In her pre-MBA life, Catherine Markham, currently studying at Saïd Business School, was only too aware of the value of networking with other women. "I got two of my best jobs through women I knew - it's how it's done," says Catherine, who worked for a think tank in the US before deciding to sign up for an MBA.

It was on her arrival in Oxford that Catherine noticed the lack of a formal women's network at the business school. Discussing the issue with female students and faculty, she discovered a latent desire for a network that could provide contacts and careers advice in a male-dominated business world. The Saïd Women in Business initiative has just published its first newsletter and there are informal networking events and a speaker series to come.

"It's not about excluding men," asserts Catherine. "If we have a speaker or discussion about work/life balance, then it's healthy if men come along and hear what's going on in the heads and hearts of women at work. But there is also a desire and a need for women's only events."

Yet others see the women-only network as an anachronism. Cranfield Management Association (CMA), the alumni association for the Bedfordshire business school, disbanded its women's business network in 2000. "Alumnae no longer felt the need for a separate network," says Vivien Harrington of the CMA. "I hold the view that this was a Nineties issue."

The CMA runs seminars and masterclasses on subjects such as diversity and women entrepreneurs but the events are well attended by both male and female alumni. "This is no longer a gender issue but more an issue around getting the best out of the best people," says Harrington.

It remains a fact, however, that women are woefully underrepresented on MBA programmes across the world.

Medical and law schools may boast a 50 per cent female intake but few MBA programmes can manage 30 per cent. In an increasingly competitive MBA world, business schools cannot afford to ignore this untapped pool of talent. In this context a strong women's network can be a useful recruitment tool.

Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, for example, is now resurrecting its alumnae mentoring programme, which dissolved in 2003. Women applicants will be assigned a young graduate, who they can give them the low down on the application process and the reality of life at Tuck, and later a Tuck graduate with 10 to 15 years of experience will be on hand to provide careers advice.

Assistant dean Sally Jaeger admits the mentoring programme is in part a marketing tool that will not only encourage new women to sign up but will also connect distant alumnae to the school. To date 250 women have volunteered to be alumnae mentors, which Jaeger says is a wonderful response given that it's harder for women to stay as involved as men in the years after graduation: "Some of them are not in the mainstream corporate world and are at home with families."

But is there still a need for this kind of gender-specific mentoring in the 21st century? Definitely, says Professor Caroline Gartrell of Lancaster University Management School. Gartrell says it's too easy to believe that the increased visibility of women in today's workplace means all the battles are won. While women are making gains in some sectors, notably the public sector and national arts organisations, women make up only 11 per cent of FTSE100 directors, 20 per cent of MPs, 9 per cent of the senior judiciary, 10 per cent of senior police officers and 13 per cent of national newspaper editors. This dearth of women at the very top means there is no female equivalent of the old boy's network and, in this vacuum, women's networks can play a vital role in supplying networks, sharing information about opportunities and what to expect in an interview.

These networks are not always formal. A number of MBA graduates said they tapped contacts, who they counted as friends, for job information and opportunities. "There are lots of informal contacts among women," says one MBA graduate now working in the City. "Things happen all the time on a bilateral basis."

The old girl's network may lack the powerbrokers of its established male counterpart but it seems today's MBA students value the support and mentoring other women can offer, particularly when it comes to discussing career breaks and managing childcare. But these high-flying women are equally at home working the contacts, both male and female, made at business school.

"The contacts I made while at Tuck really helped me get this job," declares Liz Brecht, 29, a principal with Parthenon Consulting in Boston. "There are 7000 alumni that want nothing more than to hire other Tuckees."

'These connections stay with you throughout your career'

Monique Verrier, 28, studied for her MBA at HEC in Paris and now works in marketing at Novartis.

I really appreciate the value of women's networks because I studied at Wellesley in the US, which is an all-women's college with a very strong alumnae network. It's important for women to speak to other women at different career stages and learn about the challenges of taking time out for a family and what to think about.

When I was looking at business schools, I did use the strength of the HEC alumni network. I wasn't looking at women's networks in particular but at how helpful people were. It really helped me because when I went into the interview I knew what I liked about the company. There's even an HEC network within Novartis - the head of my business unit is a graduate and I have met up with HEC alumni in different departments. It helps to spread your name around. These connections stay with you throughout your career.