Tatiana Del Arroyo says she was well-qualified for an entry-level quality-control job at the food company where she was interning, but a male superior told her not to bother applying.
The company hired women only for menial jobs, he said.
That was just eight years ago in a Spain that has greatly modernized since joining the European Union in 1986 but is struggling to transform relations between the sexes in a still traditionally macho society.
The Socialist government has made gender equality a hallmark of its administration, appointing women to half the ministerial posts and introducing legislation -- expected to be approved in the coming year -- to press companies to fill 40% of their board seats with women and improve the gender balance of their staffs at lower levels.
Women sit on the boards of 4% of Spain's top companies, compared with the EU average of 8.5%, the Paris-based European Professional Women's Network says. In contrast, women were on nearly 15% of corporate boards at Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. in 2005, the New York-based nonprofit research group Catalyst reported.
A male-dominated work environment, big disparities in pay and one of the longest workdays in the EU have made it difficult for Spanish women to rise in corporate ranks -- and still find time for family, as society expects of them.
As a result, many women are seeking work at multinational corporations, where possibilities for advancement are sometimes greater.
Others are opening their own businesses. Between 1999 and 2005, the percentage of small firms in Spain managed by women increased from 23% to 29%, according to government data.
"Many women are tired of working in companies that ignore their capabilities and virtues," said Rosa Maria Peris Cervera, director of the Women's Institute, a branch of the Labor Ministry. "Starting a company enables them to better manage their time and family life."
Teresa Perucho, a 30-year-old mother of two and a lecturer at San Pablo-CEU University outside Madrid, had this in mind when she launched a biotech company with two other women in 2005.
But building a business has proved more time-consuming than a traditional job, Perucho said. She hopes her schedule will become more flexible once the company is better established.
Her husband, Juan Jose Villaescusa, has helped by taking a lower-paying job with shorter hours at a finance company so Perucho can devote more time to her business.
Villaescusa said he didn't know any other men who had changed jobs to help wives with child rearing.
"The social norm is that the man works. The mentality hasn't changed much," he said, noting that he sometimes feels uncomfortable when discussing his career change in social settings. But he says he's happy to spend more time with his children, rather than rely heavily on hired help.
Many Spaniards, men and women, still hold "very conservative" views of the female role in society, said Amparo Moraleda, head of IBM Corp.'s operations in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey.
"It is understood that women have to take care of the children and the home," she said.
In 2005, 95% of Spanish workers who requested a leave of absence to care for children were women, according to government data.
"At the base of the pyramid, you will find as many women as men in most companies," Moraleda said. "What is very different is how these women progress: Their ability to progress while having a family life is very dependent on the corporate culture."
Mar Raventos, a mother of six who is president of the Barcelona-based winery Codorniu Group, said companies could fight the gender gap by recognizing that the quality of work an employee produces was more important than the number of hours spent at the office.
"Balance between work and family improves performance and is good for business," she said.
But Raventos opposes any legislation that would set quotas for women in the workplace. "Companies should be directed by qualified people, regardless of gender," she said.
Del Arroyo, who suffered the job rebuff eight years ago, said the situation was slowly improving, due in part to changing social norms and media coverage of high-powered women.
After her internship, she worked part time at a small firm before landing a job five years ago as a data manager in the Madrid office of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., where she was recently promoted to internal consultant.
Like Raventos, she does not see legislation as a fix for gender discrimination in the workplace.
"If a woman is promoted under those conditions, no one will know if it is because of the law or her skills," Del Arroyo said.
Peris Cervera, the Women's Institute director, argues that legislation can be a powerful tool for workplace equality.
"In many sectors, we are losing the best women," she said. "The goal of this kind of legislation is to eliminate discrimination."
But IBM's Moraleda said the marketplace itself would transform Spain's corporate culture.
"Any company that has the aspiration of remaining a leader cannot ignore 50% of the talent and 50% of the customers in a marketplace," she said.