For decades, businesswomen have been working to break into senior management. Now it seems that they are getting results. LEIGH ROBINSON reports.

The number of companies with female managing directors that hold Beacon status, an award given to forward-thinking companies in the South West, has doubled in the last six months.

Beacon South West, initiated by the South West Regional Development Agency to recognise business excellence spearheading growth in the region, has welcomed the increase.

Out of the 150 South West companies awarded Beacon status, 22 have a female MD, partner or chairwoman, which equates to nearly 15 per cent of Beacon companies overall.

In June last year, there were 11 companies with women holding the reins.

Research carried out in 2005 by the Chartered Management Institute shows that female directors now account for 14.4 per cent of the top boardroom posts.

Women also have an increasing presence in other senior management posts, with more than a quarter of departmental heads, and just under two-fifths of team leaders, being female.

Jennifer Green, a validator for Beacon South West, said she thought the evidence showed a healthy growth in female executives in high-flying companies.

She said: "Over the last six months we have seen an increase in the number of women attending our Beacon meetings and it's good to see.

"The way women think about business can be different, but just as successful as the way their male counterparts see things.

"It's good to know that business is continuing to diversify in the South West and that women are involved with industries throughout the region that you would not necessarily expect to see them in, such as manufacturing and hardware."

In 1983 only 0.3 per cent of women were at the head of the company and even as recently as 1994, women made up a tiny 2.8 per cent of the overall number of MDs.

However, this does not mean the glass ceiling has been broken.

Cranfield School of Management research from last year shows that 22 of the top FTSE 100 companies still have no women on their board at all.

The Female FTSE Report monitors the composition of FTSE Board rooms and acts as a barometer of diversity in UK business.

It points out that in the US, 100 per cent of Fortune 100 have at least one woman on their boards.

The top five companies showing diversity in the UK boardrooms are Scottish Power and British Airways (joint first), followed by AstraZeneca, Centrica and Pearson.

The sectors with the most companies with female directors are banks, telecoms and tobacco, followed by retail and pharmaceuticals.

I've always felt I wanted to run a business, so I haven't let much stand in my way'

Tracy Richards has had a burning drive to run a business all of her life.

As a young woman she left school and worked her way up through a variety of jobs in customer services, eventually ending up as operations manager at a greetings card company in Swindon.

And, when seven-and-a-half years ago she was made redundant, it did not dent her ambitions. Tracy already had her sights on the leisurewear company around the corner from her old workplace, so she popped a letter through their door to say she would be keen to work there.

The now 40-year-old mother-of-two was in luck.

She was taken on as general manager and is now MD of UK Leisurewear, a 15-year-old company in West Swindon that distributes promotional clothing to the printing industry.

The company was awarded Beacon status in October, under Tracy's leadership, which, according to her, was because they picked the right team and established good communication.

Owned by businessman Alan Quinn, UK Leisurewear currently has 85 members of staff.

She said: "The glass ceiling thing has never been in my mind and I've always felt I wanted to run a business, so I haven't let much stand in my way. Expectations of women's roles nowadays are very different and it's not automatically presumed that if you're a mother and a wife they are your only priorities.

"I was lucky because at the stage I had my children, who are now seven and five, my husband made a career change to work from home. This meant there was never any panic about looking after them when they were ill or getting them to and from school, which makes a huge difference.

"But even if that hadn't been the case, we would have managed."

Tracy has an equally mixed-sex team working for her at UK Leisurewear and says the key when interviewing is to see everyone as people with independent skills.

She said: "It's all about what you can bring to the team and how you come across about what you do regardless of gender.

"I am really passionate about my job something I feel is integral to having a successful career. You have to really want to get out of bed in the morning. You need to have drive and goals, be aware and make the best possible outcome."