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International Women's Day and CPAs

March 08, 2021

March 8 is International Women's Day and we honor the CPAs in Utah who represent the profession. This is a reprint of an article written by Karen Halladay in April 2020.

In 1920, women secured voting rights, but professional career options for women, including becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) were limited.  Women pioneers and leaders who wanted to be accounting professionals or to be assured of their right to vote fought long and hard to pave the way for themselves and others to achieve success.  The number of women CPAs, both nationally and in Utah, would finally see significant growth 80 years after the first woman passed a CPA exam in 1898.  

The first women CPAs, including those in Utah, had to be tenacious and resourceful to persevere and gain acceptance in a male-dominated profession.  

Women CPAs in the United States
For generations women kept the books for large estates and provided financial information for businesses and government.  In 1870 the U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Division, reported that women working as bookkeepers, accountants and cashiers totaled 893 or 2.3 percent.  By 1900 the number of women doing similar work numbered 74,895 or 29.1 percent.  In spite of women already doing financial and accounting work, it remained difficult to break in as professionals.

Early national professionals
The CPA title and professional license was established in New York in 1896.  Eighteen months after the first exam was given, Christine Ross took the New York exam.  She scored second highest in her group and completed all the license requirements, but state regents delayed her certificate for 1 ½ years because of her gender.  She eventually received certificate no. 143 on December 21, 1899 making her the first woman CPA in the United States.  

Ida S. Broo, an Indiana farm girl moved to Indianapolis, studied piano and had a brief career in teaching.  She studied accounting at night after an employer asked her to keep the books and she worked without pay to get her two years of experience necessary to take the CPA exam.  Broo passed the exam in 1925 becoming the first woman in Indiana to receive her certificate to practice public accounting.  She eventually opened a practice in her own name.  

Despite her accomplishments, Broo was refused membership in the Indiana Association of Certified Public Accountants because she was a woman.  A recounting of the state association meeting in which her application was considered can be found in the June 1988 issue of “The Woman Accountant”.  At the meeting, a man explained why a woman did not have public acceptance in public accounting.  His reasons ranged from travel difficulties to long hours to unwelcoming clients.   Broo’s successful rebuttal informed the men about the long work days on her family’s farm with days beginning at 4:00 a.m.  She shared how the women in her family worked continuously - both inside the house and outside in the fields.   She also shared that men would smoke and doze on the porch after finishing daily chores while women kept working to complete tasks that needed to be done.  Broo went on to serve as the national president of the American Women’s Society of CPAs, national president of the Association of Women Accountants, and first woman president of a State Board of Certified Public Accountants in Indiana.  

The first black woman to become a CPA was Mary T. Washington in 1943.  Washington, also the thirteenth black CPA in the United States, founded one of the largest African-American-owned accounting firms - Washington, Pittman & McKeever.

Organizational efforts
To help women CPAs succeed in the accounting profession, nine women founded the American Women’s Society of Certified Public Accountants (AWSCPA) in Chicago on January 4, 1933.  Its goals included helping women get public accounting experience and certificates; informing the public about women accountant abilities and accomplishments; and encouraging women to actively participate in accounting societies.  

Many factors contributed to the need to form a society of women CPAs.  During World War I women entered the workforce to fill jobs vacated by men serving or killed in military service.  Years later the stock market crash and Great Depression resulted in high unemployment with both women and men accountants experiencing job loss or pay-cuts.  Women in public accounting filled non-accounting positions in accounting firms, some established their own practices, and others left public accounting to work in industry.  During this time, college and university accounting programs discouraged women from studying public accounting.  Women who persisted in earning accounting degrees faced further difficulty when seeking to gain the required experience for licensing because accounting firms discouraged the hiring of prospective women CPAs.  

New opportunities and barriers removed
Because of the market crash and depression, opportunities were also created.  Legislation regarding the Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Power Commission and Bureau of Internal Revenue was passed in 1933 and 1934 requiring large amounts of information to be filed.  This created opportunities for accountants, especially women accounting professionals because government agencies accepted professional women whereas public accounting firms and some industries still made it difficult for women to succeed.

