Move over, guys

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist celebrates the women running the numbers game

A half-heard reference to this being the 100th anniversary of the “first female accountant” got me searching on the Internet. 

So, who was she?

Google highlighted a quick answer from Wikipedia: “Mary Harris Smith, born 27 November 1844 (age 175 years).”

I was amazed.

Here was a Wikipedia sentence with only one mistake in it. That’s pretty good for them.

Or I may be being unfair. Perhaps Wikipedia got it right, and Ms Smith actually is 175 years old and going strong.

If so, she may be reading this – happy anniversary, Ms Smith! Looking forward to your 200th birthday, only 24 years away!

The Google link below that one said that Ms Smith gained her accounting qualification at the age of 76 – so I suppose it makes sense that she decided to cling to life to make the most of it.

But of course, she was only the first female accountant in a formal sense. There were many women through history who played important roles in society because they were fantastic with numbers.

I’m reminded of Grace Edwards, born in 1869, who was so good at mathematics that they had to list her in a book called American Men of Science – and no, they didn’t change the title of that volume or the series, suggesting that they thought the presence of a “gal” was a temporary fluke.

In this part of the world, there was the polymath Wang Zhengyi, who was celebrated for her brilliance in the late 1700s, despite the fact that she died before the age of 30. Ms Wang may even have been to Hong Kong – old records say that she visited Guangdong, and of course this city was part of that province at that time.

I like to think that she came here and sensed what was coming.

“In this spot in the future will be a great city dominated by women who are good with numbers and who dress in black garments called ‘Zara dress pants’ and drink cold milky tea with black bubbles while browsing glittery phone cases.”

Going back even further, to the 1600s, a talented number-cruncher named Marie Crous introduced the decimal point to France. Before that, fractions were vague and they’d have to say things like “I ate more than une baguette but less than deux baguettes.”

Of course, these days we take it for granted that women can be accountants at all levels. The Hong Kong Institute of CPAs has a long list of high-achieving women among its past presidents, chairs of committees, its current chief executive and other top contributors. The board that runs the International Federation of Accountants is also mostly female. In terms of its members, the Institute has slightly more female accountants (23,000 plus) than male ones (about 22,000).

Yet, we forget just how recent this all was.

In the 1970s, when the Institute was set up, accounting was probably 99 percent male around the world, so the big change has only happened in the past 50 years.

It was pushed along by female empowerment, of course, but the job itself also changed. United Kingdom-based accounting firm Black and White Accounting says on its website: “An accountant often becomes a substantial part of your working experience; acting as confidante, advisor and friend.”

I very much doubt that Chanakya, the sage who controlled the affairs of Emperor Chandragupta, founder of the Maurya Empire in ancient India around 300 BC, did it because he wanted to be the king’s BFF, or at least not using that term.

But today, the emphasis does seem to have changed, and business people really may want accountants to be buddies. And women are famously better listeners, probably because men prefer to talk about themselves all the time.

So I think it’s good that we should celebrate the woman who broke open the door to let her sisters invade an all-male preserve.

Earlier this month, a blue plaque denoting “historical location” was placed on a house in London where Mary Harris Smith, the world’s first female accountant worked.

And, if we believe Wikipedia, possibly still does.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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