As more women entered the work force in the 1970s and 80s, employers introduced practices such as flexible working, job sharing, and on-site childcare. The goal was to help women manage the competing pressures of work and home life, but they became a double-edged sword.
Women who took advantage of these benefits often found themselves labelled as being on the "mommy track" – a professional path, but one that provides fewer opportunities for advancement.
"None of that stuff worked," says Claire Gruppo, chief executive officer of Gruppo, Levey & Co, a New York-based boutique investment bank. "The message to women was: You can be successful, but not in the top job."
Whether that message has changed is debatable. But in the aftermath of a financial crisis that shone a spotlight on poor governance and the dearth of senior women at big corporations, companies are trying to do better.
According to a survey last month by consultant group McKinsey, more than 90 per cent of companies have programs in place that tackle gender-related issues. In addition, gender diversity was among the top 10 strategic priorities for more than half the companies surveyed – double the number in 2010, according to McKinsey.
Some companies have already made progress with programs that target a specific problem, be it attrition in upper-level management, low employee morale, or a lopsided talent review process. Most involve a combination of mentoring and sponsorship, where a well-placed person in an organization supports a junior employee by developing them and recommending them for promotions.
"The companies that do the best are the ones that recognize they have gender gaps and don't just give the stereotypical response of 'Let's put in daycare for working mothers,'" says Ilene Lang, president and chief executive officer of Catalyst, the research group that pushes for women's advancement in the workplace.
"They not only put in place programs, but they have goals and metrics, and a return on investment analysis to see whether the programs are working and whether or not they're providing benefits," she adds.
For employers looking to rectify a gender imbalance in senior management, Lucy Marcus, professor of leadership and governance at IE Business School in Madrid, says: "Companies need to ask themselves: Do we have the kind of environment that gives women what they need to be successful?"
Of course women need many of the same things as men to achieve. But the disproportionate numbers of men at the top suggests companies need to pay special attention to developing women leaders, according to Prof. Marcus, who is also CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, and a non-executive chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund.
Women ought to have ample opportunities to improve basic skills, such as public speaking, writing, negotiation, and networking. They need peer mentors and role models; and they need opportunities for international exposure, she argues.
She says that while companies "can throw money at the problem … the dirty secret is that this doesn't have to cost a lot of money. It comes down to the attitude of the company and the way it integrates women into senior management."
American Express, the credit card company, provides an example. In 2009, its senior management noticed that women vice-presidents – about two notches below chief officer levels – were leaving in droves. After conducting surveys and running focus groups, the company found that "women, as they moved up through the organization, didn't feel they had as broad a network or sense of community," according to Jennifer Christie, chief diversity officer and vice-president of executive recruitment.
Women reported behaviour in the upper echelons of management as "male-dominated" and, as a result, they felt disadvantaged in the promotion process. "They felt that to get to the next level was not so much about raising your hand and volunteering, it was more about getting tapped for certain roles, and they didn't have advocates putting them forward," Ms. Christie says.
In response, the company introduced programs to connect talented women with powerful office advocates. It ran seminars to help women develop a more confident boardroom presence and build stronger networks within the company.
One year after the programs started, Amex saw a 3-per-cent increase in C-suite female representation; it doubled the instances of career movement among women in the highest ranks; and it reduced voluntary attrition of female employees within the most senior roles. Five years ago, women represented 27 per cent of senior management roles; today it is 32 per cent.
Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, offers another example. It recently launched a program to deal with the problem of "slate sitters" – qualified employees, often women or from ethnic minorities, regularly shortlisted for plum assignments or big promotions, but who are never selected.
"She's on the slate for the first job, and the second job. She's on the slate time and time again and the reason she's not getting picked is because she doesn't have access to the influential networks and decision makers," says Karyn Twaronite, Ernst & Young's Americas inclusiveness officer.
The firm's program gives 30 high-potential female workers a mentor who is a member of the executive board and an executive coach "to give them access to influencers, and accelerate their career paths", says Ms. Twaronite. The program, which lasts three years, also includes seminars and workshops for participants.
Today, 18 per cent of the partners or principals in the company's Americas division are female, and women hold 21 per cent of leadership roles. In 2004, women held 15 per cent of leadership roles, and only 6 per cent in 1999.
"So many programs, even five or 10 years ago, were about fixing the women. Now, the focus is on fixing the environment – making sure that assignments are fair and equitable, and making sure the workplace is inclusive and open," Ms. Twaronite says.
IBM, one of the few Fortune 500 companies with a woman CEO – Virginia Rometty – has several programs to advance women, including one that focuses on the company's high-potential female engineers.
The program began in 2010 with 50 women; 100 more were chosen last year. Participants generally have between eight and 10 years experience, but are not yet top executives.
As with the Ernst & Young program, participants are given a coach – an IBM engineer, and an executive sponsor to help map out their career development. The program also includes workshops and networking opportunities.
"The immediate benefit is that we are creating a community," says Sarah Diamond, general manager of IBM Consulting Services.