Shortly after incoming president Fiona Wilkinson was elected to the first rung of the ICAEW presidential ladder in 2016, a mention on Desert Island Discs alerted her to the approaching centenary of the 1919 legislation giving women access to the professions. “What a bit of serendipity,” she says. “The next Monday I was emailing the library to find out when the first female member joined ICAEW. It turned out to be 1920. That meant our centenary coincided with my presidential year – I couldn’t believe it.”
Even better, the woman in question – Mary Harris Smith – was everything a chartered accountant should aim to be – not just a pioneering woman, but also intelligent, determined and persistent. Born in London in 1844, she was encouraged by her father to develop her natural talent for maths and accounting. After working with a mercantile firm and the Royal School of Needlework, demand for her services led her to set up her own firm in 1887.
“She applied several times to join the Institute and was turned down. It’s dreadful: I have verbatim reports of Council meetings asking how they could possibly send out a female articled clerk to clients with male articled clerks,” says Wilkinson. “When our exam system was opened to women in the 1920s, they sat separately from men in the exam halls in case they distracted them.”
In May 1920, aged 76, Harris Smith finally became a member. Wilkinson is determined to honour this remarkable woman over her presidential year. “I want to celebrate her resilience and her determination to achieve the qualification she wanted.”
A number of events are planned, from district society to international level, plus a special panel discussion at Chartered Accountants’ Hall. A portrait of Harris Smith has been commissioned and Wilkinson would like to rename the Small Reception Room at Chartered Accountants’ Hall after her, and have the Outstanding Achievement Award given to her posthumously. Like Harris Smith, Wilkinson is also a pioneer. Her parents expected her to become a housewife. She had different ideas and considered going into the law but was put off at a careers fair.
“When I told this man that I wanted to find out about becoming a solicitor, he said the classic thing: ‘Ridiculous. You’ll only marry and have children. It will be an utter waste going through such rigorous training’. But I wanted a profession, a career and to do well. So after my degree in French and Italian, I became a chartered accountant – a move I’ve never regretted.” She joined Deloitte as a trainee in 1976 and found she was a rarity and usually the only woman on an audit.
“To be honest, I was surprised to find out later that when I qualified women made up just 10% of the profession. But there were some very odd practices. Women weren’t allowed to wear trousers. People were casually sexist. “When I started work, some of the managers had Pirelli calendars on their desks. I was shocked, after the hard sell they give you when you’re interviewed. To walk into what you think will be a professional office and find there are a whole load of men with girlie calendars on show… Thank goodness the worst sort of extremes have gone now.”
Utilising her accountancy skillset and languages, Wilkinson spent time in Milan, Brussels and Montreal, and worked on the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in Luxembourg and a big fraud investigation in Geneva. She left Deloitte in 1987 to become a technical consultant to firms on auditing, financial reporting and practice assurance. The next few years were spent juggling children, domesticity and clients.
“This is a fantastic profession for women because it can take you down so many different routes,” she says. “You can end up working in almost any kind of business. You can work almost anywhere in the world subject to visas and language and it is very flexible. Women can make it work for them if they want to have caring responsibilities. I made it work around having children. I became self-employed and worked part time. It’s easier said than done but there is a lot of flexibility in it and I would really advocate it.”
Not surprisingly, Wilkinson intends to carry on her role as an ambassador for inclusion and social mobility in the profession while president. She is keen to spread the message that chartered accountancy is an inclusive profession that is open to all, no matter their background. But she is also aware the profession has come in for extensive criticism in the past couple of years. She accepts that things need to change and wants to play her part in working with government and the regulators to ensure that the profession is fit for the future.
“We need to look forward to the future and make audit something that is valued and useful. We must turn the expectation gap on its head, stop saying that the public doesn’t understand and ask what the users of accounts actually want from us. We need to be positive about change and input into how we can make the future of audit – and the profession – bright.” “In fact,” she adds irrepressibly, “put all three themes together and I am calling them ‘a bright future for all’.”
I like being an FCA because… It has given me a professional career with great flexibility. I was able to travel, set up my own business, and work part-time.
I’m happiest when… All of my children are with me and my husband.
The hardest lesson to learn has been… To pace myself and not over-programme my time.
I’d like to be remembered as… Someone who delivered what was promised and did it well.
The loves of my life are… My husband and children. However, there will be a new candidate as our first grandchild is due soon.
My worst habit is… Butting in when people are talking