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Female firsts

Find out about the key female firsts in accountancy who helped pioneer the way for women in the profession.

Women struggled to enter the the accountancy profession when it took on its organised form in the 19th century. Many professions did not welcome women, and the accountancy bodies that formed in this period were no exception. In 1895 the ICAEW President, Charles Fitch Kemp, commented that he would be so embarrassed by the admission of women that he would rather retire than consider it.

The shift in society's attitudes after the First World War saw women admitted to the profession for the first time. Accountancy was still viewed predominantly as a male occupation however, and the number of women within the profession remained very small. Further social change in the 1960s and 1970s saw the number of women training to be accountants rise substantially. Major progress has continued, with an equal number of women and men entering the profession today. We take a look at the lives and careers of some of the female accountants who have helped pioneer the way.

First female ICAEW member

Mary Harris Smith was admitted as the first female member of the ICAEW in May 1920. She was born in 1844 in London. Her father, clerk to a navy agent and banker, recognised and encouraged her abilities and she studied mathematics with a master of Kings College School when she was sixteen. She attended bookkeeping classes set up by the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women and then worked as an accountant for a mercantile firm in London for a number of years. Following this she became accountant to the Royal School of Art Needlework. Her reputation led to requests from other organisations to audit their accounts.

In 1887 Mary Harris Smith set up her own accounting firm in Westminster. The same year she applied to join the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors but was rejected on grounds of her gender. In 1891 she applied for admission to ICAEW but was also turned away. Repeated attempts to join were also unsuccessful.

During the First World War women successfully took on roles that had been the preserve of men and this led to a change in society’s attitudes. In 1918 the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors changed their rules to allow the admission of women and, when she renewed her application Mary Harris Smith was made an Honorary Fellow (with an official admission date of 12 November 1919).

The passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919 made it illegal for ICAEW to continue to bar women from membership. Mary Harris Smith renewed her application to ICAEW the same year. In May 1920, at the age of 75, she was admitted as a fellow of ICAEW and became the first female chartered accountant.

Further reading

Mary Harris Smith: The first female Chartered Accountant - article on the East End Women's Museum website, September 2020

Silverstone, R. 'How Mary Harris Smith led the way,' Accountancy, May 1980, Vol. 91 Issue 1041, pp.74-75, 2pp.

Walker, S.P. 'Professions and patriarchy revisited. Accountancy in England and Wales, 1887–1914,' Accounting History Review, July 2011, Vol.21 No.2, pp.185-225, 39pp.

First ICAEW female member admitted by exam

In 1924 Ethel Watts became the first woman to qualify for ICAEW membership by examination and the second female ICAEW member. Little is known of her early life, although she studied at Bedford College in 1913. After choosing accountancy as a profession she was articled to the late Mr S. Williams FCA and joined Peats after qualifying. In 1925, after obtaining her practicing certificate, she went into practice in the firm Homersham & Watts of Clements Lane, London. She then went into practice on her own as E. Watts & Co in South West London.

Ethel Watts was actively involved with ICAEW and was the first woman to be elected to the committee of the London and District Society of Chartered Accountants. She was a member of the executive committee of the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Fund for a number of years. In 1945, when the number of women joining ICAEW was increasing, she founded the Women Chartered Accountants’ Dining Society to provide an opportunity for women in the profession to meet. The Watts prize was established by the Society in her memory.

As well as the accountancy profession, she was active in the movement to secure equality for women from the 1920s to the 1960s. She was involved with the London and National Society for Women’s Service and continued this work when it became the Fawcett Society, offering her services as an accountant. She died in 1963.

Further reading

First female ICAEW council members

Jane Robinson and Mary Yale were the first female members of Council in 1979.

Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson was educated at the Convent of Notre Dame, Southwark, and in Munich. She worked as a bi-lingual secretary before signing her accountancy articles at 21, training with London firm J.Dix-Lewis, Caesar, Duncan & Co (later merged with Robson Rhodes).

She was technical editor at Accountancy magazine from 1973-1975 before becoming a training manager at Edward Moore. After a brief sabbatical in the advertising industry she returned to Edward Moore in 1978 as a training partner. She was the firm’s first female partner. The firm wanted to contribute more to ICAEW and so she spent time on committee work on her return.

In 1979 she became a member of ICAEW council. She had previously been chairman of the Education Sub-Committee of the London Society of Chartered Accountants and the examination system was a particular area of interest when she took office. She served on the Council until 1984 and was a member of several standing committees including the Examinations Committee (1980-82), Members' Education and Training Committee (1981-1982) and Smaller Practitioner Committee (1983-84).

Mary Yale

Mary Yale won a number of ICAEW prizes as a student. She was a tax partner with Thomson McLintock & Co. when she became a member of ICAEW council in 1979. She served on the Council until 1995 and was a member of a number of standing committees, particularly the Ethics and Parliamentary & Law Committees in her early years as a councillor. Later on she was regularly a member of the Tax committee and Professional Conduct Directorate.

Further reading

Roche, S. 'Two women on Institute Council (but only one wants to be president),' Accountancy, July 1979, Vol. 90 Issue 1031, p13-13. 1/2p. (2 Black and White Photographs)

'Jane Robinson goes back to old firm as a partner,' Accountancy, Nov. 1978, Vol. 89 Issue 1023, p32-32. 1/3p. (1 Black and White Photograph)

First female ICAEW president

It is a common misconception that Clare Smith was the first female ICAEW president in 1932-33. The name Clare however did in fact belong to a man!

The first female ICAEW president was Dame Sheila Masters (now Baroness Noakes) who served from 1999 – 2000. Baroness Noakes was born in 1949 and went to Eltham Hill Grammar School. After graduating in law from the University of Bristol she joined Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. (now KPMG) as an articled clerk in 1970. She qualified as a chartered accountant in 1973 and was seconded from 1979-81 to HM Treasury to act as accounting and financial adviser.

She was a partner at KPMG from 1983 to 2000, specialising in public sector issues. In 1988 she was seconded for three years to head financial reforms in the NHS. In 1991 she returned to the firm and took up chairmanship of KPMG’s international government practice. During the 1990s she also became a non-executive director at the Court of the Bank of England. In 1996 she was awarded a DBE.

Baroness Noakes was a member of the London Society of Chartered Accountants from 1984-1988 and served on ICAEW council from 1987-2002. In 1999 she became the first female president of ICAEW in its 120 year history, promising to modernise it for the new millennium.

In 2000 she was made a life peer. Offices held in the 2000s include Conservative front bench spokesman in the Lords for Health and for Work and Pensions and Shadow Minister in the Lords for the Treasury and for Work and Pensions. She is now a backbench Conservative peer. She has held non-executive directorships at a number of organisations and continues to do so.

Further reading

'Mastering a new role', Accountancy, July 1999, Vol. 124 Issue 1271, p.12, 1/3p. (1 Black and White Photograph)

ICAEW Past Presidents 1880-2005 - article on past presidents by accounting historian Peter Boys, written at the time of the 125th anniversary of ICAEW.

Find out more about these and other pioneering women accountants

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