In 1924, Ethel Watts became the first woman to qualify as an accountant by examination to the ICAEW. By going first, she paved the way for thousands of women to have a career in accountancy.
Born in 1896, her father was a police constable in the East End and her mother worked as a police matron.
Watts was a pioneer in every sense. A university student in 1913, when women seldom entered higher education. One of only five women 'taking articles' in 1920. The only female professional at Peats in 1924. And an entrepreneur: after working at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co she started her own firm, E. Watts & Co which she led for almost 40 years.
An important 19th Century campaigner for women's rights called Watts and her generation of trailblazers “the actual embodiment of our dreams.” Watts became “an ardent feminist” and later wrote that: “We wanted to feel that we could really walk around the world like citizens of the world ... not trained and set apart for what had by custom been regarded as women's work.”
Accountancy was one of those fields that many considered to be men's, not women's work. Women were not allowed to take accountancy qualifications, but Sir William Peat successfully argued for the ICAEW to support admitting women as a condition of legal enforcement. He came up against fierce opposition who argued that women should have their own institute, or that by admitting women it would lower the prestige, and salaries, of the profession.
Peat stood his ground. In an ICAEW meeting he said: “The question is the right of a woman to work under conditions suitable to her intellect and education and I think it would be an injustice to deny to them the privileges which we reserve to ourselves.”
The motion was passed and the principle of equal access conceded. Peat had helped open a door through which Ethel Watts and others were to pass. Although her early career wasn't without its setbacks. “She was not allowed even to answer the phone to a client; instead a man would answer, relay the client's question to her and then pass on the reply to the client.”
Watts would later pay tribute in a speech not only to the suffragettes who had fought for women's rights but to the many men who had given women their first opportunity to take articles in all-male environments.
Watts was passionate about social equality and she campaigned for it all her adult life, including serving as a local councillor in the part of London where she had grown up.
We wanted to feel that we could really walk around the world like citizens of the world ... not trained and set apart for what had by custom been regarded as women's work.”
When she joined our UK board in 1998, Ruth Anderson became the first woman on the board at any of the big professional services firms, then called the 'Big Five'.
She joined Peat Marwick Mitchell in 1976 and became a partner in 1989.
At the time she was appointed to the Board, women made up nearly half the new entrants joining the profession but this wasn’t translating into the proportion of women in senior roles. She said at the time: “It's not right to train people and then not support them to use their skills fully. We do need to look at ideas like flexible working.”
In 2019, KPMG became the first of the ‘Big Four’ to achieve gender parity on its UK board.
Sheila Masters was the first woman president of the ICAEW in 1999. The Times headline on her election was “Colourful lady jumps ahead of grey men”. She was already a KPMG partner in 1988, when she was seconded to the NHS as finance director to help implement Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, and she also played a significant role in developing KPMG's strategy.
She had joined Peat Marwick after a Bristol law degree in 1970 (one of only four women in the 100 intake of that year), qualifying in 1973 and becoming a partner 10 years later.
Masters was also one of the first two non-executives of the Inland Revenue’s management board, a Bank of England director and was made a Dame in the 1996 birthday honours. In 2000, she was made a life peer as Baroness Noakes.