We women, my Lady Jay, worry about more than our fat bums

In one of those seemingly off-the-cuff remarks he's so brilliant at, Tony Blair told someone on the tube that he was hoping for a baby girl - because he found girls easier. Perhaps the expectant father wanted to flatter that section of the population which has grown most disillusioned with new Labour. According to the sacrosanct focus groups, females are turning away from the government in droves (16 per cent more than their male counterparts); their disappointment could cost it nearly a million votes.

You'd think that a government paranoid about its re-election chances would hop to it and start tackling the problem - or at least get the woman in charge of the Women's Unit to outline a positive strategy for daycare facilities, equal pay, equal opportunities, domestic violence and so on.

But no. Baroness (Margaret) Jay, the woman at the helm of the Women's Unit, hates women. She cannot help that she was born into a life of privilege (Daddy was prime minister) that wholly separates her from the concerns of the majority of women, any more than she can help it that her height (5' 11") and the length of her nose lend her a "here's looking down at you, kid" air of condescension. Maybe she can't help her record for poaching married men either. But she could help her dismissive "I am not a feminist" remark soon after her appointment, and her marked preference for working with male colleagues (as one female Labour MP puts it: "Margaret is a Daddy's girl who feels at ease with men and can't quite see the point of women"). Add to this that the baroness in opposition never showed any interest in women's rights, and you can see why, despite alarm bells ringing about disillusioned females up and down the country, the best the Women's Unit can come up with is a conference on fashion victims. Dressed up as an anorexia summit, this will be a gathering of glossy mag editors and dress designers who will discuss young girls' poor self-image as a consequence of their exposure to Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford.

It is true that an obsession with weight drives some teenage girls to starve themselves. But to reduce women's issues to the size of a teenage bum is patronising pap. A pow-wow on poor self-image may hijack headlines (it already has), but how does it promote the cause of womenfolk? Sadly, the anorexia summit typifies the dismal track record of the Women's Unit. Since its creation as Adam's rib to the Cabinet Office, the unit has failed to come up with one initiative to support women in either their working or mothering roles. Any advancement made by women - the new childcare credit and parental leave directive - has been pushed by Gordon Brown.

While the Chancellor champions substantial policy changes, the Women's Unit instead limits itself to gimmicky projects such as its "Mum's CV", which was supposed to help mothers recognise their skills ("balance household accounts, organise and juggle a number of tasks at the same time") as professional assets; its "role models for women", which held up Emma Thompson as a contemporary icon; and the "listening to women roadshow" which brought the baroness (and Tessa Jowell, women's minister in the Commons) to real women. Even the research on the "pay gap", which quantified, for the first time, the gender difference in wages, resulted in no policy proposal whatever.

Perhaps the baroness is concentrating on the House of Lords - a rather larger and altogether more eye-catching unit over which she also presides. She, who has never been elected to political office, has much more in common with the Lords than with ordinary women. Indeed, among peers of the realm, the baroness is hailed as a great gal whose hectoring manner reawakens fond memories of nanny. But as Blair ought to know, there are nannies . . . and then there are nannies. This one, when it comes to the Women's Unit in her care, is of "the hand that rocked the cradle" school: a self-centred and self-righteous presence with an eye on the main chance and absolutely no affection for her charge.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?