There were a dozen of us at lunch in the boardroom of an executive search firm recently, 11 men and me. The only thing that makes this ratio worthy of comment is that Christopher Clarke, now world president of Boyden, our host on that occasion, has forecast a substantial increase in the number of women chief executives of major corporations.
Yet this was, essentially, a networking lunch and the men had it to themselves. However much companies may feel obliged to give the appearance of using outside consultants to fill their senior appointments, directors can still volunteer names for the shortlist. The importance of the network is not to be underestimated. Yet, as far as I can see, there are still very few businesswomen either in a position to, or prepared to, play the networking game.
So, after 20 years of discussion and debate about how the glass ceiling is to be shattered, the proportion of women in the boardroom has grown by just 2% and Marjorie Scardino is still the only female chief executive of a FTSE-100 company.
Even at the next rung of quoted companies, women bosses are highly unusual. To find a major company without a woman executive director is no surprise; to find one with two women on the board is still remarkable - witness the excitement whenever the achievements of FI Group are chronicled.
But power does not reside solely in the stock market, and anyone assessing who runs Britain today would have to conclude that women generally have more power than before. We have always had influence, but now women are increasingly taking a leading role where they exercise that influence directly rather than through men. In politics, the media and, particularly, the professions, women's voices are being heard. The Management Today power list may be short on chief executives but it is long on clout.
It includes a quartet of ministers, counting the leader of the House of Lords, and a former prime minister. One suspects that if any of these individuals had chosen a career in business, they would have soared straight through that glass ceiling and into the boardroom. For not only do they have determination and dedication, they obviously excel at networking: no one gets to the top in politics without being prepared to put in evening after evening on the rubber chicken and mushroom vol-au-vent circuit.
Most women entering business, however, want a career rather than something that will take over their entire life. One reason that we are now hearing less about the lack of high-flying female executives is because we are hearing more about the work/life debate. Women have traditionally been the ones struggling to balance their lives, sacrificing career prospects in the process. But now, as research projects by both think tank Demos and Management Today have shown, men too are beginning to ponder whether a career should be life's overwhelming priority.
If family is to play an important part in the equation, then battling up the corporate ladder for the privilege of a job that will demand a punishing schedule is not the most attractive career option. Nicola Horlick's determination to be one of the UK's most powerful money managers and a mother only served to persuade most women that there was a better way to organise their lives. That is why, to a large extent, the absence of women from the highest echelons of business is as much a result of their opting out as it is of companies being guilty of sexual discrimination.
Doctors can prolong fertility, and statistics show that women delay having children while they build a career, but the medical profession has not yet found a way to allow couples to choose who should be the child-bearer. Although New Man may be more willing than his predecessor to help with child care, the issue of motherhood is a major consideration in the career choice of many women.
The idea that we should all work smarter, not longer, is hugely attractive but it is not yet translating into reality. British staff work the longest hours in Europe and the average senior executive can regularly put in a 12-hour day - and that is before the often obligatory business dinner. There are mavericks who have the confidence to refuse to comply with the prevailing culture: Gerry Robinson, for instance, is proud of the fact that he quits his Granada office early every Friday to enjoy a long weekend in Ireland, yet no one questions that he is serving his shareholders to the full. But you have to be right at the top to shun the culture of 'presenteeism'.
Women with young children, or even teenagers, tend not to want to consign their care entirely to the nanny. Fathers are rarely happy about being absent from so much of their children's lives either, but they at least have tradition to help them accept it.
The professions can also make huge demands on those who wish to get to the top, but they tend to offer more flexibility for people building a career. The leading law firms and accountancy practices seem more able than industry to accommodate the needs of someone who wants to take a career break or cut down on hours in order to devote time to children, and they are being rewarded for this flexibility by the loyalty of outstanding staff.
Head-hunting, too, can offer some of the flexibility that many women seek. Carol Leonard, who runs the fast-growing Leonard Hull International, operates as efficiently from her home as from her office. Ffion Hague recently joined the firm, adding to the growing list of highly qualified females choosing not to compete for industry's top jobs but to assume the role of kingmaker.
