Print Edition - 2018-12-02 | Free the Words
The long shadow of ‘Help Wanted—Female’
- It has been 50 years since classified job ads went unisex. So where are all the female C.E.O.s?
Dec 2, 2018-
Fifty years ago this week, this newspaper, after much prodding from protesters, effectively dropped “Help Wanted — Female” and “Help Wanted — Male” from its classified ads and went to just plain old “Help Wanted.” At the time, I thought this would be a game changer for women, and of course, it was — to a point. But the real mystery, after half a century, is why life at the top of large American corporations still seems so overwhelmingly male.
Before classified ads went unisex, women had no established path to high-level jobs. I went job hunting in New York with some classmates from the all-female Hollins College in 1958, a decade before The Times made the change. Never in our dreams did we envision getting jobs as promising as those of the boys we knew, even though—I will just say it—we were smarter than most of them and harder-working.
It did not even seem odd to us that practically all of the good entry-level jobs were exclusively for men. Those with college degrees were mostly going into training programs at financial institutions or marketing companies, or in industry, where they would learn the ropes and have their talents assessed and encouraged as they moved along.
We women were sorting through the “Help Wanted—Female” section, poring over ads from places seeking a “Gal Friday.” The need for such low-paid workers—women who could write a coherent phone message and deliver coffee without spilling—seemed insatiable. Secretarial positions were among the better-paid work, and it was not unusual, especially in publishing, for a bright woman who started as a secretary to break out and rise up; some great editors took that route. Such exceptions do not change the fact that in 1958, almost all of the jobs open to women were dead ends.
Things began to open up in the 1960s with legal challenges brought after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The main purpose of the legislation, as originally conceived, was to prohibit job discrimination on the basis of race, but a Virginia congressman, vigorously opposed to the bill, added an amendment outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex. Many historians argue that he was actually seeking to kill the bill, reasoning that the specter of women getting “men’s jobs” would do the trick. Somewhat miraculously, the ploy backfired and the amendment passed. In time, the act became the death knell for “Help Wanted—Female.”
Even so, change came very slowly. In the late 1970s, when I was a writer at Fortune magazine, I persuaded the editors to give me time to search through the Securities and Exchange Commission filings of more than 1,000 of the largest United States corporations to find high-ranking women. By my definition that would be any woman who was paid enough to have her name and salary listed in the proxy filing, usually meaning she was one of the three highest-paid people in the company. I sifted through more than 6,000 names and found a mere 10 women, including Katharine Graham (The Washington Post), Olive Beech (Beechcraft) and Ruth Handler (Mattel—her children were actually named Barbie and Ken). As remarkable as these three women were, none of them had worked their way up; they either founded their companies with their husbands or, in Ms. Graham’s case, got the job through a family connection.
At the time, I took the upbeat and not uncommon position that once more women were “in the pipeline”—starting in the same jobs that had traditionally streamed men to the top—executive suites would be teeming with women. Not everyone was that sanguine. In my reporting, I remember asking Herman Kahn, the “futurist” who founded the Hudson Institute, how long it would take for women to account for 25 percent of the C.E.O.s on the Fortune 500. His reply: “About 2,000 years, but make it 10 percent and I’ll say within 20 years.” In Mr. Kahn’s view, not that many women would want the top jobs, an opinion almost as unfashionable then as it is today.
I confess to thinking now that Mr. Kahn might have been right. For a futurist, though, his forecast is an embarrassment: At last count, some 40 years later, there are only 25 female C.E.O.s, just 5 percent, on the Fortune 500. There must be a reason for this weak showing, but access to the pipeline, we can now safely say, isn’t it.
—©2018 The New York Times
Published: 02-12-2018 07:56