David Blunkett needs 10,000 mentors with feminine traits if his Connexions initiative to raise the educational achievement of 250,000 young people is to succeed.
At all costs, he should avoid the "androgynous mentor" who claims that the ability to display both stereotypically feminine and masculine behaviour is found in the best recruits.
Andy Roberts, a researcher and the tourism and business programme manager from Birmingham College of Food, developed the theory of the androgynous mentor while researching gender and mentoring for his PhD.
"The assumption was that a person able to display androgynous behaviour would be more flexible and adaptive over a wider range of interpersonal situations," he says.
A survey of 60 mentors from 13 colleges in the Midlands showed that most thought tey needed to be authoritative and goal-oriented (masculine) and caring, emotive and communicative (feminine).
In practice, action research involving close observation of mentors challenged such claims. The most successful were those people who tended to display far higher levels of feminine than masculine behaviour.
"My results showed that regardless of actual gender, both male and female mentors reported that they were very comfortable showing a feminine style of behaviour," he says. "But in the first stage, they had thought others expected them to act in an influential andmasculine way."
The results have been fed back into the mentoring system at college. A wider range of people are now considered as potential mentors and thecharacteristics encouraged in mentors have changed.