TWENTY-FIVE years ago, on national “take your daughter to work” day, my husband ferried his nine-year-old to the office, where he entrusted her to one of his most benevolent staff. While he headed into the newspaper for morning conference, Jennifer and her minder set off on a job, notebooks in hand. During an interview in a hospital, the inquisitive protege interrupted to ask questions, and jotted down the answers. Amused and charmed, the doctors, nurses and NHS manager she spoke to were probably more unguarded in their replies than they might otherwise have been.

Clearly a bright future as a reporter beckoned. Yet, all these years later, what is the likelihood that she could have gone on to become editor of a newspaper?

We will never know, because she trained instead as an artist. I can hazard a guess, however. Even if she had pursued a journalistic career, she’d have been extraordinarily lucky to reach even the position of news or deputy editor, let alone be let loose on a national paper.

Little wonder, then, that if somebody stopped you in the street and asked you to picture a newspaper editor, chances are you’d think of a man – large, gruff, bibulous, balding – rather than an elfin espresso addict in a vintage frock.

A glance across the British print media reveals a woeful absence of women journalists at senior level. But the same goes in most professions. With the exception of sectors traditionally associated with the “gentler sex”, such as teaching or child-birth, charity work or care for the young and old, women in pole position are rare; not as rare as pandas or Ukip MSPs, but still perplexingly under-represented.

There is regular soul-searching over why this should be, since women are self-evidently as capable as men. Nor can the situation be explained entirely by the demands of child-rearing and family. Is it that we are not keen to stick our heads above the parapet, or less capable of coping with stress?

If you were to believe the headlines about Theresa May, you might leap to that conclusion. The criticism her wobbly performances in recent weeks has attracted has caused untold damage to younger women’s aspirations. More worrying than one high-flyer’s travails, though, are the results of a recent survey.

The conclusions of a questionnaire commissioned by Dads4Daughters suggests that women are as sexist as men. For the 8,000-plus professionals canvassed, the words pilot and surgeon made both genders think immediately of men. Midwives and nannies were, in contrast, perceived as women. Doubtless the same went for kitchen fitters and engineers, ballet dancers and beauticians. It seems that, for a certain generation, preconceptions are engrained. Even the small number of female army generals or neurosurgeons does little to alter the unspoken belief that these are predominantly masculine territory.

You could argue, of course, that this is not entirely about prejudice, but merely a reflection of reality. We are hard-wired to jump to the obvious conclusion, and while some once-male jobs are now as much a woman’s – GPs, say, or architects – others have yet to cross a threshold at which attitudes are transformed. At my ripening age, I at last have a woman dentist. Ask me to picture a dentists’ Christmas lunch, however, and I would probably still envision ranks of men – in golfing jumpers and with Tenerife tans – rather than a stylish crowd of young women.

It is not that a female roofer or paratrooper shocks anybody any more. It is just that they are still unusual. Should that change, knee-jerk ideas will begin to fade. Even those who arrived on the Ark, I have observed, eventually get the message.

What was most troubling about this survey, however, was that women were as likely to attribute the word “weak” to women and “decisive” to men. Now, that is scary.

The survey was intended to help fathers champion women’s equality, so their daughters can enter a fairer world when they grow up. It is an inspired idea. Getting men involved in campaigning for equal rights, and acting as watchdogs against bias and discrimination, is smart.

When the likes of John McEnroe, a father of three girls, lobbies for equal pay for women tennis players, you can see the impact such personally motivated involvement can make.

Nevertheless, it is no surprise that, despite a century of growing enlightenment, some men persist in thinking the opposite sex is inferior in those qualities required for leading roles. Thus President Putin says that men do not have “off” days, unlike women. Such Brontosaurus brains will take a bit of dedicated reprogramming to embrace the modern world.

But when women demean their own gender, things get seriously disturbing. I can’t imagine what sort of people they’ve encountered that makes them think we are weaker and less decisive. Say that to Angela Merkel or Angelina Jolie. Everyone is a mix of virtues and inadequacies, some visible in certain situations and hidden in others. A woman who is decisive on the stock market floor can be weak in disciplining her child. The same goes for a man. And what might be interpreted as weakness is often in hindsight revealed as strength. Patience, restraint, kindness and negotiation are all terrific assets. Nor are they the preserve of women.

The problem is, we have been raised in a culture in which strength is understood in terms of dominance, where the competitive spirit is king, as is the willingness to trample on others to reach the top. By this measure it is not just most women who don’t reach the highest jobs, or don’t want to live in the harsh conditions they require, but a lot of men too.

Yet if high-performing women think poorly of their sisters, if they cannot or will not recognise their worth, what hope is there? The road to emancipation and equality began with female solidarity, but it seems that many who have personally benefitted from this are no longer leading the march. By losing faith in their own kind, they are digging potholes for those who follow.