A life in accountancy - Women in ICAEW
In celebration of 100 years of women as chartered accountants, economia asked ICAEW’s early female members to tell us their stories, in their own words. Here are abridged extracts of some of the many fascinating tales we were sent
Qualified in 1943
I was articled on my 17th birthday in March 1938. By the time I was due to take the intermediate exam it was January 1941 and the Blitz was at its height. Public exams were moved out of London; in the case of the Institute, to the Imperial Services College at Windsor. Among the candidates there were only four or five women. We stayed in cubicles on the first floor of a wooden shed, reached by an outside staircase. There was snow on the ground; it was bitterly cold, the plumbing is best not dwelt on, and the food was simply appalling.
When it came to our finals in January 1943, I managed to come second: I might have been the first woman to achieve honours. I was drafted into the Ministry of Fuel and Power. This job was not stimulating but life was exciting because the office was on Millbank and the flying bombs were then at their height. The working day was punctuated by three bells ringing to warn us of a bomb coming directly towards us. Fortunately they all missed.
Qualified in 1954
Once I was qualified, I had to apply for jobs using my initial and surname rather than my full name. I knew the chances were that I wouldn’t be called to interview if they knew it was a woman applying. When I turned up to one interview in London and they found out that I was not a man, they told me
I would be a “disrupting influence” and they didn’t have the facilities for me.
I recall when I qualified being asked by one man why I needed the extra money as I “had a husband to keep me”. When I joined one firm, the senior partner came to meet me, declaring that he wanted to “see this freak”. However, it wasn’t all bad. When I was pregnant with my first child, it was the norm for women not to come back to work. When I gave my notice, they asked me to stay on longer and kept extending my leaving date. They also gave me leeway on getting into work (I suppose today’s equivalent is flexible working!). I think by this stage I was one of them and gender no longer came into it.
Qualified in 1958
I did not go to university; I worked all day while I was studying and I did a correspondence course with Foulks Lynch. When articled, I studied in my own time at night and weekends. My salary was 30 shillings per week. I am over 84 years of age, but I have remembered for over 60 years the question asked of me in my very first interview with a prospective employer after I had received my results: “Can you type?” This gives an excellent indication of the conditions in the 1950s. But I was the first woman to qualify in Sheffield, and I became the senior partner in a firm of chartered accountants in 1963. My qualification has been one of the best things in my life.
Qualified in 1963
When I qualified it was generally believed that there was a quota for the number of women who would be passed, and I was told by a fellow chartered accountant that I had kept a good man out! At my first annual dinner in Adelaide I was told by a very senior member that he was offended by my presence and that I should have had the grace not to attend. Fortunately, I have a good sense of humour and it has given me great pleasure to see women take their place at all levels of the profession over the last few years.
Qualified in 1965
I started working life at 16 in 1960, at a City firm of chartered accountants. I was articled to the senior partner, and I was fortunate in that he approved of women entering the profession. There were two other girls who joined at about the same time – one from Singapore and one from Pakistan. We were very aware that we needed to work hard – it was not enough to be as good as the boys: we needed to be better than them.
I submitted some poems to Contra magazine, published by the Chartered Accountants Students’ Society of London. In 1962 I attended a meeting of the editorial board of Contra, where I met my future husband, Peter, in Committee Room 2 of Moorgate Place. In 1965 I passed the final exam, gaining the William Quilter Prize and the Plender Prize for auditing. So I managed to be better than a lot of the boys! I am very glad that I was able to become a chartered accountant and would recommend it as a career. There is, of course, no guarantee of finding a husband.
Qualified in 1967
Both my father and my brother were chartered accountants and in the 1930s my mother was secretary to the senior partner of a City firm. He offered her articles. Although he was willing to waive the premium that articled clerks paid in those days, she wouldn’t initially have been paid. As the main earner supporting her mother and two siblings, she couldn’t afford to take his offer. I always wanted a career and accountancy was an obvious choice to gain a professional qualification.
As an articled clerk, the audit office manager disapproved of my appointment and was damaging my progress in the firm. He thought it improper to include me in the team for out of town audits because we would be staying in a hotel together. These were the most important audits and my absence from them implied I wasn’t competent. At least twice, a less able man than me was appointed to a senior position. In both cases, they didn’t last very long in the job.
