Walking towards the seemingly deserted office block by the Thames at Blackfriars, I am unsure what to expect. I'm on my way to a meeting of Gather, a networking group for women in what they call 'new media' But will I find a room full of geeky female Bill Gates types, of younger power-shouldered Nicola Horlicks or a hyperactive litter of Martha Lane Foxes?
The last was the more accurate guess. The wine is flowing freely in the second-floor conference room. Little triangles of smoked salmon sandwiches and hot sausages are being passed round, and there is a warm welcome for each new face - even a journalist's. As a 40-something, I am definitely towards the older end of Women Who Gather. Most of them are in their twenties or thirties, wearing casual shirts above black trousers and mules or trainers. The atmosphere is distinctly mid-Atlantic. I half expect a Starbucks man to arrive with a trayload of Tall Skinny Lattes.
It's a very different network from that of the Old School Tie, which dominated business and the professions in this country for so long. None of these women has been to public school together, nor are their fathers pulling strings on their behalf with old acquaintances from Oxbridge or Whitehall. There's a good sprinkling of Americans and no cut-glass accents.
Gather is just one of a growing number of women's networks, which bear only passing resemblance to the mainly male networks they parallel. The new female networks range across all the professions; as well as e-commerce, they include the law, politics, journalism and publishing, to name but a few - all of them pillars of the male establishment where women have decided to network together to break the male monopoly on top jobs.
It comes as something of a disappointment to learn that the new cyber world of e-commerce actually needs women's networks. The hype suggested that this was to be a different way of working - young, unstuffy, no formal dress codes and, above all, equal. No us and them. No 'jobs for the boys'. No traditional roles.
It seems the truth is depressingly familiar. According to Kirsten Edmonson, who founded Gather: 'A lot of start-ups are bastions of bad behaviour, because everything is sacrificed on the altar of time: there isn't time to be pleasant or politically correct, there's only time to use rude words. In fact, behaviour that in other offices was outlawed in the '60s and '70s is alive and kicking.'
Edmonson is an extremely assured 29-year-old who's been working in e-commerce for six years, after leaving the BBC in Bristol. She doesn't look the type to be intimidated by anyone, but says she found the atmosphere of the new e-world far too masculine. Like many of the women at Gather, she had gone along to First Tuesday, the best known e-commerce networking group, where hopeful dot.com entrepreneurs, wearing green badges, try to engage sceptical investors, wearing red badges, in meaningful conversation with a view to getting them to open their wallets.
First Tuesday meetings attract up to 1,000 people and the ratio is about nine men to every woman. Most women who had attended one hadn't enjoyed themselves, describing it as a 'scrum' that was 'frantic', 'full of friction' and 'throbbing with testosterone'. Fiona Czerniaswska described it as 'the most blatantly capitalist' event she'd attended, and the men as 'assertive and aggressive'. She added: 'Everyone's in such a rush to make a deal that there's little time for foreplay.'
She found the women there to be in very traditional roles, such as marketing and public relations. 'That whole world seems to be about reinforcing stereotypes rather than opening up opportunities. It's as if a whole generation of feminism never happened.'
Gather started with a couple of friends asking a couple of friends. The result is a loose membership of about 150, with meetings limited to 30 so that they don't become as intimidating as the First Tuesday groups. In one corner, three women are pouring scorn on the Government's attitude to the internet - claiming to be in favour of e-entrepreneurship while changing the tax system to discourage budding dot.com millionaires. They agree that politicians just don't seem to understand either the business world or the internet, and can't believe how behind the times Westminster is in its use of web pages and interactive politics.
Other women are talking about their holiday plans and a yoga class. There's no sense of desperate urgency to do a deal. In fact, that's not the aim, according to Edmonson: 'The idea is not to be confrontational and make women feel they have to give their pitch. We aim to get beyond the pitch and to be more laid back.' She insists that women network in much more collaborative ways.
So Lindsey Scutt, an IT lawyer, offers help and advice to those wanting to take their start-up plans a step further. Another woman suggests a colleague who would make a good managing director. A freelance IT operations manager teams up with an e-commerce consultant, who has just left KPMG. They discuss whether Ireland is a better place to start an e-business than the UK, partly because of the whacking EU subsidies that make their way there. They offer helpful advice to an American on which countries are a better bet for spouses to find work.
No-one is under any illusion here that you can come along with a business plan scribbled on the back of an envelope, meet a venture capitalist and walk out two hours later with a fully backed start-up. The meeting is much more about making contacts and sharing skills and ideas. As well as the general networking chit-chat, there's usually a talk by an invited guest on a subject such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), or how to project ideas when making a pitch. Above all, the aim is for women not to feel too intimidated to ask technical questions.
The atmosphere of the meeting is fairly low-key, despite the obvious talent and qualifications of many of those present. But it's not without its success stories: Gisela Morales, who started MexicanWave.com, an internet company selling Mexican goods, met a contact from Berlei King in Latin America. They got talking and, suddenly, there was the prospect of expanding her business.
Just as important as the business contacts is the chance to discuss their lifestyle choices. Most of the women attending Gather are 30-somethings, very ambitious and ferociously hard-working. Inevitably, the majority are childless, but they welcomed the chance to debate their options with others in the same boat.
