Women Enter the Profession

This article is an excerpt from the book 100 Years: The Texas Society of CPAs (2015)

By Anne McDonald Davis

Despite the considerable span of time during which most Texas accountants and TXCPA members were men, women actually arrived on the scene pretty early on. 

It was not, admittedly, a stampede.

In 1925, Dallasite Mary Ethel Welborn qualified for Texas certificate number 219; this particular certificate was lettered in gold in recognition of its being the first issued to a woman in Texas. Ten years later she would establish her own accounting practice in partnership with Luke Bunyan Garvin who had served as the Society’s president for 1925-26. Interestingly … the resulting firm was named Luke B. Garvin & Company. Apparently, Welborn was “Company.” The firm would not bear her actual name along with other partners until the World War II era. Likely it took some time for colleagues and clients to adjust to the idea of a woman CPA, much less one sharing the helm with the men.

Nevertheless, it would seem Welborn was accepted and respected by her TXCPA brethren. At a 1934 meeting, a “rising vote of welcome” was extended to “the only lady in Texas holding a State Certificate and membership in the State Society.”

Once a Western Union telegram delivered on Dec. 23, 1943, informed Velda Viola Woods that her CPA examination had been “satisfactory,” the grand total of female CPAs and TXCPA members rose to four. Nationwide, 135 women had qualified for CPA certificates.

Fast on Woods’ heels was Heloise Brown Canter, who would become a rather high-profile and influential CPA, especially in the Houston and greater Gulf Coast area. The fifth female member of TXCPA graduated from Mary Hardin Baylor College with a BBA in accounting, studied advanced accounting with the International Accountants Society, Inc., and passed the examination in May 1942. 

Canter wrote of her experience after passing the exam that spring: “I looked forward to meetings of the Houston Chapter. I knew they met at the Houston Club, which sounded exciting. But I didn’t receive a notice …”

The following November, Canter was invited to join the other chapter members and even seated at the head table. But she was also cordially forewarned that all May meetings were “stag parties” (men-only meetings). Suspiciously, those were the meetings when chapter officers were elected.

“Around 1949, Ella Costello passed the exam,” Canter writes. “She was a strong-willed person … she went to the (May) meeting uninvited. The men were embarrassed and that was the last stag meeting.”

Canter would go on to serve as an official AICPA delegate at both the First Inter-American Conference held in San Juan in 1949 and at the Second Inter-American Conference held in Mexico in 1951.

When Barbara DeBusk passed the exam in the spring of 1946, she and two other successful candidates brought the TXCPA female membership tally to eight. DeBusk recalls ruefully that the certificates issued at the time were preprinted as such: “This is granted to _____________ entitling him to practice as a Certified Public Accountant.” She got the impression that the powers-that-be weren’t really thinking about women in the profession just yet.

DeBusk likes to kid about being “an accidental CPA.” One Halloween night, a prankster threw a stick through the passenger window of a car, hitting her squarely on the noggin — fortunately without much bloodshed. The owner of the vehicle solicitously followed up the next day to make certain DeBusk hadn’t been seriously injured and ended up offering her a job in the county auditor’s office. In the coming years, DeBusk worked and sacrificed to become an accounting professional and (at press time) had remained licensed for six-plus decades.

Like a number of others up through the 1950s, Johnnie Ray Seale qualified to sit for the CPA exam by apprenticing as a bookkeeper for professional accountants. The 1945 incarnation of the Public Accountancy Act had made provisions for this, although the option was to be phased out. Seale was among the last of those to become certified without an advanced education. 

She thinks back to first practicing in 1960s Corpus Christi: “There was never a competitive feeling among the men. I was fortunate for that. The men in the local CPA chapter were always very gracious and helpful to me. I think I was considered a peer, but not a threat … perhaps because I didn’t have a degree.”

Seale concluded, ultimately, that she was going to need a degree after all to compete with the increasing number of CPAs with college educations. For five-and-a-half years, the working mother of two attended night school and took pride in aiming for high professional standards throughout her long career, eventually moving to Austin.

She smiles: “I remember the first (female) accounting graduate from the University of Texas. She never went to her office without a hat. Men wore hats. So did she.”

Seale adds: “I think women have the patience and natural ability to solve problems and deal with people. You have to be compassionate to be a first-rate CPA.”

Like Seale, Bette Williams also began her career in the early ’60s, but with degree in hand and on staff with the Corpus Christi office of one of the large national accounting firms. She recalls comparing notes with two other female colleagues who attended the local TXCPA chapter meetings.

“We didn’t want to be set apart,” asserts Williams. “We just wanted to be part of the profession like everyone else. But … women CPAs were still pretty rare. When I passed the CPA exam my first try, the guys joked that I must have taken the ‘ladies’ exam.’”

So yes, the transition was awkward at times. Social conventions were still sufficiently old-fashioned that firms were reluctant to send women on overnight business trips. Clients were predominantly male and their wives sometimes weighed in on what they thought of a woman on the accounting team!

Williams notes that many of those wives remained her clients: “I had lunch yesterday with one who is 94. Very interesting. It was the husbands who took me in and mentored me. Overall, I feel deeply thankful to the people in those early days who helped me along, men who were not afraid to help a woman.”

The Next Wave 

Three ensuing decades saw a steady rise in women entering the accounting profession and joining TXCPA. With those numbers came an evolution in organizational norms. By 1997 when TXCPA elected its first female president (chairman, actually, they changed the title), women like Melanie Thompson didn’t feel out of place.

“I never really experienced any bias,” reminiscences Thompson. “Clients were extremely open to working with me. … But there were still issues. How to dress. How much femininity was ‘acceptable’ in the office. It’s easier these days.”

As Seale had before her, Thompson struggled as a working mother of two and pursued her accounting degree part-time over many years, an effort that culminated in a career spanning audit, tax, financial planning, litigation and, finally, education.

“The choices are there,” she enthuses. “The opportunities for women in this profession to be accepted and succeed are extraordinary.”

The Society’s most recent female chairman, Donna Wesling (2011-12), concurs, although her experiences were somewhat dissimilar as she began her career during the ’70s in a more rural area of the state. “Some men weren’t entirely happy about me working on their accounts, but I believed if I did my job well, that would change. That proved to be true.”

Still, there were bumps along the way. The client who didn’t want a woman doing his inventory. The employer who worried about paying Wesling, a CPA, more than a male bookkeeper at the firm. A fellow female CPA whose boss took her to lunch to break the news that she was too pretty to be an auditor. Women professionals being asked to make coffee for their male co-workers.

“I don’t think those sorts of things are issues much anymore,” Wesling muses. “But … it’s still the wife who usually makes the career sacrifices in family situations. Firms need to figure out how to keep that talent. Many women have started their own firms and businesses so they can manage their time and careers the way they need. Today, larger firms are beginning to offer that kind of flexibility. TXCPA has set a good example with women in leadership positions.”

CPA Barbara Bass, former mayor of Tyler, has witnessed the same shift in attitudes and employment practices: “Getting my accounting degree with women still being relatively new to the profession to today … it’s a huge, huge change. In 1977 when I started, I was the first woman accountant at my firm. The partners had recognized that they were going to have to bring women into the fold and not just as bookkeepers. I was there for five years and by the time I left, half the staff were women.”

At press time, the ratio of women to men in accounting across the state was approximately 50/50. Slightly more young women in the state currently are planning to study and practice professional accounting.

“We need quality women to lead the future of accounting,” Thompson stresses. “To be involved, not just be passengers. Yes, it’s hard when we have children and other responsibilities … but what we do leaves tracks and impacts women down the road.”