THE LETTER TACKED ABOVE MY desk comes from the president of a public-relations company in Los Angeles, who says INC. tells her all she cares to know about men in business. "My question is, Are there any women in business? Your magazine doesn't think so." Accusing us of "1952 thinking," she canceled her subscription.

It is a frequent complaint, and a valid one. Thumb through the pages of INC. -- or, for that matter, Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week -- and you'd swear that American business was still an all-male preserve. It isn't, of course. Women are quickly joining the ranks of corporate management (middle management, anyway). And among private companies, women now own more than a quarter of the nation's sole proprietorships. Most impressively, women are now starting new enterprises at more than three times the rate of men.

So where are they? Why aren't business-women more visible?

Chalking it up simply to sexism would be easy. But, at least as far as INC. is concerned, that would be wrong. I can't say our male editors are fully enlightened on these matters, but they do know something about marketing. And women, representing 17% of our readership -- more than any other major business magazine -- are the fastest-growing segment of our audience. So, if only for selfish reasons, we've been out there looking -- not for the gosh-it's-a-woman stories that underestimate everybody's intelligence and sophistication, but articles showcasing women-owned companies in ways that educate, challenge, and entertain our readers. What we've found, we've published -- Lore Harp, Sandra Kurtzig, Debbi Fields, Barbara Hunter and Jean Way Schoonover, Billee Huggard, among others -- which is to say, not much.

But we're not the only ones who search largely in vain. Commercial loan officers report that women rarely darken their doors. Venture capitalists can count their female clients without running out of fingers. Investment bankers often have a hard time naming even one woman who's taken her company public. Not even the women in these professions know where the women are. "We really don't see many female faces in here at all," admits a mystified Shirley Nelson, one of California's few female bank presidents. Her institution, Summit Bank, in Oakland, specializes in small-business loans. "You'd think they'd seek me out, being a woman."

The difficult question, of course, is whether female business owners deserve any more attention than they're getting. The evidence I've been able to put together suggests that women-owned companies grow slower and post lower profits than companies owned by men. Women hire fewer employees than men; they raise less outside capital; and, as a group, they are three times as likely to run their tiny businesses out of their homes. The prestigious Committee of 200 -- a national organization of women who own businesses with more than $5 million in annual sales -- has only 236 members.

Is it the old-boy network that is holding women back? Or do they simply need more time to establish themselves? Are women merely doing business in little niches of the economy that don't warrant any more attention than the corner grocery? Or is it that the criteria for deciding what is new, interesting, and important are inherently biased toward a traditional and male way of doing business?

There are no definitive answers to such questions. What data exist are unreliable. And for every generalization, there are undoubtedly dozens of contradictory examples. Based on impressions gathered from many sources, however, I think I've found a pattern in the way women run their businesses that may explain why business-women have been so obscure.

One strong impression is that not all the women who are starting that phenomenal number of businesses are part of an entrepreneurial revolution -- unless you define entrepreneurship as any means of generating an independent source of income.

"Most of the women represented by the statistics are in microbusinesses that are going to stay small," says Paula Mannillo, who works with Women's Economic Development Corp., in St. Paul, Minn., which has worked with 2,000 women interested in starting businesses. "Many of these women are going back into the work force after raising kids or getting a divorce. They aren't out to build the biggest companies, and they're not doing it to stroke their egos." Mostly, these women are just trying to support themselves, to bring balance and flexibility to their lives in ways that the corporate world can't. And won't. They are out to redefine work, not to restructure the economy. What they are doing has much more to do with self-employment than enterprise.

Obviously, not all businesswomen are deaf to the old siren song of growth and expansion, wealth and power. But there is powerful evidence that women go into business for different reasons than men. And different motivations lead to a different set of measurements by which they judge success.

Women watch their profits (who doesn't?), but they also evaluate their performances in terms of opportunities well met, creative urges satisfied, employees that are challenged and fulfilled. By and large, they place a higher value on respect from peers, satisfaction from customers, and good marriages that produce kids whose heads are screwed on straight.

Oh, sure, men may claim to embrace some of the same ideals. But let's face it: these are not the hallmarks of male business culture. There aren't many men who stay up nights worrying about how to adapt their businesses to more human values. Nor are there many men who would follow the example of Edwina Muhawi. Her Sinbad Sweets, in Clovis, Calif., was listed on this year's INC. 500 as one of the nation's fastest-growing privately held companies -- a fact that is all the more remarkable given that she has two young children at home and chooses not to travel on business. For similar reasons, Joyce Huber and Carla Massoni, partners in Georgetown Employment Service, in Washington, D.C., have deliberately trimmed their client list and cut back their advertising.

"These women know that it really isn't possible to have it all," explains Paula Mannillo. "Not all at once, anyway. Women tend to see their lives more in phases than men do. And they go into business to have the freedom to work in sync with them."

