When Mary Gleason joined EY in New York City in 1952, the firm was a lot smaller, most everyone was a “generalist” and the handful of female professionals all had something in common: none of them were partners. Little did Mary know that 21 years later, she would become one of the first women admitted to partnership in the firm, helping to open the doors for thousands of professional women.
“During World War II, the accounting firms started hiring women to replace the men on the front,” says Finan. “These women were typically not promoted above senior, and when I joined the firm, there were a number of these ‘perennial seniors’ still with the firm.” Undeterred, Finan set a goal for herself to become a manager — something she achieved eight years later. She then set her sights on principal, which she reached in 1967.
“At first, the goal was just to make principal,” Finan says, “because I was really not sure making partner would ever happen.” While some of Finan’s peers offered encouragement, others flatly told her there would never be a woman partner. And the odds didn’t look good: at the time, male candidates worked, on average, 10 to 12 years before making partner — Finan had been with the firm for 21 years. “I had the experience and the qualifications,” she reflects, “but there were no guarantees.”
Then, in June 1973, Finan got the news she never thought she would hear: she had been admitted to partnership. Word spread quickly. “I just remember everyone rushing into my office to congratulate me,” recalls Finan. “It was a Friday, and that night we all went out and celebrated.”
Looking back, Finan says she felt quite comfortable in her new role. In fact, she believes the partners and staff went out of their way to make her feel accepted. Interestingly, it was the clients who sometimes struggled with the notion of having a female engagement partner. “It was just a matter of them getting to know me,” says Finan. “Once we formed a working relationship, everything would be fine.”
Over the next 18 years, Finan continued to take on new and increasingly challenging roles. In the late 1970s, she became national director of EY’s SEC practice, where she provided advice and guidance to hundreds of her partners. In 1991, after 38 years of public accounting, Mary retired from EY to serve on a number of boards and audit committees.
Sue Frieden, EY’s Americas Director of Private Capital, worked for and with Mary for the better part of 20 years. “She was amazing,” says Frieden. “It was Mary and all the guys.” Frieden remembers seeing dozens of internal memos addressed to “Gentlemen and Mary.” To the best of Frieden’s recollection, Finan was the first female to rise through the ranks to become partner. “But it was a double-edged sword,” says Frieden. “On the one hand, it was great to see a woman make partner; on the other hand, the rest of the women wondered why it took so long, and if it would take that long for us.” Frieden believes Finan’s willingness to take it slow was best in the long run. “It was a different era, and I think Mary understood and accepted that,” says Frieden. “She did it her own way, and, as a result, opened the door for me as well as countless other women.”
Finan takes her role as a female trailblazer in stride. “I’m glad to see the effect I’ve had on other women,” she says. “Somebody had to do it — somebody had to help break the ice.”