The fact that careers can prosper within a single firm also seems relevant to the success of women within the professions. Industry tends to favour those who have put themselves about a bit, moving companies, and often locations, regularly. This is where the importance of networking comes in. Yve Newbold, now a head-hunter with Heidrick & Struggles but once famous as one of the most powerful businesswomen of her day, now lectures women on effective networking. 'Women have tighter lives and, if they network at all, it tends to be with other women,' she says.
Newbold insists that ambitious women need to be where the powerful men are. Yet not every ambitious businesswoman feels that she has the time to devote to charitable activities where, apart from the primary objective of doing good, she might also meet those who could further her own career. And neither do her juniors feel able to take advantage of what institutions such as the London Business School have to offer. A Masters in Business Administration is now considered a useful passport on the road to the top in industry but few women have one.
In part, this must be because the most popular time to do an MBA is in the late twenties, just when women are beginning to think about family matters. Hilary Harris, from the Cranfield Business School, believes that this scarcity of MBAs among female executives is indicative of how women's career progression is influenced by the wish to achieve some balance in the demands of home and work.
The best way to do that is to be in charge and women are now at the helm of a quarter of the SMEs - the small and medium-sized enterprises on which the future of the economy depends.
These organisations should prosper: business theorists point to female skills such as 'time juggling' and 'emotional intelligence' as being important to the success of companies in the new millennium. If major corporations want to court female talent, they will have to examine their souls. In theory, they have embraced the need for equal opportunities and family-friendly policies but, in practice, their attitudes remain entrenched in the old ways.
Patience Wheatcroft is business editor of the Times
1. MARJORIE SCARDINO
Pearson's CEO, 53, impresses with her strategic decisions. The skilful repositioning of Pearson at the head of the new economy puts her among the global business elite.
2. CHERIE BOOTH
One of the country's top QCs and a part-time judge, Booth, 45, may be the prime minister's wife yet she has taken on the Government in court over proposed changes to excise duty.
3. ELISABETH MURDOCH
Aged only 31, Murdoch's rapid rise means she is already firmly established in the Murdoch media empire. Last year she became the managing director of Sky Networks.
4. DeANNE JULIUS
A member of the Bank of England's MPC and former BA chief economist, this 50-year-old American's stand against higher interest rates has won her many admirers.
5. MARTHA LANE FOX
The 27-year-old co-founder of Britain's most talked-about business has become the public face of the e-commerce revolution in Britain since lastminute.com first hit the web in 1998.
6. CAROL GALLEY
A tough year for the 51-year-old co-head of Merrill Lynch Asset Management, with over dollars 1 trillion in her care. Some clients withdrew funds, and a row broke out with Unilever.
7. NICOLA HORLICK
The most famous woman ever to leave Morgan Grenfell, this 39-year-old is back in the news after an impressive year as managing director of SG Asset Management.
8. DENISE KINGSMILL
The deputy chief of the Competition Commission, 52, is tough on overpricing and has been spoken of as a possible successor to John Bridgeman at the OFT.
9. GAIL REBUCK
The 48-year-old head of publishing empire Random House, which produced 1,600 titles last year, has masterminded its growth from a UK business to an international force.
10. PATRICIA HEWITT
The small business and e-commerce minister at the DTI, 51-year-old Hewitt is close to the prime minister and looks set for cabinet office after the next election.
11. BARBARA CASSANI
Under Cassani, 39, Go (BA's cut-price airline) expanded rapidly and became a household name. Recently clashed with Lufthansa over the latter's alleged anti-competitive practices.
12. CLARA FREEMAN
Whatever happens to her ailing employer, the head of UK stores for Marks & Spencer, 47, is an impressive performer who looks set to stay on the senior executive circuit.
13. LESLEY MacDONAGH
Managing partner at City lawyers Lovells, MacDonagh, 47, proved her mastery of merger tactics as the company absorbed competitors to become fifth-largest law firm in Europe.
14. HELEN ALEXANDER
As chief executive of the Economist group, Alexander, 43, has built on her firm's strong reputation as an information provider, both in the real world and on the net.
