While the 17th party congress is a significant indicator of political fortunes, it also tells the story of how women are sadly sidelined in politics. During the congress, the Great Hall of the People was packed with more than 2,000 elite party representatives - most of them middle-aged or elderly men in grey or black suits. There were some women representatives in the crowd, mostly grass-roots representatives such as heads of neighbourhood committees, teachers or members of ethnic minorities, who sat through long hours of scripted speeches. According to official figures, there were 445 women among the 2,214 representatives, making up about 20 per cent of the delegates. Still, most of these women representatives are not professional politicians or officials. On the stage where the presidium sat, Vice-Premier Wu Yi stood out from the rest with her careful choice of outfits - baby blue and aqua-coloured skirts and jackets that distinguished her from the sea of grey suits and the background of red carpet and chairs. Ms Wu, famous for her toughness in foreign trade negotiations and handling crises such as Sars, is an exception in mainland politics in that she made it to the top on her own. Unlike Jiang Qing , wife of Mao Zedong, and Soong Ching-ling, wife of Sun Yat-sen, she is not a first lady. And she wields much more clout than is traditionally held by women leaders. The 68-year old had been the only woman in the Politburo for the past 10 years and was the first woman to make the top echelon of power. With the 'Iron Lady's' retirement looming, Beijing needed to find another to fill her shoes. That role has fallen to Liu Yandong, an associate of Hu Jintao and another so-called Youth League faction official - or tuanpai - who has been promoted to the Politburo. Ms Liu is mostly remembered in Hong Kong for her good taste in outfits and her broad smile when she met the city's politicians. Sun Yat-sen University professor Ai Xiaoming said women's participation in politics had backtracked compared to the 1960s and 1970s, when Mao Zedong said women 'hold up half the sky'. But the slogan mainly referred to their role in the workforce rather than their part in politics, she said. Women had not played an important role in politics in the past few decades. 'When the media talks about highly educated women, they mention how these women cannot find a husband instead of discussing how to allow them to participate more in politics,' Professor Ai said. The recent trend of blaming mistresses for the corruption of senior officials only reinforced the negative image of women, Professor Ai added. Analysts said that, because women made up only a small percentage of the policymakers, it was difficult to introduce policies encouraging women to take part in politics. Cui Weiping, a professor of film and a leading scholar on feminism in China, said there had always been discrimination against women in politics, but 'they just don't bother with window dressing now'. She said the retirement age for civil servants also discriminated against women, who have to stop working five years earlier than men. 'For women, the retirement age is 55. So when one is 50, one is pretty old [to climb the political ladder as a woman]. But if the retirement age was 60, then 50 would be pretty young for a woman official.' She agreed that, with the exception of Ms Wu, most senior women officials still served as 'decoration' rather than exerting any real influence on politics. Other female rising stars in the political arena are Song Xiuyan , governor of the western province of Qinghai, Ma Xiuhong, a vice-minister of commerce, and Hu Xiaolian, head of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange. The number of female members and alternate members elected to the powerful central committee rose from 27 at the 16th party congress to 37 at the just concluded 17th.