During World War II women filled at least eight of 10 positions normally filled by men.  Women CPAs were hired by accounting firms to do more than administrative or clerical work; they provided tax, audit and accounting services.  Once again after the war, women faced obstacles as public accountants and turned either to industry or established their own practices.  Mary Jo McCann, a 1941 accounting graduate from the University of Kansas, faced such challenges.  The Dean discouraged her from pursuing an accounting degree and, despite top grades, accounting firms did not interview her, with a large firm partner disclosing that his national firm had a policy forbidding the employment of women for professional staff positions.  McCann joined a local firm that eventually merged with Touche Ross & Co., where she became the second female partner. 

During the 1940s and 1950s, AWSCPA worked to remove, prevent and change legislation that discriminated against professional women.  The group advocated for changes to: California Health and Welfare law excluding women from working more than eight hours in one day which was a problem for women in public accounting; General Accounting Office blanket restrictions against employment of women accountants; and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which guaranteed equal opportunities in the work place. Title VII prohibited firms of more than 25 employees from discriminating on the basis of “race, national origin, religion, or sex.”  

Even with these changes, subtle discrimination still occurred and persisted. Public accounting clients could refuse to allow women on their client work and women were not allowed overnight stays for out-of-town assignments.  A former AWSCPA president recalled commuting two hours each way for client work while her male peers assigned to the same project stayed at the local motel.  
Numbers grow

The number of women accountants doubled from 1960 to 1970.  In 1970 women earned only 10 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in accounting.  In 1977, there were 18 women partners compared to 4,900 male partners in the Big Eight firms. More legislation was passed that helped women in the workforce. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  This amendment prohibited discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions and disallowed employers from requiring pregnant employees to take leave or resign from their positions.

During this time, women earned 30 to 40 percent of the CPA certificates and were being hired proportionally by accounting firms.  In spite of these positive changes for women accounting professionals, the number of women partners in 1983 remained small at only 62 female partners or one percent of the total accounting firm partners.  AWSCPA worked hard in the 1990s to develop its female membership.  Opportunities, training, and mentorship in management, leadership, communication and networking were developed for women to break through glass ceilings and advance to the highest levels of management.  But, the number of women reaching the highest levels of management remain low.  

According to an article, “Quick Take: Women in Accounting” in the May 9, 2019 edition of Catalyst in 2016-2017 over 50 percent of the accounting graduates earning Bachelor (51.2%), Master (55.4%), and PhD (53.5%) degrees are women.  Additional statistics from the article include: 60 percent of all accountants and auditors in the U.S. are women; 51 percent of all full-time staff at CPA firms are women; and 25 percent of management committee members in 2018 were women, an improvement from 19 percent in 2014.   In 2016 the number of Fortune 500 women CFOs was 13 percent, twice as many as in 2006.  Women make up just 24 percent of partners and principals at CPA firms and only 15 percent lead audit engagements of major S&P 500 companies. In 2018 women accountants and auditors were paid 79 percent of what their male peers were paid.  Although progress has been made, equity issues still need to still be solved.  (Note:  Although not addressed here, diversity also remains an issue.  Twenty-two percent of all professional staff at CPA firms are non-white.)

Women CPAs in Utah
Utah had its own pioneers as women sought opportunities and rights. One woman seeking opportunity in the 1920s was Hannah Claire Hanes.  Born in Wyoming, Hanes would graduate in 1912 from Holy Cross Hospital Training School for Nurses before switching careers.  Not excited about nursing, she began to pursue her accounting career in 1915.  Hanes opened her own accounting firm because she was unable to secure work with other Salt Lake City accounting firms.  She passed the Utah Certified Public Accountant exam in 1923 - becoming Utah’s first woman CPA.  Her talent as a CPA took her to the East Coast and Chicago before returning to Salt Lake City in 1935 where she practiced until her retirement in 1973.

The history of Utah female CPAs would not be complete without a short biography of Dr. Larzette Hale-Wilson.   In 1971, Dr. Hale-Wilson became an accounting professor at Utah State University (USU).  Six years later she became head of the USU School of Accountancy and remained at the helm for 13 years.  According to an article from National Association of Black Accountants, Inc, Hale-Wilson was inspired and encouraged to pursue a career in accounting after working with an accountant at an orphanage where she was raised.  Hale-Wilson graduated from Langston University and earned her Master’s Degree in Accounting from the University of Wisconsin.  In 1951 she earned her CPA license in Georgia, and in 1955 she graduated with her PhD from the University of Wisconsin.  Hale-Wilson was the first black woman CPA in Georgia and the first black woman to earn a PhD in accounting.  In addition to being a professor and researcher, she served in many local and national leadership roles, including national president of the American Women’s Society of Certified Professional Accountants and the first black woman appointed to the Utah Board of Regents of Higher Education.

