Moving the markers forward: How women in Canada are shaping the profession

Canadian women have changed the face of accounting over the last 200 years because of their persistence. Learn more about these women and how their actions opened the door for women entering the profession.

Over the last 200 years, through several designations and reinventions, women across the world have claimed accounting not only as a career, but also as a passion. They’ve done so with the grit and dedication required of the profession, and more often than not, a dash of good humour as well. It’s the unwavering, proactive persistence of women in chartered professional accounting that has opened opportunities through the last 200 years and will continue to do so. As former “Grand Old Lady of Accounting” and Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) Gertrude Mulcahy put it, “the problem of ‘women’ simply would not stay settled” over a century, and the profession has only grown better for it.

Bumpy road ahead

Though it might be hard to picture now, women haven’t always been a common sight in accounting firms and practices. In Canada, records name M.L. Rattray as the first female member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario, though it would be another 14 years before a woman would earn an accounting designation.

Tenacity, resilience and intelligence are just a few words that come to mind when considering Mary Harris Smith’s story. Her banker father’s early recognition of her skills sent Mary into the accounting profession, and led her to open her own practice in the late 1800s. Mary applied to join the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) but, as a woman, was rejected.

The initial rejection did not faze Mary — she would continue to apply even as rules were later changed, and she became an Honorary Fellow at the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors in 1918. A year later, the Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919 was passed, opening the doors to women in the accounting profession. Mary Harris Smith became the first female chartered accountant as a new century began to take shape.

Across the pond, it wasn’t smooth sailing for Mary’s peers in Canada before 1919, as provincial institutes rejected applications from women to write examinations. Three years later, Mercy Ellen Crehan and Florence Eulalie Herkins would earn their CA designations in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, respectively. Helen Burpee and Charlotte N. Howell would follow shortly after, writing their examinations in 1930 and becoming full-fledged members of their provincial institutes. With Ivy Cox earning her CGA designation in 1932, it would soon prove difficult to maintain the men-only status quo that had reigned in Canada’s accounting profession.

Women on the rise

Cecille Ratney remembers being the “only girl in the graduating class” of 1948. Her father, Moses Ratney, had encouraged her to take the CA course after she took to working in the family practice with ease. While Cecille enjoyed working with numbers, she had not grown up thinking that accounting could be a career path for her: “I never thought of being an accountant. I think I probably…wanted to be a teacher.”

Her father’s death in 1961 would pose a question Cecille hadn’t had to contemplate. Would it be possible to keep the business going and keep all of Ratney & Ratney’s clients? The answer wasn’t an easy one, but Cecille rose to the occasion with the same quiet persistence that has characterized her 60-year career. “Practically all the clients stayed with me,” she shares, a testament to their recognition of her ability and drive when the concept of women in the work force was still being debated.

Cecille’s early story is a unique one as the profession looks back at its storied roots: her career began just as the world was recovering from World War II, as accounting firms found themselves missing colleagues lost in battle. Women are known for having stepped up in industries to pick up the work left behind in the war, and the accounting profession was no different. As more of her peers began to find a passion for accounting work, Cecille would continue the work of running a practice. She “took courses, whatever was needed” to ensure her technical competency and skills were ready for whatever clients might come her way.

Canadian women entering the profession certainly had their fair share of challenges, in and out of the office. After World War II, Gertrude Mulcahy recounts learning that “there was very little possibility of advancement.” “Industry was not yet prepared to accept women into their management ranks, even though women had proved that they were just as capable as their male counterparts.” Discouraging to be sure, but there was no stopping the tide now.

Non-public accounting fields saw more women entering their ranks, among them Ellen Fairclough, who would later become the first woman in the Canadian cabinet as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and Gertrude herself, moving into a position as accounting research director at the CICA. Anne Marie Boyer would be the first female RIA (later renamed Certified Management Accountant or CMA) in 1949, signaling the start of women going into management accounting.

The 70s and 80s would bring an even larger number of women into the profession, just in time to see a change in management attitude — “the younger men didn’t seem to mind working with women and certainly the younger women were not intimidated by them,” Gertrude Mulcahy would declare in a speech on the centenary of the admission of women to McGill University. One thing wasn’t changing though: women in accounting had found their space and were moving the markers bit by bit, by virtue of their proactive attitudes and intelligent persistence.

Many ways forward

Today, women occupy leadership positions in firms, industries and academia across the country, though there is still work to be done closing the gender pay gap. The continued advancement of women in the Canadian accounting profession has not come without challenges, but it has led to proven results and the growth of good Canadian business.

Women like Sheila Fraser, the first female auditor general, and Charlene Taylor, the first indigenous woman director of the Office of the Auditor General, have left their mark on Canada; communities across the country experience the careful and active guidance of accountants like Roshan Jamal, the first president and CEO of the Noor Cultural Centre. In December 2016, Cecille Ratney celebrated her 100th birthday with folk dancing, a hobby that she has kept through the turmoil and excitement of her own accounting career. Canadian women have changed the face of accounting in their own unique ways and, clearly, will continue to do so in the years to come.

Stay tuned for more stories about the people and the events that contributed to CPA Canada’s rich history as Canadians prepare to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

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CPA Canada