Focus: What's next for women? - Equality time, or so they would have us believe...

MARGARET JAY
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Labour has reason to be grateful to women, whose votes were crucial to its election victory last year. But will the Government's women's unit finally deliver on promises to tackle the discrimination still suffered by half the population? On the next four pages we talk to the women behind the initiative, examine why the the unit believes teenage girls need role models, and hear from women about their lives - and what they think of Labour's ideas

MARGARET JAY is no ordinary woman. Her father, James Callaghan, was a prime minister. Her former husband, Peter Jay, was an ambassador to Washington. Her former lover, the American Carl Bernstein, was an award- winning journalist. Like Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, Baroness Jay is handsome, clever and rich. A former television reporter, now enjoying a glittering career in public life, she exudes glamour and confidence, and buzzes with energy. Educated at a private girl's school and at Oxford, she has, everyone agrees, "had it all".

At the age of 56, Baroness Jay of Paddington has become one of Tony Blair's favourite Cabinet ministers. She even advises the Prime Minister on the sleeping arrangements in Downing Street. After asking her to throw hereditary peers out of the House of Lords, Mr Blair has given her another difficult task: to look after women. He could not have found a less typical example. At 6ft tall, Baroness Jay towers above most members of her sex. Can she ever understand what ordinary women think? "I know, I know. I've had such a privileged life," she says disarmingly. "How can I be a role model when I came out of such a different world from most people? And do you think young women will want to be represented by a grandmother?"

Tomorrow, Baroness Jay will relaunch the women's unit, the body set up by the Government to tackle key issues - education, pay, working conditions - affecting the female half of the population. Since Harriet Harman left, this group of civil servants has been beefed up to include around 40 full- time staff. It has been moved from the Department for Social Security to the Cabinet Office - a symbolic change which puts it next to Downing Street.

There has also been a shift of emphasis. Unlike her predecessor, the new minister for women does not consider herself a feminist. "In the 1960s and 1970s I wasn't involved in that. I was already working, already had children. In politics, feminism is seen as negative, complaining about things; it's perceived to be about separateness. You don't have to be negative like that."

Entering housewifely hostess mode, she bounds across to a table in her office where lunch has been put out. "I can't survive without eating," she booms. Baroness Jay doesn't understand the point of eating disorders and is one of the few ministers who will tuck into sticky toffee pudding for tea. Nor does she feel blighted by sexism. "Maybe there were times when I felt I'd been disadvantaged because I was a woman - but you can't let it bother you, you get on with it. I don't want the women's unit to be exclusive."

The only thing that irritates her is the press's obsession with personality, particularly her love life (the Daily Mail called her a "man-eater"). "You can make a speech in the House of Lords and they say she was wearing a red dress. I mean for God's sake, if they did this to the men - he was wearing a horrible tie or he looked as though he hadn't had a haircut for weeks - everyone would think it was ridiculous." She admits this is probably an example of sexism, but is unwilling to blame only that. "It's the whole personality cult, Hello! magazine syndrome."

Baroness Jay is an unashamedly girlie woman who sees no need to be aggressive or masculine to get ahead. She does not like positive discrimination, and it is clear she disagreed with the use of all-women shortlists to get more female Labour MPs into Parliament. "We've gone beyond that. We should build on it rather than fight the old fight." The new slogan of the women's unit - "Better for women, better for all" - shows that the ultimate aim is to help men too.

The minister has identified teenage girls as a priority. "Girls tend to do well in the early years of secondary school, then fall away," she says. Celebrity role models, including people like former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, are being recruited to encourage teenage girls to have more confidence. "When I was at school we used to have classes in citizenship. You need to teach people to become part of the working world."

The minister for women is concerned about the 20 per cent gap between the incomes of men and women. The main cause of this is the fact that female employees take time out to have children, and Baroness Jay believes that a solution is to encourage companies to improve life for working mothers so that more women can work. The women's unit plans to set up a working group with representatives from the retail trade and nursing to draw up a blueprint for more family-friendly policies. "Why should operating lists be done at 8 o'clock in the morning because the consultant says so, when that's the time the theatre nurse is taking her kids to school?"

This minister understands the difficulty of juggling career and family. In her twenties, as a BBC reporter, she rushed from the school gates to interview experts about euthanasia; in her thirties she washed the peanut butter off her cocktail dress before meeting presidents. By the time she was an adviser to health authorities in her forties, then head of the National Aids trust, her children had flown the nest. Now she speaks approvingly of the "working grandma syndrome". But she hates the idea of being a superwoman.

The secret, she says, is order. She may be in the Cabinet, but Baroness Jay still spends Sundays fussing around her west London home, straightening cushions and putting flowers in vases - "mimbling" her husband, Michael Adler, an Aids specialist, calls it. "I make lists about the lists," she says. I've got the list which tells me what to do and I've got the list which edits the list." There is a price to pay for this female obsession with neatness, she thinks. "It's what makes women seem rather unimaginative. People often wonder why there are no great women composers, or famous painters - it's about being interested in process. That may mean you don't have the philosophical ideas but it helps you get through life. I'm not creative in the imaginative sense. I'm not sure I could sit all day and think about the great work of art I'd do. I'd be looking to see what I could put on the list."

Baroness Jay was a Blair babe while the Prime Minister was in nappies. She is New Labour's natural aristocrat, to the manner born as much as the hereditary peers on the red benches she rules. She is hardly typical of her sex but she understands women's concerns. "We worry that we seem intimidating because of the privilege thing," she says. "But people don't see you running around in circles making your lists and ironing your blouse." You wouldn't hear many other Cabinet ministers saying that.

Comments