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This Britain

Kylie v Nicola (no contest)

One is a former child star who became a pop diva, the other an entrepreneur. So which is a role model for young businesswomen? By Sophie Goodchild

Cranfield School of Management, renowned for grooming leaders of industry, has found that highly qualified women in their twenties and thirties are drawing inspiration for success from female celebrities instead of top female executives, such as Ms Horlick.

The women surveyed, who included those with postgraduate degrees, chose Madonna and Kylie Minogue on the grounds that they had managed to reinvent themselves even after their initial careers stalled. They were also seen as courageus and successful businesswomen who took risks in their careers and managed to push back boundaries.

The findings, to be published in Women in Management Review, are based on interviews with women in business between the ages of 25 and 37 as well as on extensive research into how women operate in the workplace.

Out of 50 positive role models singled out by the interviewees, 36 were women and only a handful were top businesswomen.

Marilyn Monroe was included on the list of role models because she was viewed as a woman who had achieved success by working with men instead of against them.

Other women they identified with were the news correspondent Kate Adie and the fictional TV heroine Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The founder of the Body Shop and entrepreneur, Anita Roddick, was one of the few businesswomen who was seen as a motivational figure.

The Cranfield study also found that career women were ambitious but demonstrated a strong need to express their creative sides, which were often suppressed in busy jobs. Although none of the women surveyed had children, more than half said that the issue of combining career and motherhood was of major importance.

Dr Val Singh, who was involved in carrying out the research, said that the latest generation of high achievers wanted a better work-life balance.

"There is still inequality between men and women when it comes to careers - successful men have wives who can afford to stay at home and look after the children, but successful women still have to struggle to sort out the childcare," said Ms Singh, from the Centre for Developing Women Business Leaders at Cranfield.

Encouraging women to achieve at work is of huge concern for ministers. Last year, Patricia Hewitt, then Trade and Industry Secretary, criticised headhunters for presenting employers with male-only shortlists for directorships. Studies have shown that a lack of female role models is second only to stereotyping in hindering women from achieving career success.

The Institute of Directors, whose members are leading businessmen and women, said that the male-dominated culture of the corporate workplace was partly to blame for the fact female executives were not seen as role models.

"Women in business are perceived as male substitutes and there are people who have been on boards who, to get on, have played the [male] game. The situation is changing with companies taking on more women," said Patricia Peter of the IoD.