David Cameron runs the government with an "Etonian clique" that shuts out women, a former high flying civil servant has claimed.
The Evening Standard reports that Dame Helen Ghosh, the former permanent secretary at the Home Office until she announced her retirement in August, told students at Cambridge University that the prime minister's inner circle was too hard to break into.
“If you look at the current government, not necessarily back to the Bullingdon Club days, but Cameron, it is true, it is well known, has a clique, a network of friends — the friends he made at school, friends he made at university," she said.
“That kind of clique network was reinforced in Cameron’s case by the people who worked for him in opposition, the people who supported him in his leadership bid.”
Cameron is frequently criticised for relying too much on a close-knit inner circle made up of old friends who are out of touch with ordinary voters due to their wealth and background. Conservative MPs are aware the charge could be toxic for them at the next election given the harsh public spending cuts the coalition is imposing on the country.
The prime minister and chancellor George Osborne were infamously attacked as "arrogant posh boys" by Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries.
And the allegation that former chief whip Andrew Mitchell called police officers "plebs" during an expletive fileld rant at the gates of Downing Street did little to help that image.
Ghosh, who was the only female permanent secretary at the time when she was appointed to head the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2010, said women were just not as suited to the type of networking required in Westminster.
"There was a magical moment some time in 2006/7 when half of the government departments were run by women," she said. "But it is still true for the Treasury and the Cabinet Office that the top jobs are still going to men, which I regret.
"Female Cabinet ministers do a bit of networking among themselves but the other networks in governments are often much, much more powerful — whether it’s the Etonian clique or the Brownites or the Blairites."
She added: "Women don't network. It is actually quite difficult for a woman to get in as part of an Old Etonian clique. They are far too busy doing other things, like bringing up their children, looking after their constituency."
Downing Street told the Evening Standard that Gosh had "got her facts wrong", adding: "there are a number of prominent women in the PM’s senior team."
Cameron's cabinet currently includes four women; home secretary Theresa May, development secretary Justine Greening, Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villers and culture secretary Maria Miller. Foreign Office minister Baroness Warsi also has the right to attend cabinet meetings.
Jill Rutter, a former senior civil servant at the Treasury who now works for the Institute for Government, said that while there were a number of female cabinet ministers they were "all in frankly slightly marignal off-centre rolls".
She also told The Huffington Post UK that all the recent highest promotions to permanent secretary within the civil service had also gone to men which was leading to women in Whitehall becoming "disillusioned".
"Women have applied for a number of jobs and not got them," she said. "they are suffering from coming serial second."
Rutter said that while the previous cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell had deliberately tried to promote women to top jobs, this had not continued under his replacement Jeremy Heywood.
She warned that while women were not necessarily being purposefully discriminated against the "cumulative effect" of not having any women at the top of the civil service could be very damaging.