Qualified in 1971
My first interview was with a pompous partner in one of the big firms. His actual words were: “The profession is too difficult for a woman.” That was a red rag to a bull: it made me determined to prove him wrong. I enjoyed learning accounting. It appealed to my logical brain. We had no calculators in those days – there was one abacus, which only the secretary was allowed to use. The clerks had to do all their arithmetic mentally. I did all my studying by correspondence course and passed all my exams first time. The only problem I had was during the miners’ strike in the 1970s, when I had to study by candle-light, wrapped in blankets and huddled over an oil stove.
Over the 13 years I worked in industry in insurance, I hit my head on the glass ceiling often enough to realise that it consists of a thick layer of men. Promotion just didn’t happen. The only way up for a woman was to move sideways first. So when an opportunity arose to be interviewed for a secondment to Paris, I applied. When I moved to France, I took a professional acting course, found an agent, and now can be seen onstage in Paris, in films, voicing adverts, and even on TV.
Qualified in 1973
I was articled to the only partner in an English village firm prepared to take women. He liked to employ women because they did the work promptly, passed exams with no apparent difficulty, and allowed him enough time for politics to become the senior partner. It may have been the only time I was not acutely aware of my gender in my working life. I married a Canadian and moved to Toronto. On the application forms to the Big Five I was told that I should not keep my maiden name and I should not put atheist next to religion, as I had enough points against me as a woman.
I was told five times that I could not have a job or promotion because I am female, in the days before equality legislation; I was underpaid compared with the men everywhere. When I was needed as an interim CEO, and paid the predecessor’s salary, I realised the difference in pay scales.
Being blocked from promotion leaves a nasty taste: so I found outlets in my spare time: international development consulting with UNDP, UNDTCD and the World Bank in New York, Bangladesh and Bolivia, and chairing an international committee in Geneva and Washington for UNHCR. A NED for the last 10 years, I am now treated equally, and interrupt my male colleagues nearly as often as they do me.
Qualified in 1974
In 1969, as an eager 18-year-old Kenyan Asian, I was desperate to train as a chartered accountant. Not any old accountant – but a Chartered Accountant in England and Wales. Kenya, being a British colony, had an education system based on the British O- and A-levels. Luckily for me, the Institute accepted my qualifications for entrance as an articled clerk. My needlework O-level, however, was not accepted. I’m not sure why, as the course included calculations on dressmaking patterns!
I was warned my gender and colour might be held against me. I was the only woman among about 50 articled clerks. Some companies were surprised to see a woman and rang the firm to make sure they hadn’t sent the secretary or comptometer by mistake. But, on the whole, I experienced no prejudice. If there was any, my motto was that it was the other person’s problem, not mine.
Qualified in 1974
As an articled clerk you were jack of all trades. It was strictly hierarchal. I remember manning the phone switchboard in reception, which had the old plug-in sockets. We also had to proofread the various profit and loss and balance sheets before they were issued to clients. In-house accounts were recorded in thick bound formal ledger books. When auditing we had to use a different colour pen for each year and we had three types of tick for addition, transfer from source document, and transfer balance. From these we created the trial balance, profit and loss, and balance sheets.
There was a hand cranked adding machine in each room, but we were not allowed to use them for the first year of articles. An electric one existed in one of the basement rooms, but God forbid you got caught using it. I remember being proud of successfully completing one of my first sets of accounts and presenting it to the partner, who said, “Oh, we do not want so much profit” – and much to my dismay he simply adjusted the stock number to reduce it!
Qualified in 1976
I left school in Edinburgh aged 15, because I did not want to stay on and become a teacher, the only career suggested to me. I progressed up the ladder from bookkeeping, to wages clerk, and at the age of 27 was running all administration in an accountant’s office. There I read an ICAEW by-law which stated that, if you were 27 with 10 years of acceptable experience, the entrance qualifications could be waived and replaced by an interview. I subsequently became an articled clerk in the small firm in Bath where I was working – with a drop in salary, of course.
