About 350 members of metropolitan Washington's business establishment gathered at the Capital Hilton Hotel the other night to pay tribute to this year's recipient of the Greater Washington Board of Trade's Man of the Years award. The choice of lobster for the 39th edition of this annual black-tie dinner (beef and potatoes was the fare in the old days) was a subtle, though strong statement of the board's evolution.

In selecting this year's recipient, however, the board of trade showed once more that tradition dies hard. For only the second time since it has been established, the BOT bestowed the incongruous -- if not chauvinistic -- Man of the Years title upon a woman.

That might seem a bit odd to those not affiliated with metropolitan Washington's biggest chamber of commerce, but to this year's Man of the Years, Louise Lynch, it shouldn't be any other way. In fact, when the selection committee, comprised of former Man of the Years honorees, suggested that she might want to be called Woman of the Years, Lynch firmly elected to stick with tradition.

"There's nothing sexist about it," says Lynch, president and chief executive officer of Courtesy Associates. "Sex isn't concerned with the name of the award. It's outstanding recognition, it seems to me, by the [people] who have won it before."

The Man of the Years award is presented annually to a BOT member for his or her contributions to business and the community over a period of several years. The first woman to be named Man of the Years since the award was first presented in 1947 was Flaxie M. Pinkett, president of a Washington real estate and insurance firm. Pinkett also opted to be called Man of the Years when she was chosen for the honor five years ago.

What that says about how far the board and women have come is instructive. It wasn't too long ago that women weren't even considered for membership in the formerly all-white-male business advocacy organization. Today, at least eight of the BOT's 60-member board of directors are women. Three women were added to the board of directors this year. Women chair a third of the BOT's committees, and three of its seven operating staff bureaus are directed by women.

Although it's still a white-male dominated organization of 1,500 corporate and 5,000 individual members, the BOT took a significant step forward last year when it elected Julia Walsh, managing director of an investment firm, as president. Indeed, the BOT pushed aside one of the most glaring vestiges of the closed old-boy network three years ago, when it elected Pinkett as the the first woman and first black to head the organization. Pinkett was forced to relinquish the title of president immediately before taking office, however, because of health and business considerations.

Like Pinkett, Lynch has been actively involved in community and BOT activities for many years. It's only been in recent years, however, that women have managed to establish a high profile in the BOT.

The evolution, suggest BOT officials, can be attributed to a concerted effort to enlist more women members, and to an apparent desire by women to become affiliated with the organization, as a means of enhancing their professional status.

"I believe women have exerted more of an effort than they did 15 years ago and I think there's an awareness of the contributions that women are making increasingly," Lynch said of the BOT and business in general. "I don't think it's solely men's fault that women weren't around."

The BOT "welcomes success" and women "have been more successful in business in the past 10 years," says Susan Pepper, manager of the BOT's communications bureau. "I think women have expanded their comfort level in terms of their involvement in business."

John Tydings, the board of trade's executive vice president, describes his organization as a "microcosm of what's happening in Washington business," in terms of advancement among women.

One official maintains further that the BOT has become "a crucible . . . a testing ground for a lot of [businessmen and women] . . . a major source for chief executive officers looking for directors."

Lynch, one of a handful of women sitting on local company boards, concurs that the BOT has become a catalyst in that regard. "I think I'm a perfect example."

If anything, business in metropolitan Washington lags the board of trade in terms of equal opportunity for women. It's rare, except in cases where they own a business, to find a woman CEO or president of a company in metropolitan Washington. A recent survey, though unscientific, showed that fewer than two dozen women sit on the boards of The Washington Post's Top 100 companies. Moreover, a Greater Washington Research Center study last year concluded that "women are underrepresented among executives" in the area.

One of the ironies of the significant changes at the board of trade is that too many of its prominent members -- some of them CEOs -- aren't following in their companies the example set by the board of trade in recognizing women's qualifications as professionals.