At a recent training day for ICAEW committee members, I was lucky enough to hear a presentation from the new ICAEW president, Fiona Wilkinson. As the 3rd female president of the institute, she is very aware of her role in the promotion of gender equality, an awareness perhaps brought into focus by the fact that her term coincides with the centenary of the admittance into membership of the first female ICAEW member, Mary Harris Smith in May 1920.
Born in 1847, Mary Harris Smith left school at 16. At that time, she could not go to university, but her father arranged for her to have classes in maths with tutors at Kings. She started her own accountancy practice in 1888 and applied to join the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors, at the time the preeminent professional association of accountants in England. They rejected her on the grounds of her sex. She applied again but suffered the same fate. Eventually, largely due to her persistence, they relented and admitted her as an Honorary Fellow.
In 1918, she became the first woman to pass ICAEW's professional qualification, but they would still not admit her to membership, despite her by then 30 years of experience in practice. 1919 saw the passing of the new Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, and it became illegal for professional bodies to discriminate on the grounds of sex. Mary Harris Smith became the first female chartered accountant at the age of 72.
Something to celebrate certainly, even if it is a story of compliance with the new legislation rather than a triumph of progressive thinking. And how does it compare to other professional bodies. ACCA claim Ethel Ayres Purdie, as the first woman admitted to an accountancy professional body ten years earlier, in 1909. North of the border, Isabel Guthrie did not become the first woman admitted to ICAS until 1923.
Our friends in the US got their act together altogether earlier. Born in Nova Scotia in 1873, Christine Ross took New York's inaugural CPA exam in 1896. She achieved a score that placed her in the top two or 3 of her cohort and became the first female CPA in the USA in December 1899 – after a lengthy delay in releasing her result, apparently caused by concerns over her gender.
With women now making up 44% of full-time accountants in the UK, we have come a long way, but as we have reported elsewhere on this blog, there is still a long way to go. So let's not forget that none of these advances came easily. The fight for equality continues.