

We know that youth provision is a meaningful and potentially powerful space for girls and young women to explore their identity. For example, YMCA England & Wales’s award-winning Y’s Girls mentoring programme matches trained volunteers with girls aged 9-14 over a 12-month period to support them to set and achieve goals, build their self-belief, and re-connect with relationships with family, school and peers.

At the same time, we know that girls and young women can lack the skills, self-esteem, or confidence to engage with the opportunities they are offered. Our soon-to-be published exploration of practitioners’ and young people’s experiences of demographic data and equity in the youth sector emphasises the need to collect demographic (and other) data from young people sensitively, respectfully, and proportionally, as highlighted in this recent blog. It’s a potential double-bind – without gathering data about identity and experience, we may not surface challenges and really listen to young people’s experiences, including who’s being excluded. However, asking questions about gender and wellbeing, without establishing trust and purpose, can be equally damaging. This is a dynamic tension we all need to navigate, on an ongoing basis.

But it is not only about being sensitive to the needs and experiences of women and girls. The issue of boys’ and young men’s wellbeing is also important. Tragically, it remains the case that teenage boys are twice as likely as girls to take their own lives, and when they become men, they are three times as likely than women to do so (House of Commons Library, 2024). In addition, boys are falling behind in the classroom and have fewer male role models within the school environment, given that over three-quarters of teachers in the UK are female. This statistic pervades every ethnic group (UK Government, 2023).

Positive masculinity harnesses feminist principles to “empower boys to become well-rounded, emotionally intelligent, and empathetic individuals” (Ridley, 2023). It rejects stereotypical concepts of what it means to be a man and instead promotes qualities like empathy, emotional vulnerability, and a commitment to gender equality to help boys mature into men who help foster a fairer and more empathetic world.

Imagine a Man embodies the values of positive masculinity. Produced by YouthLink Scotland and supported by YMCA Scotland and other partners, Imagine a Man was underpinned by research that explored the experiences of boys and young men in Scotland about what it is like being them. The research explored the themes of stereotypes and expectations, risky behaviour, community, and relationships, ideal futures, and support needed to explore masculinity. The research also informed a toolkit to support organisations to deliver the programme in multiple contexts, potentially including youth work.

The research found that, although boys and young men were willing to talk about their feelings, this was often not possible due to a lack of a suitable space for them to do so or people who could create one. In addition, practitioners often felt that they lacked the knowledge and confidence they needed to discuss positive masculinity. This highlights the need for more inclusive spaces for these vital conversations to happen, and for the right training and support for practitioners to facilitate them.

YMCA Scotland continues to deliver inspiring work to encourage open dialogue with boys and young men about masculinity in a variety of contexts, and also provides safe spaces for girls and young women to thrive. The expansion of YMCA’s networks across the UK provides an exciting opportunity to expand this work through leading by Scotland’s example.

There remains a clear and pressing need to harness the power of youth work to support boys to feel comfortable to be vulnerable and to talk about their feelings. Through enabling boys to reject harmful stereotypes of what it means to be a man, society as a whole will benefit, finally creating a space for gendered violence, abuse, and harassment to be tackled successfully.