The women who've been touted as possible vice presidential candidates shouldn't be holding their breath. The public still believes a man will do a better job in the most crucial areas of the presidency, ranging from the ability to lead and make tough decisions, to securing law and order and conducting foreign policy.

While George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole might look like a dream ticket to those who want to see a woman make it to the White House, the benefits of putting a woman on the ticket don't outweigh the negatives.

There's a dirty little secret in the land of political correctness: A good many of us still have an inner sexist piggy alongside our inner child.

The little sexist piggy was discovered through a poll commissioned by Deloitte & Touche, a financial services firm that has made a major commitment to advancing its female employees. The chair of the company's Council on the Advancement of Women is Lynn Martin, who was secretary of labor in the Bush administration.

The poll, conducted among 1,500 participants by Roper-Starch Worldwide, grew out of a desire to find out why women were not making it to those final top spots. "We had more women partners, but that upper echelon was difficult to crack," Martin says. "From there we said, 'Is there any place where it's happening?' "

James E. Copeland Jr., Deloitte's new chief executive officer, agreed to underwrite a series of polls that would look at women in the highest reaches of various professions, starting with politics and business.

On the surface, the results seem encouraging, but Martin, who started her career as an English teacher, knows that what people say and what they think can often be wildly divergent.

"We're asking them to tell the truth. That's why the questions were not just 'how you'd vote' but 'How do you think other people vote?' I think one of the telling questions was whether being a mother is helpful or not. We found out what all of us knew in our stomachs. If a young man with children were running, it's okay. That is not true for women. Younger voters are less conflicted, but we don't know what happens to them when they get older."

Sixty percent of Americans believe a woman will be elected president, and 83 percent believe a woman will be elected vice president in their lifetimes. But 16 percent said they would not vote for a woman, and while that's an improvement over the 32 percent who felt that way in 1992, it is still too big a bloc to write off.

The biggest change has come among men: Seventeen percent would not vote for a woman, down 22 points since 1992. Today, 16 percent of women would not vote for a woman for president, a 5-point drop since 1992. Two-thirds of the people agreed that the country is ready for a woman president but that the right woman hasn't come along.

Those polled rated their top seven considerations in electing a president in this order: law and order, the economy, social issues, personal qualities of the candidate, governmental problems, foreign policy, and moral questions, such as abortion and school prayer.

A slim plurality of 42 percent believe a man can do a better job as president than a woman on the issue of law and order, 31 percent believe a man would do a better job on the economy, and 45 percent believe a man would do better on foreign policy. A plurality of 46 percent believe a woman would do better than a man on social issues and personal qualities of the candidate, and nearly half believed a woman would do better on the moral questions. The belief that men would do better on some of these key issues is held more strongly among both men and women who are 55 and older--the bloc of voters most likely to go to the polls.

When asked to assess whether most people think a male or female president would perform better on these seven issues, the respondents were twice as likely to say that most people would put more stock in a male than a female candidate. There was not a single issue in which a majority believed most people would favor a female candidate. The public also believes the media would be much harder on a female candidate on these issues than a male.

"I think it is still hard for many Americans to picture a woman doing that job," Martin says. "It is much friendlier in corporate America. I worry women won't choose public service. Really talented women will see alternatives."

People see men doing a better job in most of the key areas that define the presidency. For them to get over that, they are going to have to see more women such as Madeleine Albright wielding significant power. They are going to have to see women discussing serious presidential issues, taking the risk of running and failing.

That is why it was such a pity Elizabeth Dole, with all of her experience, dropped out, while such marginal GOP candidates as Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes are staying in and getting so much television air time. "Having Elizabeth in the race was helpful," Martin says. "Withdrawing was not."

Her prediction is that when the first serious, viable female candidate does run, she will break the gender barrier, just as John F. Kennedy broke the religion barrier. All of these barriers "will eventually dissipate into the fabric of America," Martin says. "But we're not there yet."