They're young, professional, fun-loving - and suddenly everyone wants their money... Hester Lacey on the scramble for the female pound
An Elegant bunch of white lilies graces the bar. The decor is trendily minimalist: pale walls, huge plate-glass windows. Smiling staff are scurrying to and fro with plates of sun-dried tomato pasta and char- grilled tuna, for chattering customers who are young and chic - and mostly wearing skirts. Welcome to the pub, freshly reinvented in a female-driven late-Nineties incarnation - a place where the girls' night out has been recognised as a money-spinner that makes lads-on-the-town look like small potatoes.

Over by the window, looking out onto the West End traffic, Alison, Gill and Laura, all smartly dressed, late-20-early-30-somethings, were laying into their second bottle of chilled house white one evening last week. The girls would expect to spend about pounds 100 between them on an evening out - considerably more than the tenner or so each that their boyfriends and partners get away with for a few pints of lager on the equivalent boys' night out. "The menu here is female-friendly, plenty of fish and pasta - even the sausage and mash isn't too heavy," says Gill, who works in magazines. The lack of smoke and crowds also gets approval. And Alison comes up with the crowning glory, one that women everywhere will heartily applaud: "It is really clean. They have loos you don't mind sitting down on!"

This last feature is not by chance. It's a deliberate detail of some shrewd female-targeted marketing on the part of the proprietors of this particular watering hole. Restaurant chain All Bar One is leading the way in the scramble to pull the female punter. "It's refreshing to go out and be able to go to the ladies at 11 o'clock at night and know it's not going to look like Hiroshima," points out Melanie Gartside, 27, All Bar One's brand manager.

The company's latest venture is its own newspaper, Barfly, launched last week at a cost of pounds 30,000 and ambitiously billed as "Tatler crossed with The Spectator crossed again with Private Eye" - perfect reading-matter for the lone woman waiting for her friends. Bar stools have been banned - no more clambering onto a perch 3ft off the ground in a short skirt - and the length of the bar means no more fighting your way in to get served. Wear-and-tear marks on the paintwork are touched up daily to maintain the squeaky-clean feel. All these dainty touches are going down very nicely, thank you. The company opened its seventeenth branch in 18 months in Bristol last Friday, another 10 are planned by the end of the year.

Bars and restaurants are the leaders in the race for women customers but the chase is hotting up. Helen Wilkinson, project director of the think-tank Demos and co-author of their latest report, Tomorrow's Women, explains why. Young women, she has found, are now the hardest-working professional category - and they are reaping the rewards. "The difference in wages between younger men and women is now minimal. The gap is much more acute for older people, and the family gap for women with children still exists. But younger women are pretty much on a level-pegging. Divorced women who are working are another substantial market. Women are now more likely than ever before to be principal earners - in the Eighties, one in 15 households had a female breadwinner, now it's one in five."

This female financial clout is the reason why advertisers and sellers are wooing them directly. "You can see this most clearly in the feminisation of marketing strategies, particularly in the traditionally male markets of financial services, cars and technology," points out Wilkinson. "For example, womens' pension plans are being advertised in Marie Claire and Options - that would never have happened 20 years ago - and financial services and banks are offering more flexible female-orientated products." And women are making sure that when they get their hands on the cash, they are also the ones doing the spending. Joint accounts are out. "Although there is a definite shift towards men and women sharing household finances, more women are saying they are keeping their personal finances separate from their partner's - it's all about autonomy and being in control," says Wilkinson. "The notion of a housekeeping allowance from the husband is completely anachronistic to most young women."

Bars and restaurants are leading the way in tapping this market because working women have taken on traditional male leisure pursuits - drinking and smoking. "The gender gap in leisure patterns is closing dramatically as women have entered the workforce," says Wilkinson. "We found that 79 per cent of single, working women had visited a pub in the previous three months, compared with 83 per cent of single men. The difference between the sexes is insignificant." Working girls, it seems, play hard, too.

Other sectors are beginning to cotton on piecemeal to the potential gold- mine of female purchasing power. Nike and Reebok, for example, are investing time and money in designing specifically for the female foot, having noticed that women spend more money on trainers than men. In 1982, 70 per cent of all personal computers were bought by men; now women and men are buying them in equal numbers.

Car manufacturers are waking up to the fact that women have influence over 80 per cent of car purchases, says Edmund King of the RAC. "Before, we were always told that safety didn't sell cars - but in the past 14 or 15 months the emphasis in car ads has moved away from the wild boy-racers, because women are more interested in safety than speed." Ford designers now consult the company's International Womens' Marketing Panel; Daewoo has introduced creches and coffee bars into some of its salesrooms, and its sales staff are salaried rather than on commission, hence no fevered sales pitch - an approach that is much preferred by female customers.

Travel is another area where women are coming into their own. American Express claims that 50 per cent of the world's travellers will soon be women, many of them businesswomen with serious spending power.

The retailer's dream woman is "ABC1, in her late 20s or early 30s upwards, self-supporting, a home-owner, not price conscious as long as value and quality are right, definitely smart and successful," says Melanie Gartside. The trend for these female high-spenders is onwards and upwards. The educated, professional woman loses some of her financial advantages when (and if) she opts to have a family - "mommy-tracking" still hits the wage packet hard, says Wilkinson.

But if children don't come into the picture, and present trends continue, by the year 2010, three out of five, in theory, could be earning more than their partners. The golden-girl with money to burn is here to stay.