“Help Wanted – Female”: Hollins Alumna’s New York Times Op-Ed Reflects on Pivotal Point in the Women’s Movement

Wyndham 1974

Turning to the classified ads section of the nation’s top daily newspaper to find job openings under the headings “Help Wanted – Male” and “Help Wanted – Female” would be jarring to us today. But, The New York Times actually listed career opportunities in this manner until just 50 years ago this week, when the 1964 Civil Rights Act and growing public backlash convinced the paper to simply use the term “Help Wanted.”

Wyndham Robertson ’58 puts the spotlight on this little-remembered but nevertheless significant milestone in her op-ed piece, “The Long Shadow of ‘Help Wanted – Female,’” which on November 29 was fittingly published by the Times.

Robertson, who went on to enjoy a distinguished career as an editor and writer at Fortune magazine after graduating from Hollins, recalls believing that bringing a new sensibility to classified job ads would help women rise above the low-paying, so-called “Gal Friday” positions that dominated the “Help Wanted – Female” section.

“Before classified ads went unisex, women had no established path to high-level jobs,” she writes. “At the time I thought this would be a game changer for women, and of course, it was – to a point.”

She notes that “change came very slowly” over the years. While at Fortune in the late 1970s, she looked at more than a thousand of the nation’s largest corporations to find women who were among each company’s three highest-paid employees; she discovered just ten.

Yet, Robertson remained optimistic. “I took the upbeat and not uncommon position that once more women were ‘in the pipeline’…executive suites would be teeming with women.”

Thus, Robertson is mystified that in 2018, “life at the top of large American corporations still seems so overwhelmingly male,” with women representing only five percent of all CEOs on the Fortune 500. “There must be a reason for this weak showing,” she concludes, “but access to the pipeline, we can now safely say, isn’t it.”

“Wyndham’s thoughtful essay underscores that our commitment to developing women who build lives of consequence has never been more essential,” says Hollins President Pareena Lawrence. “As an institution with undergraduate programs for women, our work is cut out for us. We must continue to prepare women to lead in all sectors of society with renewed urgency.  Our innovative emphasis on leadership, life skills, and professional development along with new investments in business and entrepreneurship will give our students the foundation to fulfill the promise inherent in those unisex classified ads five decades ago.”

Alexandra Trower ’86, chair of the Hollins Board of Trustees and vice president, global communications at The Estée Lauder Companies, adds that Robertson’s op-ed is “a timely and important reminder that there are a great many glass ceilings left to be shattered. Hollins is uniquely positioned to empower its students to confront and overcome those barriers in the years to come.”

Photo: Wyndham Robertson ’58 at Fortune magazine, 1974. Credit: Barbara J. Little