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While most big companies now have programs to increase gender diversity, many executives express frustration these programs aren't working.

McKinsey found that 63 percent of the employers it surveyed had at least 20 initiatives to address gender equity, but women held less than a quarter of the top jobs in 92 percent of the companies.

Sandrine Devillard, who has been studying the issue for the consultancy for about 16 years, said companies were nonchalant about retaining top female talent when she started. Now they want to know what programs work. Fast.

That's because a woman's prospects for promotion fall off at every step of the career ladder, according to a separate survey of 130 large companies conducted by McKinsey in 2012. While women made up 37 percent of the total workforce, they comprised 22 percent of middle managers, 14 percent of senior managers and vice presidents, 9 percent of executive committee members and 2 percent of CEOs.

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