NYSCCPA Past President Marilyn A. Pendergast Looks Back on How the Profession Has Changed for Women

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Mar 13, 2019

Pendergast_Marilyn
Marilyn A. Pendergast

This year, Ita M. Rahilly will become the 100th president of the NYSSCPA, and its eighth female president since the Society was founded over a century ago. Her installation will take place during a time of rapid change for both the profession and the business world as a whole, particularly when it comes to the growing role of female leaders in the workplace. To kick off the year of the 100th president, The Trusted Professional has been interviewing some of the past female Society presidents about their own experiences navigating what has historically been a male-dominated profession, how things have changed, and how they’ve stayed the same. In the January/February issue, we featured past Society presidents Marilyn A. Pendergast, who served from 1994 to 1995, and Jo Ann Golden, who served from 2002 to 2003. In the March/April issue, we featured Sharon Sabba Fierstein, who served from 2008 to 2009.  In the May/June issue, we will feature   Margaret A. Wood, who served from 2010 to 2011, and Gail M. McIntyre (formerly Kinsella), who served from 2012 to 2013. Here’s the Q&A with Marilyn A. Pendergast.

Why did you choose accounting as your career?

Well, in college I was an education major. I was going to teach business. When I took the accounting courses there, I really liked them—I hadn’t taken any business courses in high school—and did really well in them. So I started taking more electives, and one of the teachers told me, “Too bad you’re a girl, because you’d make a really good CPA.” But I didn’t see any reason why that should stop me, why I wouldn’t be able to do it. So, after teaching high school for two years, … I wrote a letter to every firm in the Albany area and I got two interviews. One was what was then one of the Big Eight firms, and the other was Urbach Kahn & Werlin (a predecessor to UHY LLP), where I have been ever since.

What was it like being a woman at a CPA firm at a time when this was highly unusual?

Well, we’re talking now back in the ’60s, so that’s a long time ago. The attitudes were very different, and there were people who wouldn’t work with women! There were women bookkeepers who would refuse to work with a woman accountant! But … I was fortunate in that our partners at that time were very supportive of me and said, “Well, this is the right person, the best person, for the job, but if you don’t want to work with her, that is your choice.” As it turned out, most [people] did.

Did you feel there was difficulty in being taken seriously when you first started?

No, I didn’t think it was that so much as being allowed in to begin with. Once I was allowed in, [my] skill level, I think, was pretty obvious.

Where has there been the most change in terms of women in the accounting profession from when you first started out?

When I first went to an AICPA Council meeting, there may have been 10 women out of 200 people there. Obviously, now there are a lot more. … There are now women in leadership roles in the firms, including the big firms, and that just wasn’t there before. But, again, 50 years is not a long time in the scheme of things, so we’ve come a long way, though we still have further to go.

What has not changed, or barely changed at all?

This isn’t just our profession, but still, for the most part, women are expected to be nurturers, the ones expected to arrange for child care or parent care or other things, and that requires more flexibility than, perhaps, you’re able to get. We need to continue finding ways to make the workplace more flexible, and we should be able to do that because technology now gives us a lot of advantages. But that is the biggest obstacle.

What new problems have emerged for women in the accounting profession that weren’t there when you first began?

One thing is, when I started, [sexist behavior] was very obvious—no one tried to hide it. They would say, right to your face, that you don’t belong here, that you should be with your kids, that women can’t do that. Now, you’re not going to hear that, obviously, but sometimes, it’s easier to face if it’s very direct. You can respond. But not if you’re not aware of it.

What role did the NYSSCPA play in your career?

It was a very major role, starting with the local chapter. Here in Albany, as soon as I passed the CPA exam, they all dragged me to the meeting, and one of the former presidents of the chapter said, “What’s that little girl doing here?” ... I guess now when I go, they may say, “What is that little old lady doing here?” But it was just expected you’d be involved and pay back what the profession gave you. Through that, I started going to state committees, which let me meet different people and get different viewpoints. All that was very beneficial to me and my growth in the profession, both technically and personally.

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