The number of women directors has fallen. Mary Braid looks at how business schools are addressing the problem

There has been good and bad news recently regarding the advancement of women in the notoriously male-dominated world of business. Among the good was Cynthia Carroll's appointment in October last year as chief executive of Anglo American. Carroll, a Harvard MBA, became the first woman to head up a large mining group and only the third female chief executive of a FTSE100 company.

The worst of the bad news, however, deflated any notion that Carroll might have shattered the glass ceiling. It was the Equal Opportunities Commission's (EOC) revelation in January that 30 years after the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act, women remained "woefully under-represented" in the UK's boardrooms, as well as in politics and the law. Progress on equality has slowed so much that the EOC estimates it will take 60 years to achieve equality for women in business. It transpired that the proportion of women directors in FTSE100 companies had actually fallen to 10 per cent.

The EOC lays most of the blame for the dire situation on business's resistance to flexible working. Put crudely, women know that asking for flexible working after they have children is career suicide and so they tend to trade down jobs just to keep working. Cynthia Carroll has four children under the age of 13 but the EOC report and others like it suggest that she is an exception.

The number of women taking MBAs is another measure of business's gender inequality. In British business schools, the female intake is generally between 20 and 30 per cent. What is preventing more women from going to business school?

Diezani Alison-Madueke, 46, director of external affairs for the oil company Shell in Nigeria, believes that business schools could do much more to attract them. Last year she became the first female in the company's 69-year history to become a board member, three years after completing her MBA at Cambridge's Judge Business School. The MBA enhanced her career prospects but it was no picnic getting it.

"Family responsibilities are one of the big issues when it comes to women and MBAs," says Alison-Madueke. "The time women generally have children is around the time most people take an MBA. Women are already juggling family and career. It's not a convenient time for them."

Alison-Madueke was in her late thirties when she met her husband and 40 when she had her first and only child. "I didn't delay family for career reasons," she laughs. "I was actively looking but I just hadn't met the right man." She was awarded a scholarship to do her MBA a few years before her son was born but deferred it as she juggled her already successful career with other responsibilities following her marriage - her widowed husband had five teenage and grown-up children.

Even then, Alison-Madueke still had a very high price to pay when she finally arrived in Cambridge. "My little boy was only two and I had to leave him with my husband in Lagos," she says. "I think he was young enough at first not to feel it too badly but by the time I finished he would be sitting on the stairs waiting for me whatever time I flew back into Nigeria. It was heart-wrenching."

Alison-Madueke had, however, set some ground rules with Judge before the course started. She said she would have to go home every five or six weeks during term to spend a week with her child. She also said she would have to spend all her vacations in Nigeria. "I promised not to let it interfere with work," she says. "But that meant that when I was in Nigeria, I was studying until 1am or 2am each morning."

Other women at Judge faced other difficulties. Alison-Madueke was lucky that her scholarship paid for the MBA and that Shell kept her job open. Other women were having to fund themselves and also had the worry of getting back into the workplace post-MBA. Madueke says it is easy to see why women, in particular, worry whether the substantial MBA investment - adding lost earnings to course costs - is worth it in terms of career gains and family disruption.

"Business schools have to develop strategies that are designed to attract women," she says. "They need to offer structured support systems that include crèches, nurseries and babysitters. They have to make it comfortable for spouses to stay or visit. The schools haven't thought all this out properly yet.

"Women also need special help back into the workplace. They are less able to move just anywhere because of family commitments and they may also need flexible working. The schools could also use their influence with client companies on issues like flexible working."

For Alison-Madueke it's also a question of business culture. Until there are more women in the upper echelons of business, she says, its culture won't change.

Judge has increased its female MBA intake to 31 per cent this year by, for example, accepting that women candidates may have less business experience because they are forced to apply before they start families. Dr Simon Learmount, Judge's admissions director, points out, however, that since MBA rankings are influenced by earnings and since women typically earn less than men post-MBA, some schools might look less favourably on female candidates.

At Oxford University's Saïd Business School, women have formed a network to find ways of increasing female participation in business schools. Grace Samodal, who graduated from Saïd last year, says one of the group's aims is to forge links between women MBA students and senior business women. "Having senior women to look up to is important," she says.

Samodal says more business experience is expected by British schools than US ones and that sets the average MBA age on a collision course with the female biological clock. But schools could make more effort to attract women, through marketing, mentor support, crèches and scholarships.

Until the schools do more, Samodal says that the levels of female MBA participation will not rise. How did Samodal square the circle? She did her MBA at 31, so she could get the qualification out of the way before she started a family. With time so tight and so much to juggle, women MBAs need a very astute sense of timing.