For all the talk in business about gender equality, the number of high-profile female role models remains depressingly small. But what is going on under the surface? Is a new generation of bosswomen bubbling to the top in Britain? Over the past three months, MT has delved into the world of senior managers under 35 years old to unearth the Scardinos and Horlicks of tomorrow. Analysing their profiles, which we present over the next eight pages, Rebecca Hoar finds much to encourage and surprise
It is no mean feat to get onto this list. As Denise Kingsmill, deputy chair of MFI and of the Competition Commission, says: 'I didn't even become a lawyer until I was 32. So I definitely wouldn't have put myself on such a list when I was in my 30s.'
So, these are the 'women to watch'; the ones MT predicts will eventually - bar mishaps - be leaders in their chosen industry. Some, such as Elisabeth Murdoch and Stella McCartney, are already well known, but others were more difficult to find. To help us in our task we called on some of the most successful women in Britain today, as well as headhunters, regulators and analysts. Alongside MT's editors, the nomination panel also included Camelot's Dianne Thompson; Caroline Marland, director of Potential Squared; the Financial Services Authority's Howard Davies; Spencer Stuart's Jan Hall; and the queen of networking, Carole Stone. It was a tough filter to get through.
Who survived the vetting process and what do they do? Interestingly, the largest group represented are entrepreneurs - making up 28.5%. Is this because there are fewer glass ceilings when you are your own boss? Or is it a signal of women's growing importance within the UK's entrepreneurial culture?
The next best-represented sector among the under-35s is finance, an increasingly popular career for younger women - 17% work in finance-related fields, including Katherine Garrett-Cox, tipped to become one of the UK's most powerful fund managers.
The third most significant group are women who work in the media, one of the most gender-blind sectors. Because of the competition, several established company directors narrowly failed to make the list.
By contrast, only three women on the list have excelled in blue-chip companies. Perhaps it takes longer to climb the ladder in these environments, but this finding is disconcerting, particularly given the emphasis that so many big companies now place on developing their top women managers. There is one MP, one diplomat, a charity director and a lawyer. Most went to university, although a few started work as school leavers. Many are married or in long-term relationships, although only slightly less than a third have children - a far lower proportion than in the UK as a whole.
Gender prejudice is low on the list of concerns for these women, compared to the Germaine Greers of the past. Instead, many of them believe that being a woman is an advantage. 'Being in a male-dominated environment can help you,' says Jay Hunt, editor of the BBC's Six O'Clock News. 'Especially if you are at a senior level and there are few women, you stand out, and that can definitely work in your favour.'
Jo Da Silva, associate director of architects Ove Arup, argues that this kind of attention can cut both ways. 'There's an advantage in being a woman in a male environment,' she says, no doubt mindful of the relentlessly macho nature of the engineering world. 'You stand out more. But it's swings and roundabouts. If you do well, that's great, but if not, everyone knows about it.'
Hunt believes there are still certain problems that women must confront. 'There's always this issue that surrounds strong women in business, which is how to be a powerful, forceful woman without being characterised as a mad harridan,' she says.
Being the best still seems to be the only way, according to a survey by Opportunity Now, a UK campaign promoting women in the workplace. Very few mediocre women reach the top, unlike some of their male counterparts. A surprising 99% of the women surveyed said that 'consistently exceeding performance expectations' was important in helping them progress through the ranks.
Do these women think it's easier for them now than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago? 'It is more difficult than we would like to believe,' says Elisabeth Murdoch, who quit her role as MD of Sky Networks last year to set up Shine, a production company. 'I think a lot will improve simply by the force of a younger generation of managers - male and female - coming of age, and the commercial imperative to find, nurture and retain the best people.'
Andria Vidler, MD of London's Capital Radio, is more positive. 'Gender prejudice has never been an issue for me, so it must be easier now than it was before,' she says. 'And it's not just companies that have changed their attitudes; it's society as a whole.'
Youth can be on your side. A recent survey by information solutions group Experian found that only a third of directors in the UK were women. But the younger the age group surveyed, the higher the proportion. In the 35-plus age bracket, only 28% of directors were women, but in the 18 to 24 age group it rose to 37.5%.
When the women-to-men ratio is 50/50, articles like this will be redundant. Meanwhile, congratulations to the 35. 'These women really are extraordinary,' says panel judge Caroline Marland, former MD of the Guardian Newspaper Group. 'For them, the glass ceiling is all very '80s - it's nothing to do with work. If you're good, you're good, and if you're not, you're not. And that's the end of it.'
