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After years of restraint, I've finally succumbed to the allure of Mad Men. The early episodes never fail to enrage me (in a most entertaining way), specifically when the gin-swilling ad men find any cerebral activities by women completely beyond their comprehension. And the views of the women – most of whom believe the workplace is the best place to find the man who will buy them a house in the country so they can stay home and have children – are equally infuriating.

Today, the idea that women should choose a job based on their chances of finding a mate is completely anachronistic. The cultural shift that increasingly sees women as breadwinners has been well documented and a study last year by the U.S. Pew Research Centre found that women place more value on a higher paying career than do men.

As well, the body of research extolling the virtues that women bring to leadership roles keeps growing, as does evidence that diversity of thought and perspective improves a company's bottom line. A study released last month went as far as to say that female corporate directors make better decisions and that too many men on boards may be "short-changing" investors.

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My cup now runneth over with inspiration and encouraging statistics, but the reality is that women are still rare creatures in the top leadership roles of major companies. So, in practice, we're not there yet. Why not?

Tom Schuller, a director of British think tank Longview, has a theory dubbed the "Paula Principle," which suggests that most women work below their level of competence for a variety of social and psychological reasons.

The debate continues about whether women need to change their approach (many suggest Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg falls squarely into this camp) or whether companies and governments need to create more female-friendly work environments, with solutions ranging from quotas to more flextime.

I would argue that enlightened individuals and companies know that a deeper understanding of gender issues, unconscious biases and leadership are the best way to fully tap into tbe potential of women.

Consider Alcoa Inc., which decided to tie diversity goals to executive compensation for its top 1,000 leaders. Gena Lovett, Alcoa's chief diversity officer, explained that chief executive officer Klaus Kleinfeld knew the approach would get everyone's attention.

"This isn't just some flavour of the month," Ms. Lovett said, acknowledging that the move was met with some grumbling.

But women now comprise 19 per cent of Alcoa's executive ranks, up from 15.8 per cent before 2008 (despite a drop in its overall work force).

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Tokenism doesn't factor into the decisions to promote women, Ms. Lovett said. Alcoa profiled seven women globally who advanced to executive roles and found that they met or exceeded business objectives in every instance. The program led the aluminum maker to win the 2013 Catalyst award, which recognizes exceptional initiatives that expand opportunities for women in business.

Another school of thought suggests that we haven't seen more women progress simply because the business community has been asking the wrong questions. It's not a matter of women being less ambitious or more concerned with flextime than their male colleagues. It comes down to the idea that the cultural differences between men and women are as profound as those between societies, and that the way to repair the disconnect is through gender diversity training.

"Many of the differences in men and women's styles are due to the fact that their brains are hard-wired differently, and just knowing this helps both genders to understand each other better, and reduces conflict," said Jane Allen, chief diversity officer at Deloitte Canada, which offers gender diversity programs.

Ms. Allen believes that having "gender intelligent" leaders – those who understand how to modify their behaviour to work more effectively with others – improves retention rates and the advancement of women.

The difference between gender intelligence training and leadership programs for women, she said, is that it places men and women together so they can have healthy discussions about sensitive subjects and develop a better appreciation of gender differences, dispelling myths and misconceptions.

Some believe that sort of focus on what it means to be a woman in business could backfire. "Whenever we talk about 'what women bring' to leadership, for example, we make the gross error of assuming that many meaningful generalizations can be made about an entire sex," said Hugo Schwyzer, who teaches gender studies at Pasadena City College in California.

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"The main story is that more and more women are achieving in the business world – and that provokes a host of ambivalent reactions, particularly from men."

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: leah.eichler@femme-o-nomics.com Twitter: @femmeonomics

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