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Celebrating a century of female achievement in chartered accountancy

It has been 100 years since the first female was admitted as a member of ICAEW, but how much has changed since then? LSCA deputy president Vicky Andrew reports.

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Vicky Andrew

April 2020

This year, ICAEW is celebrating the centenary of the first female to be admitted as a member in 1920. It seems no coincidence that I am writing this on 8 March 2020: International Women’s Day.

It is almost 35 years since I started my ACA training, and even during that time, I have witnessed major changes for women in the profession. It is so important to have role models.

If there is only one woman in a senior position, there may be a tendency to think that you have to follow exactly the same career path in order to achieve the same level.

Moreover, I cannot recall any female member of client staff in a senior position. Those were the days before such initiatives as Women on Boards and ICAEW’s own Women in Finance.

These days, there are many successful women in business, although many of them got where they are today by starting their own businesses. I am writing this as a female ICAEW business member, and while doing my research, I have struggled to find information about pioneering female ICAEW business members. A subject for a future article, perhaps?

Mary Harris Smith (1844-1934) was born in London. Encouraged by her father, she studied first mathematics, then bookkeeping before finding work as an accountant and auditor.

After a lifetime of working in the profession, she was finally admitted as a fellow of the ICAEW in May 1920, becoming the first female chartered accountant at the age of 75.

Ethel Watts (1896-1963) was the first woman to qualify for ICAEW membership by examination and subsequently became the first woman to be elected to the committee of what was the London and District Society of Chartered Accountants. In addition to the accountancy profession, she was also active between the 1920s and 1960s in the movement to secure equality for women.

Throughout that period, accountancy was still viewed as predominantly a male occupation and the number of women within the profession remained very small. Further social change in the 1960s and 1970s saw a substantial increase in the number of women training to be accountants.

In 1979, ICAEW admitted the first two female members of Council, but it would be another 20 years until ICAEW had its first female President: Baroness Noakes. We have now had three female Presidents, (including our current President, Fiona Wilkinson), with a fourth (Julia Penny) scheduled to take office in 2022.

If you would like to read more, ICAEW has produced a booklet, 100 Years Celebrating women in Accountancy, celebrating the histories of pioneering women in the profession over the past century.

Join us on 29 April for a virtual event celebrating Marry Harris Smith’s centenary: “Stay on top for life - the need to own your skills in a disruptive world”

This will be a joint event, hosted online by LSCA, SESCA and ICAEW Croydon. We shall be coming together via video conference to celebrate how far we have come as a profession and as a society in the last 100 years, while considering where we still need to go. The topic will be lifelong learning, and the need to keep your skills up-to-date. This is not intended to be a women’s event, hence the choice of a topic that will appeal to everyone.

Vicky Andrew is Deputy President of the London Society of Chartered Accountants and Director of Millcove Solutions Ltd, a consultancy providing advice to micro-businesses and accountancy firms throughout the UK.

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