6 Sep 2019 09:13am

Celebrating women in the profession

It is a significant year for women in the profession, says ICAEW president Fiona Wilkinson, with plans to celebrate the female faces of ICAEW gathering pace

I have always maintained that chartered accountancy is a fantastic profession for women. It can take you down so many routes into different sectors and careers anywhere in the world and it is flexible enough to let you work round caring responsibilities such as bringing up a family.

So when I became president and learned that my term would coincide with the centenaries of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (in December 2019) and the admission to ICAEW membership of Mary Harris Smith, the world’s first woman chartered accountant (in May 2020), I could not have been more delighted. The Act opened up many of the professions to women for the first time. Although there were women practising as accountants, until then ICAEW’s membership had remained resolutely male and Harris Smith’s applications to join as a fellow (over a 29-year period) or even to sit the exams were rejected out of hand.

One ICAEW president remarked: “It would be so embarrassing to manage a staff composed partly of women” that he would retire from his post “rather than contemplate such a position”. But times change and at the age of 75, she was finally welcomed into membership. By then, she had been running her own very successful accountancy practice in Victoria Street, London, for 33 years. When she died in 1934, her obituary in The Accountant said that her election as an ICAEW fellow was “a matter of great pride to her”. “She was staunch in her support of its traditions and no one could have been more jealous of its professional etiquette,” it added.

What I find surprising from the research we have been doing into the presence of women in the profession is how long it took for others to follow Harris Smith’s pioneering footsteps. A decade after her admission, there were just 23 female members.

It wasn’t until 1945 that the number broke through the 100 women barrier (0.8% of the membership), and then it took another 30 years for them to reach over 1,000 (2.3% of the membership). By the 1980s, however, the number of women coming into the profession had begun to accelerate, a trend which continues today. There are now 43,962 of us – or 29% of the membership – and while we may still be in the minority, the gender ratio of those training for the qualification is more like 50/50.

Over the coming months, we will be celebrating our first 100 years of women in the profession with events held all around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, the US and Malaysia as well as in the UK. Indeed, we kicked off the year with a female networking event at the British High Commission in Nicosia, Cyprus.

Do find out what your local district society has planned and if you have thoughts on how the profession has changed since you qualified or what you feel it has to offer, please get in touch. Visit our centenary homepage and submit your stories to the archive for the benefit of generations to come.


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