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Gathering under Minerva's shield

THE LAST thing I wanted to do, when the wrought- iron gates of my boarding school clanged shut behind me in 1957, was to see any of my fellow- sufferers again. We had shared seven years of incarceration, boredom and misery and I counted the days to my release. We ritually exchanged addresses and promises to meet but I seldom followed them up, and within a very few years most of my contemporaries had changed their names and vanished into marriage and motherhood.

I was 17 when I left school with three A-levels, solemn and innocent beyond belief. My father fondly hoped that, after a few weeks at a swanky South Kensington secretarial college, I would be well equipped to start earning my living as a secretary, preferably to some punctilious civil servant like himself. I confounded his expectations by going to university. Poor Daddy]

It used to be a world in which men slipped neatly and without much strain into a decent job and usually stayed there until they retired. Women, before they married, were loyal, efficient secretaries, running their bosses' lives with unobtrusive charm, covering up if they'd lunched too well, played truant to watch cricket or (on Fridays) left early.

Life became much tougher when women entered the competition. One advantage men retained was the network of contacts they'd grown up with; chaps who'd been in their house at school or on the same staircase at college, in the same First XI, regiment or club - above all, chaps who were simply members of the same extended family, with its web of favours and patronage.

For some reason, women were slow to cotton on to the idea that these networks could be manipulated to their advantage, too, but that is changing. My old Oxford college - like many others - has begun organising networking breakfasts for women in industry and the City. Third-year St Hilda's undergraduates often approach me for advice on breaking into journalism. Young women are discovering what men have always known: you need a helping hand to get started.

A new venture is being launched today with a reception at the House of Commons. It is called the Minerva Network, and aims to give a leg-up to former pupils of the GPDST - the 26 schools of the Girls' Public Day School Trust. Dame Angela Rumbold, MP, a former GPDST girl, says: 'We reckon there are at least 120,000 women in the UK today who went to a Trust school and we want to offer them the opportunity to network among each other for career help and business contacts.'

Those 120,000 include women of distinction and gravitas - other MPs such as Virginia Bottomley, pioneers such as Stella Rimington of MI5, Dame Mary Donaldson, the first female Lord Mayor of London and Rabbi Julia Neuberger, as well as the actresses Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham-Carter. They and other successful women will act as role models to current six-formers: proof, if they still doubt it, that anything men can do, women can do better.

The great thing about this new network is that as well as breaking down sexist barriers, it should help to break the more insidious class barrier. The Old Boys' network is, by implication, a public- school network, drawing its original cohesiveness from hols spent with other chaps' people in great country houses, establishing credentials as someone who could carry on a civilised conversation with a governess or a duchess while also knowing which fork was which. The Minerva network will cover those girls, between a third and a quarter, who were at GPDST schools by reason of ability rather than family; who gained free places by competitive examination; and who would rather sit next to an interesting governess than a dull duchess.

This year, the headmistress of the Liverpool GPDST had 100 applicants for 25 free places - 90 were good enough to have got in. The talent exists and now the networks are being created. The question is, will women use them, and will the support be forthcoming if they ask? Successful women are notoriously bad at helping one another. Margaret Thatcher appointed only one woman to a cabinet post, Baroness Young (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1981-82; Lord Privy Seal, 1982-83).

Perhaps successful women think: 'I had to struggle and claw my way up; why should I make it easy for you?' Perhaps they fear that by recommending other women for powerful jobs, they will be accused of favouritism or biased judgement, or their own position will be threatened. We have had token women on boards for a decade or more; small wonder they sometimes think, if there's only room for one it might as well be me.

A brilliant, ambitious, hard- working and deservedly successful woman once told me: 'We shall only have gained true equality when a woman can be lazy and slovenly, can take a day off for Ascot or Glyndebourne or a hangover, and still keep her job - and get promoted when it's her turn to be Buggins.' Floreat Etonensis and pash the port, ol' boy.

The Minerva Network, 26 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AN, 071-222 9595.