Women now hold some of the most senior jobs in the grocery industry. Chloe Ryan and The Grocer team asked 35 of today's most influential women in food and drink how they did it and how far there is still to go

Irene Rosenfeld stunned the business world this autumn with her takeover bid for Cadbury and, let's be honest, not just because the bid came out of the blue. There was also an element of surprise that such an audacious bid was being tabled by a woman.

In this country, we're just not used to women as powerful as the Kraft chairman and chief executive (or the PepsiCo chairman and chief executive, Indra Nooyi, for that matter). So rare are female CEOs in the UK that when Imperial Tobacco named Alison Cooper its new head this month, she became only the fifth female CEO at the helm of a FTSE 100 company.

But prospects for women are improving and not just on the manufacturing side. In August, Asda CFO Judith McKenna was tipped in the Daily Telegraph to take the top job if Andy Bond defected to M&S, and has been identified as a serious contender for the top role at Morrisons a prospect that would surely have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.

Whether a natural tipping point has been reached or the recession has made the idea of female bosses more appealing (a cynic might also suspect it is partly because they're cheaper), women are finally breaking through the glass ceiling.

As our pick of 35 of the most influential women in grocery today shows, they're succeeding in every field not just marketing and HR, but roles traditionally occupied by men, like strategy (Tesco's group strategy director is a woman) and supply chain (P&G's supply network operations director is also female).

The challenge, say many of the 35, is to get more women on the board. Although Sainsbury's boasts three women on its 12-strong board, it is very much the exception that proves the rule. One in four FTSE 100 companies still have exclusively male boards and only 12.2% of board-level directors are women, according to the latest Female FTSE report.

The feeling among our 35 is that it isn't sexism holding women back (though nobody is kidding themselves it doesn't still exist) so much as a shortage of suitable candidates. Historically many women chose to or had no choice but to put families before careers.

The early career of Gwyn Burr, the Sainsbury's customer director credited with increasing customer numbers from 14.5 million to 18 million per week, tells the tale of how things used to be. When Burr started her career at Asda, she lost her job when, three months after joining, she discovered she was pregnant. "After some negotiations, Asda agreed to re-employ me after I had my son," she says. "It was tough, but you just get on."

However, Burr saw attitudes towards women become more progressive, after being appointed to the Asda board in her early 30s. This was largely achieved through hard graft, but Burr also says that by the time she came to have her third child, the law had changed to protect the jobs of women while on maternity leave.

"I am grateful for my four spells of maternity leave," adds Tesco corporate and legal affairs director Lucy Neville-Rolfe, who says her professional role model is Margaret Thatcher. "Working women with children like myself used to find it almost impossible to juggle work and home life until businesses and attitudes changed."

The promotion of her colleague Jill Easterbrook to group strategy director while on maternity leave is testament to how much more flexible the Tesco workplace has become.

Judith Batchelar, director of Sainsbury's brand, has also managed to juggle family and career successfully, having spent 12 years at Marks & Spencer while raising a family and been promoted at M&S during the five-year period when she was working three days a week.

In the past, bosses tended to "promote mini-mes", she says, which led to bland boardrooms. Culturally, there have been big changes during her career. "I remember it was a big deal when women were first allowed to wear trousers at work," she recalls. "I have seen tremendous change. People no longer have in mind a stereotype of what a successful person looks like."

Emma Fox, commercial director for ambient food at Asda, agrees: "I think more companies are waking up to the fact that almost 80% of grocery purchase decisions are made by women. Companies are realising we actually need a diverse board so we can better represent our customers."

In some areas of the industry, however, stereotypes persist. Hanne Søndergaard, UK deputy chief executive at Arla Foods, puts the dearth of board-level women down to an outdated perception by some men. "Some board members see it as a very natural thing today, while others perhaps still feel the board is for real 'hard' men.

"I think we are on a journey," she adds. "Some women prioritise differently and therefore haven't got the interest. We'll get there though."

Although women hold more top jobs in manufacturing than in retail, there is a perception that the working environment is less flexible and the culture more macho, adds Mike Roberts, head of consumer products at headhunters MBS.

The culture in fmcg companies is often less female-friendly, he argues. "Some manufacturers have an 'hours culture' of working outside the normal working day and being seen to do so that you need to play to in order to get ahead," he says. "Retail is a pacey environment, but you don't tend to have the international demands that manufacturers do. That tends to mean senior retail executives spend less time travelling overseas and away from their homes."

That said, it is much easier to get ahead than it used to be, believes Perween Warsi, who founded S&A Foods. "Women are on a level playing field they just have to go out and grab it," she says. "They certainly won't face some of the challenges that I came up against. Competition is possibly greater than it has ever been and true talent is in real demand, regardless of gender."

Those who make a conscious decision not to pursue a path that involves battling their way to the top of a massive company can, and often do, explore other avenues, adds IGD chief executive Joanne Denney-Finch. "Women often want flexibility to balance work with other aspects of their life," she says. "That's perhaps why many women join a smaller business or form their own companies."

This route has certainly worked well for entrepreneurs such as Susie Willis of Plum and Hillary Graves of Little Dish, who both set up businesses selling products for children to women and gained listings in the major supermarkets.

However, on both the retailing and manufacturing sides of the fence, there is still a long way to go before women achieve parity in some of the roles traditionally occupied by men. Too many still opt for the traditional roles themselves, adds Laura Wade-Gery, chief executive of Tesco.com, adding that this limits their chances of securing a position on the board.

"If you look at the statistics, many women in mid-level retail jobs are in HR or customer service, neither of which are considered obvious proving grounds for bigger operational jobs," she notes. "We need to tackle this earlier in women's careers, when they are in their mid to late 20s. That means providing role models, promoting the breakdown of existing convention and encouraging women to consider areas that have fewer senior women."

Neville-Rolfe says women who have reached the top need to use their experience to benefit others. "I am determined to do that," she adds. The glass ceiling is fast disappearing, she says, and women's prospects are "getting better all the time".

The reason senior women feel the next generation could benefit from a helping hand is because some old-fashioned attitudes still linger, says Ellie Doohan, Asda's legal director and company secretary. "I was at a dinner last week and the man next to me asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a company secretary at Asda and he said 'Ooh, gosh, that's a lot of admin, do you do much typing?'"

This sort of attitude feels like it should belong to a bygone age, but at least the UK is more progressive than some parts of Europe, says Debbie Robinson, The Co-operative Group's marketing director, food retail.

She recalls a trip to Italy some years ago where despite being the most senior member of The Co-operative team the Italians insisted on directing all their responses, even to direct questions from her, to her male colleagues. "Even today, business women in Europe are significantly behind those in the UK when it comes to career progression," she says.

Denney-Finch says the right attitude can conquer most challenges. "The glass ceiling only exists if you believe it is there. You either take the opportunities as they present themselves, or you make them." For some this was instilled in them as they were growing up.

"When I was seven, my father asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up," says Musgrave marketing director Jemima Bird. "I said an air hostess. He asked why I didn't want to be a pilot."

The hope is that in the future successful women won't be any more comment-worthy than successful men.

Women are coming up through the ranks thick and fast, and for the first time the next generation of female leaders have the opportunities and role models to help them succeed.

In Norway, companies are legally obliged to have 40% women on the board a controversial move that has led to many women executives holding multiple posts. There are no plans to introduce such a move in the UK but, although it's early days for women leading at work, gender parity on the boards of big grocery businesses might be only a generation away.