The Equal Opportunities Commission has pledged this week to keep a close watch on the Government's New Deal for the young unemployed.
This follows fears expressed at the launch of the scheme in Northern Ireland this week that women would lose out.
Tony Worthington, the Northern Ireland minister, launched Ulster's New Deal this week with a promise that it will mark a sea change in the way employment services are delivered.
The region, where long-term unemployment is much worse than in Britain, will receive an extra Pounds 140 million over four years from the Pounds 3.5 billion national allocation.
Figures supplied by Ulster's Department of Economic Development show that men will be the major beneficiaries.
In October 1997, more than three-quarters of the 18 to 24-year-old long-term unemployed were male - 4,499 compared with only 1,384 women.
In the UK as a whole, there are 122,000 young people eligible for New Deal, of whom 89,387 (73 per cent) are male and 32,709 (27 per cent) female, according to the Office of National Statistics.
The Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland said it had concerns about access to schemes being limited to those in receipt of benefits such as the Jobseekers' Allowance.
"Women are less likely than men to be in receipt of these benefits and therefore will not be eligible for New Deal," said Joan Smyth, commission chair and chief executive.
Basing figures on "registered" unemployed distorts the picture because many women are not eligible for the jobseeker's allowance and therefore will not benefit from the New Deal arrangements.
"We will be continuing to raise these issues with the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland. We believe strongly that there has to be a coherent response to female long-term unemployment as well as male."
A spokesperson for the EOC in Britain said they were still looking at the various strands of Welfare to Work, of which New Deal is a part, to see if equality of the sexes was being written into the programme.
"We would hope that the Government is seeking to use this money and these initiatives to promote greater equality in training and employment," she said.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Employment said the New Deal had been developed with the EOC and the Commission for Racial Equality and they were confident it was not discriminatory.
There are also concerns in Northern Ireland on religious grounds. About two-thirds of the long-term unemployed are Catholics, but an employer who gives a New Deal job to a Catholic could be challenged if a better qualified Protestant was also a candidate.
To overcome this problem, the statutory Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights recommended earlier this year that legislation should be amended so that employers who try to recruit the long-term unemployed are protected from claims of direct or indirect discrimination.
The Government is considering SACHR's report but has not yet taken a decision.