In 1987 Lynne Wilhelmsen became the first woman president of the UACPA.  Wilhelmsen first studied ballet and mathematics at the University of Utah before deciding to switch to a career in accounting.  She remembers being one of two women in her higher-level accounting courses.  In 1973 she graduated then worked for several small firms before joining Peat Marwick in 1976 where at that time she was one of three women accounting professionals.  During her presidency, women were moving into the profession in larger numbers.  She estimated 100 out of 141 women joined the UACPA between 1982 to 1987.  As the first woman UACPA president, Wilhelmsen was encouraged and supported by her managing partner at Peat Marwick and by Jeanne Patton, UACPA Executive Director. Ms. Wilhelmsen recently retired after years of helping clients with business, tax, estate and trust matters. 

Numbers in Utah increase
The trends for women CPAs in Utah were similar to the national ones.  For example, in 1937 women CPAs nationally were literally one in a million; the US population was 130 million and there were 130 women CPAs.  UACPA does not have complete membership data, but the below chart presents how the number of women in the profession has grown from 1947 to today.
Women CPAs in Utah organize to create opportunities
As the number of women CPAs in Utah began to grow in the 1980s, a small group of Salt Lake City CPAs, Lynne Wilhelmsen, Cindy Brickley, Janis Kline, Joan Glenn and Dr. Larzette Hale-Wilson organized an AWSCPA affiliate, which was granted on May 20, 1984.  Nearly 150 professional women attended the first meeting, where Christine Durham, the first woman on the Utah Supreme Court, was the speaker.  

Opportunities to network and learn were important to women entering the accounting profession in the 1980s.  There were few women colleagues in the early years - Mary Kay Griffin estimated there were three women for every one hundred men on her first professional job.  

Technology today is certainly different too.  Appointments, contact information, and to do lists are kept on cell phones, not in bulky day planners.  Cheri Landgren, a Utah CPA since the 1980s, carried a “portable” computer and an audit bag containing workpapers down Main Street in Salt Lake City.  Busy season was similar to today, but there were no flexible or telecommuting hours, although Susan Speirs was provided a computer and fax machine to work from home after having her first child.  From early on, technology made some aspects of accounting easier and provided flexible work environments.  Technological changes, including artificial intelligence, robotic process automation (RPA) and cybersecurity will continue to evolve, providing solutions, opportunities and challenges for the accounting profession.  

Facing changes; finding support
The women I spoke to for this article had examples of those who helped them along the way.  Ms. Griffin appreciated her business partners, Chuck Foote and EJ Passey, for allowing a flexible work schedule and asking her to be a partner when they formed a new CPA firm.  Cheri Landgren mentioned the importance of lifelong friends from her accounting firm and AWSCPA days.  She and many other CPA friends remain in contact decades later in spite of life’s personal and professional changes.  Susan Speirs’ grandmother inspired her.  In the 1950s, her grandparents owned several businesses – her grandfather opened an electrical wholesale business and her grandmother, while also being a schoolteacher, opened a retail lighting store.  As a teenager, Susan earned her own money dusting light fixtures and experiencing first hand a women’s can-do attitude from her entrepreneur grandmother.  

These women became CPAs for various reasons and to this day they remain excited about their career choices.  They liked being a CPA for the variety of opportunities and experiences; their relationships with colleagues; and the ability to advise businesses and organizations as they grow and succeed.  Both women and men, as managers, organization leaders, friends, colleagues, business partners and mentors contributed to women succeeding as CPAs.  

Women continue to remain important partners as changes in the profession occur.  They have adapted and overcome educational, licensing and professional obstacles.  However, gender equality, including pay and access to the highest levels of management remain issues to be resolved.  It is important to understand that challenges persist for women CPAs.  Statistics show that women consistently make up 50 percent of CPAs, but they make up less than nine percent of all CFOs and 19 percent of national CPA firm partners.  Just like 100 years ago changes need to be made, and each of us can make a positive difference.  It will take tenacity, resourcefulness, hard work and determination of talented accounting professionals to lead businesses, government and organizations in an ever-changing world.