Meet the women pioneers in accounting
Women still face inequality at work despite having more opportunities today than in past generations. A 2020 report on gender parity in accounting found that while 61 percent of all accountants and auditors in the U.S. are women, only 27 percent are partners or principals at their firms. This gender gap in accounting reflects the obstacles women must overcome and navigate throughout their careers.
Today’s accounting organizations are far more motivated to support women’s initiatives, and it’s because of a few notable women who broke down doors so future generations could step through them. Let’s look at how they’ve achieved progress for today’s women accountants.
Women pioneers in accounting
Mary Harris Smith
In 1920, Harris Smith made history by becoming the first woman chartered accountant in the world. Despite operating her own accounting firm for decades, she didn’t officially receive her chartered accountant title until she was 75 years old (equivalent to the U.S.’s CPA licensure).
Over the course of her life, she applied for fellowship at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) multiple times, with the former ICAEW president once stating in the late 1800s that he’d rather retire than admit a woman into their organization. It was only when the U.K. passed a law allowing women to work professionally that Harris Smith was finally able to join ICAEW, stating “admission equal, and status equal with male members."
Christine Ross, CPA
Across the Atlantic, Christine Ross was also fighting for official recognition of her accounting expertise. In 1898, just two years after New York gave its first CPA Exam, she became the first woman in the U.S. to become a CPA. Even though she fulfilled the same requirements as her male counterparts, the state delayed sending her scores and CPA certificate for almost 18 months simply because she was a woman. She ended up earning the second-best CPA Exam score in her group. She spent the rest of her accounting career providing her services to fashion moguls and women’s organizations.
Mary T. Washington, CPA
Photo credit: National Society of Black CPAs
45 years after Ross became the first woman to earn her CPA licensure, Mary T. Washington became the first Black woman to earn hers.
Ross cut her accounting teeth by bookkeeping for Binga State Bank--one of the largest Black-owned banks in America. This was after almost no white employer would hire her. She then attended Northwestern University, where she started her own accounting practice in her basement, employing other Black accountants from all over the country. After graduating from Northwestern as the sole woman in her class, she went on to found Washington, Pittman & McKeever. It continues to be one of the largest Black-owned accounting firms in the country.
Theodora Rutherford, CPA
Photo credit: The Daily CPA
Rutherford made a name for herself in West Virginia as the first Black woman member of the West Virginia Society of Public Accountants. Like her predecessors, she excelled in school, graduating summa cum laude from Howard University at just 19 years old. In 1924, she became the first Black person to earn her master’s degree in accounting from Columbia University, all without the financial support of family or camaraderie from her classmates.
As a woman and a minority, Rutherford had to find a “side door” to career opportunities after school. This led her to a role at West Virginia State College to establish its first business school program. She taught in academia for the next few decades and officially became a CPA after a change in the state’s CPA requirements.
Larzette Hale-Wilson, CPA
Photo credit: The HistoryMakers
Defying the odds is the common thread that runs through each of these trailblazers’ accounting careers. For Hale-Wilson, this meant being the first Black woman CPA in Georgia, as well as the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Accounting in the U.S.
Around the time Rutherford officially received her CPA licensure, Hale-Wilson began her journey into accounting at Oklahoma’s Langston University. She graduated summa cum laude at a time when Black people weren’t even allowed to enroll in the state’s public universities. After passing the CPA Exam and receiving her Ph.D., she served as the head of Utah State University’s School of Accountancy for 13 yrs and as national president of the American Woman's Society of CPAs.
Dorothy G. Willard
Photo credit: Bentley University
Despite working in a male-dominated industry, Willard’s talent and determination couldn’t be ignored by her peers. She was appointed the first female president of National Association of State Boards of Accountancy’s (NASBA) in 1967. It took another 18 years for the second woman to earn the same title.
Willard was also a partner at her accounting firm Charles F. Rittenhouse & Company, a position that was extremely rare for women to hold back then. Her industry prominence is significant because she was promoted into leadership when it was unheard of for women to achieve this level of rank and influence.
Lessons learned from their legacies
Without support systems, equal opportunities, and even the law on their side, these women found a way to not only excel in their craft, but also help others do the same.
If they were alive today, their advice to women in accounting might sound a lot like what seasoned CPAs Angie Brown and ZeNai Brooks have said:
- Be your own advocate. Speak for your work and find people who will support your ideas and goals.
- Elevate others who walk in your shoes. You’re all on the same team and can create greater impact together. Mentor, advise, or provide opportunities when you can.
- Create a career path and milestones that make sense for you. Your unique challenges will require a more creative approach to your career, leading to experience and qualifications that can make you stand out.
- Invest in your skills and education to stay competitive and relevant. It’s hard to ignore high performance and expert knowledge. Your power and potential will grow exponentially when you also learn how to cultivate your confidence. Dedicating CPE credits toward courses like Women Lead with Confidence shows you best practices for developing leadership skills and helps you gain the confidence you need to succeed.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
The foremothers of accounting had to take the longer, harder path to achieve the same goals as their male peers. But what’s even more impressive is their legacy of facilitating progress and supporting others in the field. When we provide equal and equitable opportunities to women in traditionally male-dominated spaces, it benefits everyone--even long after we move on.