From different motives and different goals come different ways of managing a business. Study after study show that women do a better job of encouraging and rewarding employees, of soliciting information and input, of seeking consensus. Men fight things out; women work things out.

"Because women have had only indirect power in the past, the kind that allows success to be achieved only through other people, we're naturally good managers," says author and business consultant Charlotte Taylor. "We're more into team-building than egocentrism. We're less hierarchical."

All that may make for a happier, healthier work environment. But the men around the Business Roundtable no doubt would dismiss such niceties as frills or fads, and business magazines tend to relegate them to the back pages. They know that human-relations skills alone won't build the bottom-line results that assure visibility, credibility, and, most of all, survival in the dominant business culture. Unfortunately, it appears not all women have reached the same understanding.

"There are a lot of sad stories of talented, bright women who failed because they didn't understand numbers, or like paperwork, and wouldn't do what needed to be done," concedes Linda Holloway, managing partner of Dupuis & Ryden, a public accounting and consulting firm in Flint, Mich. More than men, she finds that women "want only the creative side of business, not the grunt work."

Indeed, in their attempt to avoid the fast-growth and high-profit addictions of businessmen, some businesswomen may be becoming junkies to another fix: love and personal validation. "Women get hung up on believing everyone has to like them," says Beatrice Fitzpatrick, president of American Woman's Economic Development Corp. (AWED), a national organization dedicated to training women for business ownership. "For most women, it's a real trauma not to be nice." And too often, nice girls finish last.

White Plains, N.Y., psychologist Suzy Boehm has recently noticed a pattern in which female business owners develop roles that are more familial than managerial. And she finds that the young, ambitious M.B.A.s, not the empty-nesters and the hobbyists, are more likely to fall into that trap. "What happens is they substitute the company for a family life, or a dating life," she says. "Most of them are bright and capable, and they think they're doing business for business's sake, so it's a shame that people can't take them seriously. They won't, though -- not as long as these women let the business serve other needs."

If the male-dominated business culture doesn't take women, or their management style, very seriously, then it seems only fair to ask: Who do they take seriously? Men, of course. But not all men. The archetypal business heroes generally fall into three categories: the Innovator, the Salesman, and the Wheeler-Dealer. And one reason you don't hear much about businesswomen is that these are role models to which very few women aspire.

Consider innovation. With some notable exceptions, most of what we consider to be innovative companies these days are founded on scientific or technological break-throughs. But whether it's because they weren't interested, or because they were encouraged to be uninterested, women have tended to stay away from careers in engineering, mathematics, physics, or biochemical research. It comes as no surprise, then, that it wasn't a woman who founded Apple Computer, nor was it a woman who designed the latest process for the steel industry's new minimills. These are the technological backdrops against which many of our new-age business dramas are staged. And the techies remain predominantly male.

Women have tended to cluster instead in what are the business equivalents of the helping professions, the service industries -- clerical services, personnel, travel, catering, advertising, and public relations are the most popular. They require small support staffs, and controlling growth is often as simple as cutting back the owner's hours. Moreover, in a world in which banks and venture capitalists still view women as bad risks, these businesses have the advantage of requiring minimal start-up cash.

Yet, for all their contributions to the growth of the economy, service businesses, by and large, get no respect from the business world. Without bricks-and-mortar assets and a good-size payroll, service companies can be easily dismissed as unbankable hobbies or business boutiques. And because the barriers to entry are easily scaled, competition is often intense, leading to high failure rates and relatively low profit margins. To survive, many service companies find themselves nice little niches that keep them out of the line of fire -- and out of the limelight.

But how about sales? With the superior interpersonal skills widely attributed to women, you might assume them to be naturals when it comes to selling. Generally, that hasn't proven to be true. The image of the successful salesperson is aggressive, distinctive -- and male. Since childhood, women have been taught the inherent value of being self-effacing and demure. Perhaps that's why various women's magazines, when offering sales advice, bring it down to basics. New Woman, for example, recently presented tips for how to get noticed (say "I'm Phyllis the wallpaper lady," rather than "I have a wallpaper shop") and how to make an impression on potential customers ("develop a collection of hats," "wear unusual earrings"). At AWED, Fitzpatrick says that from her experience, there are few things more exasperating, or more common, than businesswomen who "sit and wait, as if hoping someone will introduce their customers to them."

It's axiomatic, of course: to sell a product, or a company, you've got to be able to sell yourself. But women seem more inclined to toil in splendid isolation. "I've got one client," reports accountant Holloway, "who won't get out of the office at all, no matter how often I've told her to get into the forums, the networks. Then she goes to the bank, acts like a diz, and says she didn't get the financing because she's a woman. It's a shame, because she works so hard."

