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Meet the women who shape ICAEW

Author: Rachel Willcox

Published: 22 Mar 2020

We’re celebrating the centenary of women in ICAEW by honouring some of the women who have made strident steps towards gender equality in accounting.

Mary Harris Smith

Mary became the first female chartered accountant in May 1920 at the age of 75 when ICAEW finally accepted her application to be a fellow, after it became clear that the passing of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act meant it could not refuse her. 

It would be another four years before Ethel Watts became the first woman to qualify as an ICAEW Chartered Accountant by examination in 1924, with records showing that she was quickly followed by a number of other women.

A decade on from Harris Smith’s pioneering admission, there were just 23 female members. It wasn’t until 1945 that the number broke through the 100 mark, and it took another 30 years for the total number of women members to reach over 1,000, still representing a pitiful 2.3% of the membership.

It was 60 years before female membership at ICAEW reached 10%. Although it was not uncommon for women to be bookkeepers, most female accountants did not seek membership of a professional body.

Prompted by a boom in demand for accountants, the number of female admissions really started to gain traction in the 1980s, thanks largely to changing attitudes and increased educational opportunities that encouraged and enabled women to enter the profession.

Despite the current gender parity of new entrants, women now represent 29% of ICAEW’s overall membership.

Catrin Barnes

Catrin is VP Finance UK and Israel Technology at Oracle and has been in finance for over 25 years. She recognises more than most the importance of flexibility in helping working mothers progress. “My own career path has encompassed numerous phases and career breaks, and not just for family reasons,” she says.

Her flexibility and desire to take on new challenges, plus a strong network, have been crucial to her success, Barnes believes. “If I could talk to my younger self, I would have one very important piece of advice. If you are taking a career break, when you do return to work, don’t think you should take a step back. I passed up on a promotion to UK Financial Controller on returning from my second maternity break. I thought it would just be too much. But, looking back, I could have done it. I just needed the confidence to recognise that.”

Kate Bowyer

As a CFO, Kate has led The Crown Estate’s finance and business technology teams since October 2016. “My training with Coopers & Lybrand gave me access to structured learning and some great core skills. Audit helps you develop problem-solving capabilities and the ability to spot the implausible. I was also leading teams from quite a young age.”

She urges women to trust in their judgement: “Have confidence in what you have to say even though there may be people in the room with louder voices.” Bowyer is grateful for the support of her husband who, for the past 10 years, has been primary carer for their children.

She believes greater uptake of shared parental leave is the single biggest thing that could make a difference to women’s prospects in the workplace. “We need to start assessing success in a broader set of outcomes.”

Zhuoqin Liu

Looking now at the ACA in the emerging international market; as a Partner of Beijing-based accounting firm Zhongchuang Huicheng, Liu has worked in auditing and accounting for more than 20 years. Over 40 years of reform in China, the economy has developed rapidly, the pace of internationalisation has been accelerating, and the accounting industry has grown fast.

Liu says success requires a lot of energy and with 50-hour working weeks common, you need a strong focus, the ability to balance work and life, and a spirit of independence. “Women often have to make more efforts to overcome social prejudice. To do a good job in accounting, we need to keep learning and challenging ourselves,” Liu says. “Try to establish professional knowledge systems and structures, and cultivate professional quality.”

Chiara Pettinicchio

Financial Advisory/Corporate Finance Assistant Director Chiara joined Deloitte three years ago and works on M&A deals. In addition to her ACA qualification, she holds the Institute’s Corporate Finance Qualification. It was the thrill of the deal, a feeling of making a difference and the variety of the job that drew her to corporate finance.

“Professional services is a male-dominated environment but that shouldn’t stop women achieving success,” she says. Deloitte is a pioneer when it comes to flexible working, she says, and she has no qualms about taking advantage of that so she can balance the needs of the family with the tough requirements of the job. “It’s about setting expectations, and good communication with clients and teammates.” Her advice to others is to have a vision and a purpose and fight hard to achieve it.


Read our article celebrating and profiling 100 years of women in ICAEW here