15. KATHLEEN O'DONOVAN
On the winning side of the BTR/Siebe merger, O'Donovan, 43, emerged as CFO of the restructured Invensys Group. Made a non-executive director of the Bank of England in 1999.
16. ANITA RODDICK
Having taken a step back from her day-to-day involvement with Body Shop last year, Roddick, 57, has been linked to a dollars 268m bid for US ice cream business Ben & Jerry's.
17. JULIE MEYER
US-born INSEAD graduate Meyer, 33, has become a leading voice of e-business in Britain since founding FirstTuesday, bringing investors and e-trepreneurs together.
18. MARGARET HODGE
Former Islington council leader Hodge, 55, is minister for Education and Employment. She champions the rights of disabled workers and heads the Government's work/life campaign.
19. ROSIE BOYCOTT
The first woman to edit a national daily newspaper (the Express, in 1998). The 48-year-old's next step looks uncertain in the face of the Carlton/United News merger talks.
20. DELIA SMITH
The phenomenal success of her book and TV series 'How to Cook' have bolstered the reputation of Britain's favourite cook. Smith, 58, is said to be worth more than pounds 20m.
21. JULIE MELLOR
Chief of the EOC and a canny political operator, 43-year-old Mellor is now championing equal rights for parents at work: women and men who want to spend more time with their family.
22. AMELIA FAWCETT
Boston-born Fawcett, 43, is an MD of Morgan Stanley in London. She is a member of the New Deal Task Force, the DTI's competitiveness council and the Prince's Trust advisory board.
23. ANJI HUNTER
A friend of Blair's since university days, his private secretary, 44, is the UK's ultimate gate-keeper. Get Hunter onside and you may win extra minutes with the PM.
24. CAROLINE MARLAND
The 53-year-old managing director of Guardian Newspapers, Marland has recently been appointed to Richard Branson's National Lottery bid, the People's Lottery.
25. BARONESS JAY
The 'scourge of the House of Lords' and a key Blairite, Jay, 60, was a TV journalist before joining the opposition in 1992. She is now leader of the House of Lords and minister for women.
26. HILARY CROPPER
Chairman of business technology company the FI Group, Cropper, 59, is a strong contender for the title of best-paid British busineswoman, having earned about pounds 17.9m last year.
27. BARONESS THATCHER
Sought for advice by the current PM, Thatcher's influence on Britain (and the New Labour Government) endures. At 74, she is still a star turn on the international lecture circuit.
28. CAROL FISHER
As head of government communications arm the Central Office of Information, 45-year-old Fisher manages one of the biggest ad budgets in Britain - over pounds 100m last year.
29. SHEILA McKECHNIE
The head of the Consumers' Association, 51, is campaigning hard against high prices in 'rip-off Britain' and has overseen the CA's increasing interest in online consumer rights.
30. JANET STREET-PORTER
Famous for inventing 'Yoof' television (even now, at 53). Controversially appointed editor of the Independent on Sunday, she has shown a steadier touch than many predicted.
31. JUDITH MAYHEW
At 51, Mayhew is the driving force of the Corporation of London, the local authority for the City of London. She is a powerful advocate for the City and its world status.
32. BARBARA THOMAS
A leading light of Britain's business scene, American-born Thomas, 53, is well connected in banking and investment circles. She raised pounds 100m for new fund Net-Investor.
33. JENNY ABRAMSKY
Abramsky launched Radio 5 Live, News 24 and News Online and, at 53, is tackling the roll-out of digital services as BBC director of radio. Appointed Helen Boaden (see '10 to watch').
34. BEVERLY HODSON
A former senior executive at Boots and Dolcis, Hodson, 48, is an established high street big hitter who provides books and magazines to the nation as head of retailing at WH Smith.
35. STEPHANIE MONK
Executive director and head of human resources for Granada Group, Britain's largest catering firm, Monk, 56, recently sold part of her holding in the company, making close to pounds 1m in profit.
36. VAL GOODING
The head of BUPA, 49, intervened in the recent NHS crisis to offer beds to the struggling public sector - another savvy move by the head of the UK's leading private health service provider.