STELLA MCCARTNEY, 29
Behind the fashion icon is a dynamic businesswoman who was only 26 when she took over as chief designer at Chloe. After reviving the fortunes of the ailing fashion house, where clothes sales rose fourfold, she has now moved on to a new challenge - setting up her own label under Gucci. Her trickle-down influence on the high street is already noticeable.
ANDRIA VIDLER, 35
Formerly with the BBC, the managing director for Capital Radio London oversees Capital FM and the Capital Gold Network. She is responsible for programming and marketing and takes charge of big events such as Capital's annual Party in the Park, an all-day concert in central London. The mother of two says: 'I can easily think about the job 24 hours a day, but I don't think of it as work.'
FABIOLA ARREDONDO, 34
The pin-up girl of e-commerce until she resigned as MD of Yahoo! Europe is planning a comeback with her own media company, insiders say. She recently topped the Wall Street Journal's list of Europe's Most Powerful Women, ahead of Pearson's Marjorie Scardino. When not working, Arredondo is a keen scuba diver.
HELEN SMITH, 29
Finance director of City brokers Collins Stewart when she was only 27, she helped arrange last year's management buyout of the company. That was followed later in the year by a successful stock market flotation that valued the company at pounds 326 million and is thought to have turned Smith into a proper millionaire.
GABY ZEIN, 32
Managing director of Freud Communications, the PR agency, Zein has taken on much of the day-to-day work from founder Matthew Freud and is thought to be working with him on a management buyout of the company from Abbott Mead Vickers. She is married to an MD of Tiger Aspect Productions.
DEBBIE WOSSKOW, 27
The youngster on our list, she left Brunswick to co-found Mantra PR, which aimed to deal with financial PR as well as the new economy. Top-level clients include Yahoo!, Moreover, Benchmark Capital and Olswang. Wosskow is proud of Mantra's unusual positioning in the industry.
FFION HAGUE, 33
This former aide to the Welsh secretary is well placed to help her husband William, whose career has faltered. She earns a six-figure salary as a headhunter for Leonard Hull International, which found a big job at Woolworth's for former Railtrack boss Gerald Corbett.
REBECCA HALL, 28
Seen as a rising diplomat, she has lived in New York and Brussels and was the youngest person to chair a working group during the UK's presidency of the EU. Now posted to Vienna, she is fluent in four languages and is adept at facilitating top-level negotiations.
REBEKAH WADE, 33
The youngest person to become editor of a national newspaper, Wade has seen circulation rise in her two years as editor of the News of the World. She has raised its profile but also provoked a furore when she decided to publish the names and addresses of convicted paedophiles.
ELISABETH DAVIES, 28
A former research assistant for home secretary David Blunkett, she is the youngest non-executive director of the NHS, as well as being vice-chair of the South West London Community Trust and director of the UK Breast Cancer Coalition since 1998.
NOREENA HERTZ, 32
The lone academic on our list, this author/pundit took the spotlight recently with her book on business and politics and as a commentator on the election. She taught economics to Russian officials after her MBA at Wharton and is now associate director of the Centre for International Business and Management at the Judge Institute, Cambridge.
DIDO HARDING, 33
After spells at McKinsey, Thomas Cook and Kingfisher, adroit networker Harding is now climbing the retail ladder with market leader Tesco as commercial director for added-value foods (that's about half the food range). An amateur jockey, her horse Cool Dawn won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1998.
JENNY BAKER-HIRST, 34
The director of new business development at Sainsbury, Baker-Hirst is one of the few women rising through the ranks of a blue-chip company. Keen on cycling and sailing, her current work project is Taste, a joint venture between Sainsbury and Carlton TV.
ANNE FARLOW, 35
After Oxford, Farlow worked with Bain in Australia, Morgan Stanley in New York and Electra Partners in Hong Kong. A chemical engineer by training, she is now director of Providence Equity Partners, a private investment house, and is responsible for its European activity.
CATHY FOREST, 33
A US-born accountant, she left Pricewaterhouse-Coopers three years ago for Cadbury-Schweppes, where she has been director of investor relations and is now finance planning controller. Since 1997, she has also been active with the National Council for One Parent Families.
LARISSA JOY, 32
A former media and entertainment lawyer, Joy joined the Simons Palmer advertising agency shortly before it was sold to Omnicom, assisting with the sale and staying on after its merger with TBWA. She has since joined Ogilvy with Paul Simons and been appointed vice-chairman - a key player in the industry.
CAROL SAVAGE, 35
This work/life balance expert spent 12 years in marketing for the likes of Pizza Hut, Disney and Douwe Egberts before deciding to help change the way people work. Now her Flexecutive consultancy and web site give advice to companies on introducing flexibility into the workplace.