I qualified in 1976 – the first woman to qualify in Bath, so the local newspaper announced. I joined a 13-partner, six-branch Bristol firm as their first woman equity partner. There I met Angela James, the only female salaried partner, and in 1986 we bought out one of the branches to create the first all-female partnership in Bristol. I recall bumping into an ex-colleague, just after becoming a partner, who asked whether clients minded taking advice from a woman.
Qualified in 1977
When I began, women faced a great deal of misogyny. I was sent by my manager to buy flowers for his wife, to take his coat to his meetings, to arrange meals, and had my drinks spiked when we had group drinks in the pub. One partner shouted at me for interrupting a meeting with an urgent document, and his ‘apology’ was to say he thought I was a secretary. I got used to being pinched in lifts in client buildings. I was once in charge of a job in a factory and was not allowed to go onto the shop floor: I had to ask for a male colleague to be sent to help. Eating alone in a Liverpool hotel, I was approached by the waiter to ‘accompany’ another guest and ended up eating all my meals in my room.
When we qualified, my female colleagues and I booked lunch at Moorgate Place; we were told it was for members only. We were members, and stayed, but were made to feel uncomfortable. We went back every year, and eventually did not cause a stir when we arrived. I left the profession early after a brief spell trying to make it work after having children. I’m not sure what I could have done differently – perhaps complained more – but I would have stayed if I could. As it was, after children I was given backroom work to do until I gave up. Female colleagues who stayed made massive sacrifices, as I see it, in their personal lives at that time.
Qualified in 1979
I was one of eight women in my 1975 intake at Deloitte & Co. In my first week I asked why I was not included in the firm’s pension scheme. The response – “Do you mean to tell me we have ladies on the professional staff?” – gave me an indication of what was to come. Some managers wouldn’t give women the most prestigious audit clients. Some women were kept in the audit room as glorified secretaries, unable to get the experience they needed to complete their training contracts. There were clients who had no ladies’ toilets. And there were clients where the walls of the audit room were covered in pornographic images.
I became treasurer of the Chartered Accountants Students Society of London. When I had to present my annual report at CAH, I was told: “Ladies cannot speak on the stage at Chartered Accountants’ Hall.” I replied: “You can refuse ladies, but not the treasurer.” I made my speech, I believe as the first woman to speak from that stage.
Qualified in 1984
I was a late starter in the profession, beginning my training contract at the age of 33 in 1979. So I benefitted from the tenacity of my contemporaries who fought the battles to ensure that women were accepted in what was still a male-dominated profession. Throughout my professional life I was encouraged by male colleagues. It was the fact that my District Society was keen to recruit a woman that led to my becoming the first woman to join the Main Committee of the South Eastern Society. I went on to become president.
In 2004, with my daughter and another colleague, I set up a new practice. We were going to be client-focused. We weren’t going to have staff or timesheets. Then my daughter became pregnant and our no-staff policy had to change. In her NCT group there were a number of CAs who didn’t want to work full time, but wanted to do something. These mothers would need to be able to work from home, so we installed a server so our system could be accessed from anywhere. We went paperless so remote workers could see client files. Our business plan was simple. Have fun, don’t work for anyone you don’t like and make money. The fly in the ointment? People assume our one male colleague is the boss. It drives me nuts!
Qualified in 1998
I entered chartered accountancy in 1994 at the age of 40 – my student colleagues were the same age, or younger, than my two children. At an interview with a small Liverpool partnership I was told that, although there was no actual ban on women wearing trousers, they expected the female employees not to wear them. I’d have been happy to wear almost anything to gain a training contract, knowing that I would be the first mature student to be accepted into the firm.
On my first day I was given a wad of 16-column ledger paper and a carrier bag full of invoices, cheque stubs and bank statements. There was only one computer, which was used merely to enter details on a spreadsheet. I am happy to say I, personally, didn’t experience any gender inequality during my time with the firm. However, there were no female partners and the majority of students were male. I left practice to become a management accountant, but will always be thankful that the firm I trained and qualified with did not have any barriers to age equality.
Read these inspiring stories, and others, in full at the ICAEW 100 years of women hub at icaew.com/100years
Originally published in Economia on 12 December 2019.