"Women have always operated in isolation," agrees Holloway's colleague, management consultant Nancy Rosevear. "While men learned to play on teams, women jumped rope. While man were learning to ask for assistance, women were learning only how to provide it. Women don't self-promote."

Barbara Gentry, director in the office of women business owners at the Michigan Department of Commerce, tells of a woman who was named Michigan's Small Businessperson of the Year. When the honoree accepted her plaque last spring, on the floor of the state legislature, the presenter -- a representative of her local Chamber of Commerce -- had to admit that he had never heard of her company. It was hard to say which of the two was more embarrassed.

Women don't seem to be comfortable schmoozing with men in the formal and informal settings that first offer the exposure that leads to contacts and sales. Check the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Young Presidents' Organizations -- the percentage of women members is disproportionately low. The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) even had trouble attracting women to its training programs until it offered women-only sessions. "They were too bashful to ask questions," explains Alice Brown, who now directs the women's program out of St. Louis. Women who "network" with women may gain moral support, but even the women who lead such organizations agree that you've got to wade into the business mainstream to find credibility and visibility.

There are many businesses, of course, that have done well without remarkable sales or innovation, but on sheer gambler's guts. Fortunes and reputations have been made solely on a chief executive officer's ability to wheel and deal, to trade up assets, and cash in on the occasional highly leveraged investment. Most of the men who wheel and deal do so with other people's money. But women don't have such ready access to capital, and the service businesses to which they gravitate don't easily generate it. As author Taylor puts it, "You don't wheel and deal on retained earnings."

Still, even if they were to find the money in the street, studies show that most women would be reluctant to bet with it. Thinking big just wasn't in their upbringing. "Mom taught us to manage our money, not invest it," says Barbara Gentry. Adds Joan Sweeney, program director at The Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies at Wellesley College: women either ignore risky business propositions, or "convince themselves that all the games are somewhere far in the future."

By all accounts, women seem to view risk from many different perspectives at once. Selling out, buying in, merging -- these strategic decisions are not merely win-lose, dollars-and-cents calculations. Research by Taylor and others shows that women think a lot harder about the stress such changes might put on their relationships with employees and family. They also worry more about their ability to manage the big deals.

By contrast, men seem to thrive on the sheer sport of wheeling and dealing. And to a large extent, that's the way business is covered in the business press: in terms of leagues and team standings, world records and lifetime averages, front-office trades and locker-room banter. Women, to the degree they're considered at all, are thought of as strictly farm-league players.

Overheard at a cocktail party:

Man: "And what do you do? Do you work?"

Woman: "I have my own investment company."

Man: "Oh, that's nice. My wife's in business, too."

Harry Levinson is the sort of psychologist that leaves many women grinding their teeth. Levinson, who has made a specialty of the psychological aspects of leadership, cheerfully acknowledges that there have been women in business "for as long as they've carried baskets on their heads." But, he says, their "Oedipal conflicts" come too late in childhood for them to be anything but unlikely or unwilling entrepreneurs. Women lack the "irrational intensity that drives men to see rivals on every business horizon, and to build compensatory organizations that will prove their worth to their fathers." Some women may approximate the drive, he figures, but women as a group will never match it.

Without buying into all of Levinson's Freudian analysis, I think the man has a point. There will always be some women who thrive in the male business world by doing things almost as irrationally and intensely as men. And, in time, as leftover layers of discrimination fall away, as childrearing becomes more enlightened and less exclusively the work of women, as larger numbers of the new companies started by women finally mature and make their mark -- after all of that, the glaring distinctions between the sexes will begin to disappear in business. Still, in the end, many of the subtle but telling differences between business men and business women will persist. And women will discover that they have created not only their own livelihoods and their own companies, but a business culture that is distinctly their own as well.

For the male business world -- its companies, its institutions, its newspapers and magazines -- that poses an interesting challenge. Because even if women-owned companies aren't making the business beauty-contest lists, even if they aren't setting the world on fire by more traditional standards, they are nonetheless an increasingly important part of the economy. These are companies that hire people, buy products, contract for services, and rent space. And their female owners drive cars, take vacations, invest their profits, and, yes, read magazines. If only to ensure their own market share and continued profitability, male-oriented businesses will have to adapt themselves to this "female" economy, and to the different ways that women manage their companies.

That's the challenge. And if it's met successfully, there should be an added premium. For in the process of learning to service this new business culture, businessmen might pick up a thing or two about putting their businesses in some broader perspective. It's a rare male CEO who isn't driven, deep down, by the fantasy of making his company the next IBM of his industry, of topping $100 million in revenues in the next five years, and reaching the Fortune 500 by the end of the next decade. But ask him why, ask him what he would get out of it personally, and most likely his best response is a shrug. It is in answering such questions that women have so much to bring to the business discussion -- and to INC. magazine, as well.

Keep those cards and letters coming.