The percentage of women employed in positions of authority has slumped at virtually every level of management for the first time in 21 years.
And women continue to be paid less than male managers or directors, the survey by the Institute of Management found.
The percentage of women managers had grown steadily from just 1.8 per cent in 1974 to 3.3 per cent in 1983, 8.6 per cent in 1992 and 10.2 per cent in 1993. But the figure has dropped back to 9.5 per cent this year.
The number of female heads of department or section leaders has fallen and the percentage of female directors remained at just 2.8 per cent this year.
The institute described the survey as a 'shock' and Roger Young, its director general, said the statistics it revealed were 'disappointing'.
'For years we have been delighted to record women's increasing progress at all levels of management but now they have suffered a setback.
'The reasons for this are unclear, but some women could be reacting against the non-family-friendly policies of larger companies and are opting to leave behind the stress of corporation life for the buzz of being in control of their own companies,' he said.
Women were twice as likely as men to resign last year, the survey found.
The average female manager earns pounds 27,862, almost pounds 5,000 less than her male counterpart, while female director's average salary is pounds 56,000, almost pounds 20,000 less than a male director.