Top Companies Push Programs to Help Women in the Workplace

Many companies have taken robust steps to advance women in the workplace.

March 02, 2011, 5:32 PM

March 2, 2011 -- With women comprising nearly half of the work force, U.S. companies across the country have taken aggressive steps to ensure they retain women and support their advancement.

A comprehensive White House report released earlier this week found that while women have advanced more than men in educational attainment, they still lag behind their male counterparts in salary, earning on average 80 percent of what a man earns.

Ji Hyun Lee, a freelance writer and blogger in New York City, graduated with a master's degree and went to work for a national magazine as an entry level editorial assistant. She told ABC News that she later learned the other editorial assistant, a male who had only a bachelor's degree, was earning $3,000 more than she was.

"I felt devalued. I felt like I didn't count. I felt inferior to my colleagues," Lee said.

A year later, she quit -- walked right out of the office and never returned. Lee later sued the company for pay inequity and won.

Her story is not unusual, but many circumstances -- such as the fact that women often bear the responsibility of caring for children and aging parents -- contribute to this inequity.

Several companies, such as PwC, whose U.S. work force is 52 percent women, have developed programs to help stem this disparity.

"When it comes to our women within the firm, we want to provide maximum flexibility," Bob Moritz, chairman and senior partner at PwC, told ABC News. "What we're trying to do is create opportunities for them to maximize their professional and their personal choices, and be successful in both."

Like many companies, PwC offers its employees job share options, sabbaticals (during which employees retain benefits) and flex-time schedules, which allow employees to scale back their hours by as much as 60 percent.

Bring Women in, and Make Them Want to Stay

The goal is not only to attract women but to retain them.

"These initiatives actually help recruit women into our firms," said Mortiz. "So we can continue to bring in the talented people from universities and careers they had on the outsie, and they also help retain them while here at the firm."

"When companies let people work the way they want to work, they find that productivity skyrockets in some cases up to 40 percent," ABC News national correspondent Claire Shipman, who co-wrote "Womenomics," said.

Companies have also adapted to an influx of working mothers by establishing programs that cater to their everyday needs.

Google, for example, offers women 18 weeks of paid maternity leave and provides seven weeks of paid paternity leave for fathers. Johnson & Johnson has seven on-site child care centers for its employees, and PwC started a Mentoring Moms initiative that pairs first time parents with experienced mothers, who offer support and advice on the juggling a family and a career.

Many companies offer some reimbursement for employees seeking to adopt children. Citizens Financial Group/RBS Americas, Wendy's International and Barilla America Inc., offer some of the heftiest adoption benefits -- often totaling $12,000.

Aside from these mother-friendly options, companies have also developed mentoring programs specifically targeting the women's career advancement.

Sodexo, which ranked first in DiversityInc.'s list of top companies for executive women in 2010, created the Spirit of Mentoring initiative that connects employees to promote professional growth and diversity from within. Ranking second in DiversityInc.'s list of top companies for executive women in 2010, PwC launched Women Upfront, an interactive community that works to connect 15,000 women in the company and expose them to profiles of female leaders.

"GMA" contributor Tory Johnson, however, argues that women need more than mentors offering guidance.

"Women need champions not mentors," Johnson, CEO of Women for Hire, said. "A mentor is somebody who is there for advice and feedback. A champion or a sponsor is someone who will use their political clout to help you get ahead."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events