NICOLA SHINDLER, 32
A former BBC script reader, her Red Production Company launched with a bang when she provided Queer as Folk for Channel 4. She is producing a third series of the BAFTA-winning Clocking Off for the Beeb and has past production and editing credits for Our Friends in the North and Prime Suspect V.
MARIA GRACHVOGEL, 32
Fashion designer Grachvogel made her first collection for friends at 14, skipped fashion college and by 18 had her own business. (She was the youngest person ever to pass the Stock Exchange exams.) Now she designs the profitable 'G' collection for Debenhams and creations for Madonna, Posh Spice and Mariah Carey.
KATE BINGHAM, 35
The general partner of Schroder Ventures Life Sciences, Bingham advises on investments by SVLS's funds in Europe and sits on the boards of eight life science companies. The rest of the time she answers to three small children who she says don't allow 'lie-ins'.
SAM BHALLA, 34
A feisty entrepreneur, Bhalla launched Transad International, maker of in-flight advertising frames, when she was 29. The company, which has featured in Channel 4's The Real Deal programme, was valued at pounds 6 million when it was floated on the stock market last year.
MICHELLE MONE, 29
One of Scotland's up-and-coming, she started design company MJM International with redundancy money from a factory-floor job at a Labatts brewery. Mone's company, probably best known for its gel-filled Ultimo bra worn by Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich, is now branching out into swimwear and men's underwear.
CLAIRE WILLS, 32
Newly made corporate partner at international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Wills has been aboard since graduating in 1991. She acted for PowerGen on the recommended bid for E.ON, for Tesco in its joint venture with Esso, and for Pearson on its Tussauds disposal.
JAY HUNT, 34
It couldn't have been easy for a fast-talking Australian to become editor of the BBC's One O'Clock News and now the influential Six O'Clock News, but Hunt rose up from down under, starting out as a researcher for Breakfast News at 22, then moving through Newsnight and Panorama.
KATHERINE GARRETT-COX, 33
Called Katherine the Great and tipped as the next Carol Galley, Garrett-Cox is chief investment officer of Aberdeen Asset Management with a portfolio of pounds 29 billion. Now on maternity leave after the birth of her second child, she has said she sleeps with her portfolio under her pillow.
MARTHA LANE FOX, 28
The much-hyped founder of Lastminute.com, she kept her cool while the company staggered on the stock market. It is one of the last of the 1999 British dot.com launches left standing and Lane Fox remains a businesswoman to watch.
CLAUDIA ARNEY, 30
Known to some as Claudia Jay, this former CEO of theStreet.co.uk, an internet news service that is now old news, has bounced back as executive director of e-commerce equities at Goldman Sachs.
SUKHVINDER BAINS, 30
This electronics engineer learned to speak English at the age of eight after coming to Britain with her family from India. Jaguar took her on straight from school, saw her through university and made her principal planner of its new X-type, launched last year.
JULIE DEAN, 31
One of a growing number of women in finance, Dean is UK equity fund manager at HSBC Asset Management. Overseeing funds worth pounds 775 million, she handles HSBC's UK Growth Fund, currently ranked at 27 out of 268 funds. Her managed funds went up last year while others around her went down.
YVETTE COOPER, 32
The Labour MP for Pontefract-Castleforda, Cooper is a consummate political player and has been reappointed as public health minister. She is the wife of Gordon Brown's economic adviser Ed Balls and is on maternity leave after the birth of their second child.
NATASHA CLARKE, 29
Clarke, a former recruitment consultant, set up the Pathway IT Resourcing agency nearly five years ago. Last year she saw turnover of pounds 20 million and is now overseeing an expansion into Bristol and Leeds.
ELISABETH MURDOCH, 32
Already established as an important female role model, Murdoch made headlines last year by resigning as MD of Sky Networks so that she could set up Shine, an independent film and TV production company. She recently gave birth to her third child and is to wed PR guru Matthew Freud next month.
SONIA LO, 33
After rising through Lord Hollick's United News & Media empire to be director of its New Media think-tank, this energetic entrepreneur launched eZoka.com, a site aimed at small to medium businesses. She was one of 100 technology pioneers under 40 to be invited to the World Economic Forum at Davos.
DONNA ST HILL, 35
This columnist and former anchor news presenter for the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation has also founded and sold a public affairs agency, published analytical papers on gender and race, and now runs the Women's Budget Group, which lobbies the Treasury on issues such as the working family tax credit.
JO DA SILVA, 34
A structural engineer and designer and associate director of Ove Arup & Partners, she had a role in the new Hong Kong airport and the extension to the National Portrait Gallery. In her charity work with RedR, she helped to plan and build refugee camps in Rwanda. Da Silva is also a keen mountaineer.