It's the year 2010. The female future has finally arrived. Which of these women will be running the country?

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The Independent Online
It has been a long wait but it may finally happen. In the next decade women may break through the notorious "glass ceiling" that has capped their careers in the past. Of course, some women have already made it through to the very top of their fields, but these cases are notable because they are exceptional. In the next decade something more far-reaching is possible: an entire generation of women could rise to positions of power and influence in politics and public service, the professions and the media, business and the arts.

We have been told for some time that the future will be female, but progress towards equality has been painfully slow. Official surveys show that only 2 per cent of top management jobs are held by women and only 3 per cent of directorships. The power-dressing executive of the Eighties turned into a myth soon after it became a caricature. Pregnancy and childcare - or rather employers' unwillingness to provide it - are still the main reasons why women's careers are curtailed. As a result, more and more women are having children later or not at all.

In the next few years, however, the momentum for change may become so strong that it is irresistible. Girls are consistently outperforming boys in GCSEs. About 90 per cent of women aged between 16 and 24 have qualifications compared with barely half of those aged between 35 and 55, according to a report from Demos, the independent think-tank. Across the social spectrum women are becoming more committed to achieving success than their male counterparts - and more frustrated that their ambitions are not being realised.

To mark the potential of this generation who could bring down the glass ceiling, today and tomorrow we profile 40 women under the age of 40 capable of rising to the very top of their fields. It's a selective and subjective survey, based on the views of our specialist correspondents and their contacts. Many hundreds of women could have been included in what certainly is not a "top 40". But these 40 are representative of a generation which, in the next decade and beyond, could run Britain.