A handmaids tale? Women accountants in recruitment

The Handmaids Tale is a story about a totalitarian society ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state. In a desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world, the few remaining fertile women are forced into sexual servitude. But once you dig below the storyline it raises questions today.

Like many women, the main protagonist is not an extremely political person. She’s a woman with a job and a family and a life. Her very ordinariness is part of what makes her so appealing. In fact, it is refreshing – she is not a superhero and that’s her charm – there is an element of “whilst far-fetched, it could be me.” It is also a tale of how quickly change can happen.
What makes it even more compelling as a story is that the author wrote about events that have actually happened to women over the centuries.

In recruitment there is a lot of work being undertaken in regard to getting women into recruitment. Rightly so. In fact, Tara Ricks has recently published a podcast which she shared compelling statistics on how companies consistently benefit from having women on their boards. As Ricks herself says “Female Exec advancement equals commercial success.”

But much of the focus of “women in recruitment” type initiatives centres on the sales side of the business. Yet, it is important that we also focus on other parts of a recruitment business. Whilst many accounts departments across the recruitment industry have women working in them, seldom are these people at senior level.

This is the next big fight. But it is one women are up to, as the history of finance can attest.

The fight for female accountants

Women were not even considered for accounting roles in the 19th century, creating a male dominated industry. In 1895, the president of the ICAEW (Institute of Charted Accounting in England and Wales) Charles Fitch Kemp, even publicly stated that he would be embarrassed to allow women into the industry and would rather retire than see this happen. Fortunately for the industry there were some strong-minded women. Determined, smart and up for the fight, they helped to bring about huge change in the sector.

A world without female accountants

The turning point came during the First World War when many women were thrust into roles previously taken by men, after they were sent off to war. Proving that they were every bit as capable as their male counter-parts, society’s attitudes began to change.

Then, in 1919, a new law was passed. The passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act meant it was now illegal for the ICAEW to bar women from membership, paving the way for huge change in the industry.
The first female trailblazers

While this change was positive, it had been a long road for the first females in the industry. Mary Harris Smith was the first ever female member of the ICAEW, a very talented young women who had studied at King’s College in London in the 19th Century. She originally applied to become a member in 1888 but was turned away because of her gender.

After a number of failed attempts leading up to the war, she was finally made an Honorary Fellow in 1918 by the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors. Appreciating the role of women in the war, the society changed the rules to allow the admission of women. Then, after the passing of the Sex Disqualification Act in 1919, Smith renewed her application and was accepted into the ICAEW the same year as the first chartered female accountant. By this point she was 72 years old.

Following in her footsteps, in 1924 Ethel Watts was the first women to qualify for the ICAEW by way of exams and became their second female member. Not only this, but she was the first woman to be elected to the committee of the London and District Society of Chartered Accountants, and eventually went on to start up her own firm in South West London.

Active in the movement for female equality between the 1920s and 1960s, Watts recognised the increasing number of women in the industry and in 1945 set up the Women Chartered Accountants’ Dining Society. This gave female accountants a place to meet and socialise.

Continuing change in the industry

It can be easy to assume that once the ball was rolling, the fight was over for female accountants. But over the years, women in the industry continued to push the boundaries and make great steps for equality.

Despite the number of women in accounting continuing to grow throughout the 50s and 60s, the first female members of council did not come about until the late 1970s when Jane Robinson and Mary Yale joined the ICAEW council. What’s more, the first female president of the ICAEW didn’t come around until the turn of the century, when Dame Sheila Masters was made president in 1999, 120 years after the institute had begun.

With the creation of ACCA, CIMA and to some extent AAT, female advancement has been furthered.

Make way for female accountants

In the 19th century there were no women in accounting roles and this didn’t change until after the First World War. Forward thinking and determined women changed the industry for the better. And though the journey for female accountants spanned over 120 years, their mission still exists today. Now a third of all accountants in the UK are female. Yet this is not reflected in the recruitment industry.

In summary, The Handmaids Tale teaches us much. We may not be in a fully dystopian world, but there are parallels with it. All it took to build Gilead (the fictional land featured in the novel/screen adaptation), though, was the silence of those that would otherwise resist.

So as the recruitment industry becomes more gender aware and positive action is taken, let us also make sure that this equality is seen across the departments within a business. Let us also take time to consider the fight women have had and appreciate the efforts that have been made to this date.

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