Ladies First: Recognizing Accounting Trailblazers for Women’s History Month

Kecia Williams Smith, Ph.D., CPA
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

This Women’s History Month, how are you reflecting on the women trailblazers in accounting who came before us?

Hello, I’m Kecia Williams Smith, an Associate Professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University where I lead the Master of Accountancy (MACC) Program and the Center for Accounting Diversity. As a former audit practitioner and regulator, I implement my experiences into innovative academic programming and research related to audit and regulatory communication, auditor judgment and decision-making, audit regulation, and accounting diversity. I strive to spread awareness and elevate the African American presence within the accounting profession, and advocate on behalf of fellow women in the workforce.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is my pleasure to spotlight three women who broke barriers and paved the way in the accounting profession. As we strive towards greater representation in our workforce, it is more important than ever to acknowledge the progress we have made and celebrate these impactful trailblazers.

Mary T. Washington Wylie: The First Black Woman to Become a Certified Public Accountant

Have you heard the story of Mary T. Washington Wylie, the nation’s first Black woman to earn and 13th Black to become a CPA? Get inspired by her story.

Originally from Mississippi, Washington Wylie moved to Chicago and found her calling in the business sector. Her mentor, Arthur Wilson, who was the second Black person to earn CPA licensure, encouraged her to pursue her accounting aspirations. She was the only woman in her graduating class from Northwestern University’s College of Business in 1941.

When Washington Wylie became a CPA in 1943, no firm would hire her. Determined to forge a new path, she started her own practice and made it her goal to open a gateway for future generations. Washington Wylie stayed true to her commitment by hiring recently licensed Black CPAs, including Hiram Pittman and Lester McKeever, who were also shut out from other firms. The majority of her firm’s clients were small Black-owned businesses, non-profit organizations, and Black-owned companies.

Washington Wylie lived to be 99 and her legacy continues beyond her longevity. Her vision and bravery to pave the way for black women CPAs inspired many and made it possible for professionals like me to be a part of the accounting profession. Her contributions live on today as the namesake for the Mary T. Washington Wylie Opportunity Fund and the Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program funded by the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois.

Aulana Peters: The First Black and Third Woman to serve as SEC Commissioner

After Washington Wylie, women continued to challenge just how far we could go in the profession. In 1984, litigation lawyer Aulana Peters made history when she became the first African American and third woman to serve as Commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

If you’re thinking about public service – and I was – the SEC was a great place to do it. Being a commissioner was a fantastic job, but a lot of work: half of it involved developing laws and regulations and the other half was enforcing laws already on the books.

Aulana Peters on her experience as the SEC Commissioner (1984 – 1988)

To Peters, the appointment was an opportunity of a lifetime when President Reagan named her to the position. She shared her feelings in a 2012 interview with her alma mater, the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

Before and after her SEC appointment, Peters served as a partner of the national law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where she was involved in general business and commercial litigation with an emphasis on accountants’ liability and securities law litigation, including class action suits, tender offer/proxy contests, and SEC enforcement actions.

When Peters retired in 2000, her commitment to public service continued as she was appointed to the Public Oversight Board of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. She served in that capacity until 2002 and served on the Board’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Audit Effectiveness. In 2005, Peters was appointed to the International Public Interest Oversight Board for Auditing, Education, and Professional Ethics Standards, where she served as a member until 2012.

She was also a longstanding member of the United States Comptroller General’s Accountability Advisory Panel and served as board member to several public companies. Peters was a 2023 inductee to the American Accounting Association (AAA) Accounting Hall of Fame.

A true testament to excellence in leadership, Aulana Peters showed us that there’s nothing women can’t do in this profession when given the chance.

Larzette Hale-Wilson: The First Black Woman with a Doctorate in Accounting

In 1955, Larzette Hale-Wilson became the first Black female Black CPA to earn a Ph. D when she received a doctorate in Accounting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

An orphan at a young age, Hale-Wilson experienced racism and many obstacles in her early career. Despite being told to sit in the back of the room when she took the CPA exam in 1951, Hale-Wilson aced her exam and received her licensure.

Prior to receiving her doctorate, Hale started her academic career at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University).  After completing her doctorate, she became one of the few African Americans to serve as an accounting faculty at a predominately white institution and later served as head of the School of Accountancy at Utah State University. Her impact on the state led the Governor to appoint her to the State Committee on Cultural Awareness and the Board of Regents.

Hale-Wilson understood the importance of mentorship, especially when she served as national president of the American Woman’s Society of CPAs and Beta Alpha Psi, an honors organization for financial information professionals. She also recognized the power of visibility as she frequently attended speaking engagements with a mission to inspire the next generation of women in the profession. Her commitment to empowering women extended outside of the accounting profession as she was also the 17th International President of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.

While there is still work to be done to ensure women are represented at the highest level of the profession, I am proud of the female leaders who have helped pave the way with their perseverance, dedication, and passion. As we look for ways to elevate and increase representation in the profession this Women’s History Month and beyond, I encourage you to keep going and continue to break the glass ceiling as we chart the way for a more inclusive future state of the community.

For those students who are not sure how to take a first step, I encourage you to consider Accounting+, a one-stop-shop to jump-start your career in accounting. Accounting+ offers everything from inspiring stories of the accountants who came before you, to actionable resources like resume builders, access to internships and scholarships, and so much more. Your future is just a click away.