Romana Liberoff, who runs a consultancy to help companies get venture capital funding, is unashamedly calculating about her life: 'I've got about another two years of very hard work before I've made the amount of money I want. Then I'll start my family, in my late thirties.' There is utter contempt for the corporate wife who spends her days fixing her nails and planning dinner parties. The Women Who Gather are taking control of their lives, right down to the last detail.
Liberoff is not alone in believing that children and setting up your own business do not mix. 'The hours you have to put in are so horrendous,' says Edmonson, 'that it would be impossible to be thinking about the needs of someone else as well.' The rewards - so the theory goes - come later, when the business is established, the money made, and there's time to think of kids.
Gather does not have the patent on all-girl e-commerce networks. There are others: hitech-women.com, web-grrls and the more exclusive e-women, where you have to be personally recommended to attend. E-women has a strict no-journalists policy and the idea, as with Gather, is to be supportive and non-confrontational. It even has a mission statement that includes vaguely school-monitor phrases - such as 'non-judgmental' meetings and 'no bun fights' - and it's more likely to be a 'show and tell' event.
This new world is reminiscent, to an old feminist like myself, of the '60s and '70s 'consciousness-raising' groups we used to hold. We wore boiler suits or dungarees, strictly no make-up, and discussed the many weaknesses of the male. But these women have their feet more firmly on the ground. According to Jenny Nabben of e-women, although it has a strict 'no poaching' policy, a lot of people make good contacts and work on projects together.
It's a similar story in other professions. A number of women's networks have sprung up where women get together to discuss their problems and how to help each other. Under the auspices of the Fawcett Society, a group of MPs and Westminster journalists, as well as members of pressure groups and researchers, hold off-the-record seminars, which provide excellent networking opportunities. Women MPs might get some tips on handling the press, PR consultants can pick up business, researchers can spread their ideas, journalists get stories, pressure groups find speakers to invite to their conferences.
It's all about mutual back-scratching and the atmosphere is rarely confrontational. Like the Old Boys' network, it's based on a set of shared assumptions: that women have a place in the workforce; that they have a fight on their hands to break through the glass ceiling; and that running a family at the same time means you're more likely to smash the crockery over your partner's head than smash through that glass ceiling.
Networking is particularly suited to the kind of lives many women lead today. When children arrive, they climb off the career ladder and take on freelance projects. How do they find these projects? At parties, dinners, conferences - you name it. Wherever today's freelance worker goes, they will find a chance to network.
Take Scarlett MccGwire, media consultant and freelance journalist: 'I don't have friends on the one hand and business contacts on the other. I mix the two and I think most women do.' Friendship comes first, business later. 'I get all my work through networking. Every job I have comes from a call from someone who knows someone, but I have to like the person. Men don't work in that way. They see people more in terms of what they can do for them in business, rather than as friends.'
The joy of women's networks is that intentions are never - well, almost never - misconstrued. What a woman might see as networking, a man could well interpret as a come-on. It's just much easier, say the women at Gather, to do without all that. That's not to deny that for some women, in mixed groups, flirtation is an essential part of networking and they're not afraid to admit it.
Of course, men continue to network in the same old ways: at the bar, on the golf course, watching football, even in the men's toilets. It was hilarious, though not surprising, to learn recently from a former Tory whip, Michael Brown, that whips - party managers - were sometimes appointed to 'bog duty'. Knowing that MPs often discuss their secret plans in the Gents, a hapless whip was despatched for a part of each day to sit in a cubicle and pick up tales of plotting and dissent. Who knows, it may still go on today.
Women will never succeed at joining all the male-dominated networks, but at least women's networks give them a helpful alternative. So do men and women really network in different ways? Carole Stone, former producer of Any Questions at the BBC, is the ultimate networker, today's equivalent of the 18th-century French salon holder. She gives what are acclaimed as among the best parties in London, mixing politicians, captains of industry, TV stars, publishers and journalists. Stone gets a genuine kick out of bringing people together. 'I just love inviting a politician to meet a businessman, to meet an actor, to meet a journalist. It's a great way to talk to people you wouldn't necessarily meet otherwise.'
Stone is a member of several all-women networks, including Network and Forum UK, which are both predominantly for businesswomen. She sees the difference like this: 'Women just get down to it and talk about the subject at hand. There's no positioning or trying to establish sexual chemistry. Women can also be more emotional and truthful when men aren't present.'
It wasn't so long ago that women retired to the drawing room for coffee, while the men drank port, smoked cigars and discussed business. Women's networks are in one sense an extension of that practice, but these days they gather for a purpose.
Jackie Ashley is political editor of the New Statesman
DROP IN, LOG ON
GATHER contact: Kirsten Edmondsen email@example.com
E-WOMEN contact: Rachel Coates or Barbara Gehrels firstname.lastname@example.org
HIGHTECH-WOMEN www.hightech-women.com contact: Lucy Marcus Lucy@hightech-women. com
WEBGRRLS www.webgrrls.org.uk contact: Catherine Pope email@example.com
NETWORK (the women's business network) contact: Sandra Cox, tel: 01489 893 910 FORUM UK (top women's business network - invitation only) contact: Liz Harman, tel: 020 8879 7564.