100 years since women broke the accountancy mould


Following the centenary celebrations in 2018 of voting rights for women, 2019 marks 100 since the next step towards female equality – the opening of the professions.

The 1919 Act

While some bodies had started to admit women in the months before 1919, it was not until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 that all professional accountancy bodies were forced to admit women.

Before that, bodies such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW) would not allow women to take articles (effectively enter a training contract).

The impact of World War One

The question of admitting women had been a recurring issue for the various professional accountancy bodies which had begun to establish themselves in the 1800s.

But it was not until towards the end of World War One after women had replaced men called to the front in offices and practices, that the profession finally started to take active steps towards admitting women.

One Scottish accountancy body began by allowing women entry to their bookkeeping classes in 1916, while the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors (which merged with ICAEW in the 1950s), agreed to admit women in October 1918.

The first woman admitted to the ICAEW 

After the 1919 Act, the first woman admitted to the ICAEW was Mary Harris Smith.

Aged 72, and having had her own practice for much of her adult life, she was finally admitted as a fellow some 30 years after the rejection of her first application on the grounds of her gender.

The first woman admitted on equal terms

After 1919 and Mary Harris Smith, there was a delay of a few years as newly articled women started the process of sitting exams and completing their minimum three or five-year period of training. (The training depended on their previous level of education.)

The first to complete all these requirements was Ethel Watts, who was admitted to the ICAEW in February 1924.

Who was Ethel Watts?

Ethel was the eldest daughter of a Metropolitan police officer. She attended Bedford college and then Royal Holloway before signing up for her articles in August 1920.

In later life she recorded that it was Sir Harry Peat (whose father Sir William Peat is the P in KMPG) who suggested that she should try accountancy as a career.

A practice of her own

After qualifying, Ethel worked for Sir Harry for a year before setting up in practice on her own account. After a short period in partnership with another lady accountant, she ran her own practice until she retired in July 1961.

Contributing to the ICAEW

Having established her practice, Ethel began to get increasingly involved with the ICAEW.

Her papers held at the Women’s library at the London School of Economics show her writing in 1934 to inquire why female students were still being seated separately from the men in examination halls.

By the 1940s it was Ethel that the ICAEW turned to when they needed a female perspective on equal pay.

In the 1950s she was the first woman elected to the committee of the London and District Society of the ICAEW as well as becoming involved in the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association (CABA).

In 1962 Ethel represented the ICAEW at the Eighth International Congress of Accountants in New York.

Female networks

Ethel understood the importance of networking and was instrumental in setting up the Women’s Chartered Accountants Dining society in 1945.

This enabled women in the profession to meet and network at a time when, as one member put it: “Women accountants feel rather isolated, like mermaids sitting on a rock.”

The world beyond accounting

Ethel didn’t restrict herself to accountancy. She was active in the Labour movement, and also campaigned for equal pay and the separate taxation of men and women. For many years she was chair of the Fawcett Society.

The march of the women

In the decades following the Act, the number of women in the profession increased slowly. By 1949, the ICAEW had only 125 female members compared to around 15,000 men.

By the time Ethel died in 1963, a total of 433 women had been admitted to the ICAEW, with a further 120 women articled as clerks – representing around 4 per cent of the total student body.

Where are we now?

One hundred years later, there are tens of thousands of female professional accountants in the UK. Representation does though vary between the professional bodies.

Figures published annually by the Financial Reporting Council show that, as at 31 December 2017, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) has the highest percentage of female members at 46 per cent. The ICAEW reported the lowest percentage of female members at 28 per cent.

On average, over all seven major UK accountancy bodies included in the report, 36% of members were female.

The position for tax

The future

How the gender balance in accountancy will evolve in the future can best be predicted from the student body.

Over the past 20 years the percentage of female students has gradually increased for all seven bodies, ranging from 43 per cent for ICAEW up to 57 per cent for ACCA.

Overall, by 2017 the seven bodies combined reported that 49 per cent of their combined student body were female.

It therefore seems not inconceivable that in 2019, 100 years after the way into the professions was opened, the student body of future accountants could finally represent both genders equally.