Less than 90 years ago, women weren't allowed to walk through the front door to the Aetna headquarters on Farmington Avenue.
That changed in 1926 when Marion Bills, who held a Ph.D., became the insurer's first professional officer as Assistant Secretary and Director of Personnel Research — just six years after women got the right to vote in the U.S.
"Men dominated at that time until Miss Marion Bills became an officer. She, of course, used the front entrance and soon changed the role so that we all could use (the front entrance)," former Aetna worker Theodora A. Cloutier wrote in a letter that is now in Aetna's archives.
Aetna is now a very different company, one in which three-fourths — 76 percent — of its employees are women. On Thursday, the Hartford health insurer held its first ever Women's Leadership Alliance. Speakers and panel discussions centered around career development and advancement of women. Many women hold management and executive roles at Aetna, and about 300 of them attended the event.
One of the featured presentations was a panel discussion with Aetna board member Barbara Hackman Franklin, who was handpicked by then-President Richard Nixon to improve the representation of women in his administration.
Hackman-Franklin's tenure on the White House staff followed a White House press conference in 1969 when the Washington D.C. bureau chief for the North American Newspaper Alliance, Vera Glaser, noted that only 3 of 200 presidential appointments were women. Glaser then famously asked Nixon, "can we expect some more equitable recognition of women's abilities, or are we going to remain (the) lost sex?"
The memory of Nixon's administration is dominated by Watergate and his foreign affairs policies, but among his domestic policies was an effort to bring women into top roles of federal government for the first time ever, said Lee Stout, a librarian emeritus at Penn State. Stout wrote a book "A Matter of Simple Justice: The Untold Story of Barbara Hackman Franklin and A Few Good Women," published this year.
"Not everybody thought advancing women was such a great idea," Hackman Franklin said.
Hackman-Franklin, a 1964 graduate of Harvard Business School, said the biggest challenge of her Nixon-administration job in 1970s was that she had to become a headhunter of women executives, though it was a time when women weren't in those positions.
"I went to head-hunting firms and said, 'Can you help us, we're looking for women,' and the answer was, 'Well, I'm sorry, but we don't have any women in our files because our clients don't ask for women'," Hackman Franklin said.
So, she went looking for female leaders and found, among many others, former Hartford mayor Ann Uccello, who joined the U.S. Department of Transportation as a senior staff member in April 1971.
At the event Thursday, Elease Wright, senior vice president of human resources at Aetna, told attendees that Aetna "has a long history" of being progressive.
For example, Wright recognized Alyce Rawlins, the first African-American professional hired at Aetna in 1956, who became a vocal advocate for greater diversity at the company and also for retiree benefits. And, in 2010, the company's then-president Mark T. Bertolini was recognized by a gay rights organization as a straight person who champions workplace equality for lesbian, transgender, bisexual and gay workers.
However, one group of Aetna workers felt disenfranchised recently after Bertolini, who is now CEO, announced in late August a plan to cut back on paid time off for the company's long-time workers. The company has said that cutting paid time-off from 33 to 28 days for workers was to align benefits with other companies in the industry.
Aetna has made various efforts, even outside its organization through the Aetna Foundation, to give a leg up to the under-privileged. One of the beneficiaries of Aetna donations is Dress For Success, a 15-year-old nonprofit that started by giving a free business suit to low-income women so they could dress professionally for a job interview.
Since 2008, Aetna and the Aetna Foundation have given more than $175,000 to Dress For Success, including $150,000 for the Professional Women's Group Health and Wellness Initiative.
Dress for Success CEO Joi Gordon said the New York-based nonprofit has broadened its mission to help women with self confidence, financial planning, health and a wide variety of life skills. That change was driven, in part, by the weak economy and what it did to working women, Gordon said. Dress for Success started to see former professionals after the economic collapse several years ago.
"The woman in 1999 was definitely the welfare work mom," Gordon said. "The woman in 2009 was us. She would tell these stories about how she worked at corporation ABC, she coordinated suit drives for Dress For Success. And today, she's 24 months, 36 months unemployed. And so she's lost her way."Copyright © 2015, CT Now