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Celebrating Women’s History in Accounting and Finance

In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating several women who left their mark on the fields of finance and accounting, and a few of our CPAs are reflecting on how women before them inspired their journeys toward becoming CPAs. 

Without the powerful and courageous women in history that set the pace for generations to come, our world would look very different. Women in accounting have been breaking the barriers since the 1800s and the number of women in the profession continues to climb. 

In the past 35 years, the number of female accountants has risen almost 20%. From our interns to our partners, SME CPAs would lack in so many ways without the hard-working women that we call our own. We are thankful for the women who have shaped the accounting field to be a place of inclusion—and here are just a few of them.

7 Female Firsts in Accounting and Finance

Christine Ross – The First Female CPA

Christine Ross was born in Nova Scotia in the early 1870s. She later moved to New York to become the first female certified public accountant in the United States. In June of 1898, just two years after New York gave its first CPA exam, Ross passed and placed in the top three scores in her testing group. Because of her gender, her certification was withheld for close to 18 months. In late 1899, she received her certificate no. 143 and went on to work with clients that included successful women in business and the fashion industry.

Mary T. Washington – The First African American Female CPA

Born in 1906, Mary T. Washington was the first African-American woman to be declared a certified public accountant in the USA. After her mother passed away when she was 6, she moved from Mississippi to be raised by her grandparents in Chicago. After graduating college, she founded her own accounting firm in 1939 and was able to train a generation of younger African-American CPAs. Mary T. Washington impacted Chicago so deeply the city now holds September 30th as a day in her honor.

Mary Harris Smith – The World’s First Female Chartered Accountant

Even though Mary Harris Smith studied accounting from the age of 16, she experienced rejection in the professional world, solely because of her gender. After founding her own practice in 1888, she applied to join the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors but was denied membership on multiple occasions because she was female. After years of law changes and Smith continuing her practice, she was accepted as the first female Chartered Accountant in the organization at 72 years old.

Dorothy G. Willard – First Female President of NASBA

Dorothy G. Willard was a partner in the Boston firm of Charles F. Rittenhouse & Company. She made history when she was named the first female president of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). Before her role as president, which she served from ‘67-’68, she was named NASBA’s treasurer. 

Margaret Downes – First Female Member and President of ICA

As a woman of many firsts, Margaret Downes has accomplished many “firsts” for women in the accounting profession. Over the course of her career, Downes became the first female:

  • Member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants
  • President of Institute of Chartered Accountants
  • Partner in Coopers and Lybrand
  • Director of the Bank of Ireland Management Limited

Teresa S. (Terri) Polley – First CEO of FAF

Terri Polley was named as the first CEO and President of the Financial Accounting Foundation (FAF). FAF is an independent, private-sector organization responsible for the oversight, administration, and finances of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), and its Advisory Councils. In all of FAF’s 38 years, Polley held the title of being the first CEO.

Mary E. Murphy

Mary Murphy was the second woman in the United States to earn a Doctorate degree in Accountancy. She was also the first woman in the state of Iowa to earn her CPA in 1930. Additionally, Murphy had become chair, director, and assistant professor in many universities and organizations.

Hear from the Women of SME

These women and many who came after them continue to pave the way for women in the accounting profession. We asked some of the leading women within our own organization how they got their start in accounting and what inspires them to keep pushing forward. Here’s what they had to say:  

Andrea Usry, CPA – Partner, SME CPAs 

I remember hearing a CPA speak at our career day in high school. He spoke about the challenges, but also the rewards of being in public accounting. I always knew I wanted to do something that would help people so I did a bit more research and decided to sign up for an accounting class in high school. After that first class, I was hooked!

Throughout my career, I have been inspired by so many CPAs who have come before me, but I am especially inspired by many of the women here at SME, including Rita Ray, Sonia Gowen, and Laura Sprowls.  

Sonia Gowen – Director, SME CPAs

I got my first taste of accounting in a high school accounting class and have enjoyed the challenges and professional growth opportunities the field has provided me over the years. 

I would say I draw some of my biggest inspiration from other women I work with every day at SME. Our team is full of so many skilled professionals and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to interact with them both professionally and personally. 

Regina Alexander –  Manager, SME CPAs

I have always been drawn to accounting because it is structured, logical, and just makes sense to me. I guess you could say that it exists within my comfort zone, so I feel very confident in doing this work. As a female in the field, I find all of the women leadership here at SME to be very inspiring. Their dedication to the profession, our firm, and their career is very inspiring and keeps me motivated to grow as a professional. 

Today, the number of women in the accounting field is still growing. In 1940, only 1% of CPAs were women. In 2013, 40% of all CPAs were women. As women continue to push through the boundaries of the corporate world and create opportunities that were never easily handed to them, it is essential to reflect on the strong women of the past and the present. SME CPAs is eternally grateful for the women that have shaped our firm and created the success that we build on daily.

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