37. JANE ROOT
The 43-year-old controller of BBC2, who caused an outcry by axing (then reinstating) One Man and his Dog last year. Rumours of a cool relationship with Greg Dyke.
38. LORNA PARKER
Finding executive talent for the digital economy is just the latest challenge facing the 41-year-old boss of Spencer Stuart, one of the top three international head-hunting firms.
39. RACHEL BRANDENBURGER
A partner at law firm Freshfields, the 45-year-old Brandenburger advises on media and telecom regulatory issues and is acting for EMI on its merger with Time Warner.
40. JULIA NEUBERGER
A media rabbi and chief executive of health think tank the King's Fund, Neuberger, 50, exerts considerable influence on government policy with her staunch views on healthcare issues.
41. CAMILLA RHODES
Now managing director at Times Newspapers, Rhodes, 41, has risen to a more powerful position in a business traditionally regarded as the preserve of the macho man.
42. GILL CARRICK
After the National Enterprise Board and a stint at an engineering company, Carrick joined recruitment specialists GKR in 1982. At 48, she is now head of the practice.
43. MARIAN PELL
Head of corporate insurance at solicitors Herbert Smith, where she acts for AXA and NPI, and half of a power couple - she is married to leading banker Gordon Pell.
44. DAWN AIREY
The prospects are looking bright for Channel 5's 39-year-old programme director as the station continues its commercial success. Airey is being tipped for greater things.
45. JAN HALL
Now a rising star of London head-hunting firm Spencer Stuart (see Lorna Parker, No 38 on list), 42-year-old Hall was formerly the European head of the GGT ad group.
46. MO MOWLAM
The 50-year-old cabinet enforcer falls 31 places this year after being ousted as Northern Ireland secretary. Remains popular but faces an uncertain political future.
47. VIVIEN DUFFIELD
A vice-chairman of the Royal Opera House, Duffield, 54, has raised about pounds 100m towards its restoration. She is heiress to the Sears fortune and chairman of the Clore Foundation.
48. DIANNE THOMPSON
The woman who rebranded Ratner's after 'that' speech, Thompson, 49, is the new chief executive at Camelot and fighting Richard Branson for the lottery franchise.
49. YVE NEWBOLD
Former company secretary at Hanson, Newbold, 59, was for years the only prominent woman near the corporate top tables in the UK. Now head-hunts for Heidrick & Struggles.
50. LOUISE PATTEN
How the former Bain & Company managing partner handles the disposal of supermarket chain Somerfield, of which she is acting chair, may determine whether she rises in our list.
10 TO WATCH
After a meteoric rise through the sales side, Bailey, 38, now heads magazine group IPC, publisher of Marie Claire, Loaded and Country Life.
Bingham, 34, runs the fast-growing life science fund at Schroder Ventures, which at dollars 310m is the largest of its kind in the world.
At 44, Radio 4's new controller has high credentials as a programme maker and may silence accusations of dumbing down that have beset the BBC's flagship network.
After a stint at Morgan Stanley, 34-year-old Farlow joined venture capital firm Electra in 1992; she moved to Hong Kong as a director in 1996, returning to the London HQ last year.
Former ad executive and head of corporate affairs for Thames TV, Farr, 44, is now director of public service marketing at the BBC and chair of the Marketing Group of Great Britain.
Aged 41, the former Times journalist set up Leonard Hull International as a new headhunting business (and recently acquired the services of Ffion Hague on the way).
The Australian Harvard MBA, 35, is chief operating officer of media group Clear Channel and has just been made a director of retail banking group the Halifax.
A leading e-business investor and MD of seed capital fund Marcus Ventures, Marcus has just launched networking organisation High Tech Women.
The former head of strategy at Pearson, 40, was once an ad exec at Saatchi & Saatchi's, where she locked horns with Maurice himself. She is now MD of the British Museum.
TRINNY WOODALL & SUSANNAH CONSTANTINE
Socialite style commentators turned e-trepreneurs, Woodall, 37, and Constantine, 38, set up Ready2shop.com, dispensing advice to time-poor professionals.