Paving the way for female tax leaders

Written by: The Tax Institute

Published: 2 Nov 2023


Alice McCleary, paving the way for female tax leaders

Alice McCleary, The Tax Institute's first female president   

Paving the way for female tax leaders

The first time Alice McCleary spoke at a professional development event at was The Tax Institute's 1986 South Australian State Convention, and her topic was the then brand-new Capital Gains Tax regime.

The catch? The Capital Gains Tax legislation had been released just three days prior. Her presentation had been crafted around the white paper from September 1985, but the legislation was released the following year.

“I was due to speak at the state convention in May 1986, and three days before my talk, they released the legislation,” Alice recalls.

“I had to completely redo my whole talk in three days. All my overheads, my whole paper… everything in three days because all I'd had up to then was a white paper talking about the theory of the proposals, and suddenly we had the full legislation released. This meant I had to read it and digest it in three days and come up with a new presentation, and of course tax planning points.” 

Alice, who would go on to become the first female President of The Tax Institute, had started her career just four years earlier, in 1982, with Ernst & Whinney in Sydney, which eventually became EY. At that time, less than 30 people were working in the E&W tax division Australia-wide – and just one other woman.

“There was one other lady, and she'd only been there for a short time. She was American and she had been brought in to do the American tax returns for all our expatriate American companies. And I remember the first day I arrived, she just said, ‘Oh, thank heavens you have arrived. They told me another girl was coming. I'm so pleased.’ And we have been friends ever since.”

A corporate tax career

Alice was attracted to the position with Ernst & Whinney because it allowed her to work in corporate tax from the beginning, which was where she had set her sights for her career.

“The other job offers were going to make me work in audit for three years before moving to corporate tax, and I didn’t want to do that. I was probably one of the first graduates in Australia to go straight into a corporate tax division,” she said.

And in the world of corporate tax, she found that women were scarce on the client side of things as well. Alice recalls that “I had just one client who was a woman. All the rest were men.”

From that point, Alice went nearly two decades before seeing another senior woman in professional meetings. And when she finally did, it was an eye-opening experience.

“I was working on the Ralph Review of Business Taxes in Canberra in the late 90s and there were other senior women in the meetings! They were all very smart public servants from Treasury and the Tax Office. What I couldn't believe was that the men just acted like that was normal. It was a life-changing experience, after nearly 20 years of being the only senior woman in the room,” she says.

The Ralph Review of Business Taxation involved around 100 public servants from Treasury and the ATO and four private sector experts. Of those four, one had recently moved to private practice from the Treasury, two were academics and the fourth was Alice, the only person in the whole Review group who had actually been in practice in the taxpaying community.

“Our brief was to reform the whole of the business tax system except for GST - because it was only just being introduced and they didn't want to start reforming it before it had even come into being. We looked at all the income tax issues for businesses across the board,” she recalls.

First female president of The Tax Institute

Fast forward to 2001 and Alice, while serving as a board member for numerous organisations, became the first female president of the Institute. 

Alice worked her way up to the president’s role, being a member of the South Australian State Council and various state and national committees before becoming part of the National Council. It was once she was on National Council that she felt she could put her hat in the ring for President.

Alice said, “My career highlight was definitely being President of the Institute. It was a fantastic opportunity as the President gets to meet members from across Australia, go to all the state conventions and effectively hosts the National Convention. In addition, there are all sorts of interactions with the media, and with the ATO and Treasury at Commissioner and Treasurer level. It's a fantastic opportunity to be able to have an influence on something as important as Australia's tax system.”

“Being the President was challenging, but it was terrific fun.”

This year, with Marg Marshall as President, there have been four female Presidents in the 80-year history of the Institute. With an official Diversity and Inclusion policy documented in 2022, we look forward to seeing this number rise. 

Challenging but rewarding

AIice retired from tax practice in the early 2000s and for the past 20 years has served as a company Director and board member for various organisations. Her tax knowledge is still useful, though given how much there is to keep up with in the tax space, she prefers to leave tax advice to practising consultants.

“Tax is a hard career. All professional careers are difficult, but I think tax is an extremely hard one just because of the amount of change,” Alice says.

She recalls talking to a barrister once, who told her they also dealt with a large amount of change – with court rules changing twice a year.

“Well, we get dozens of changes a week in tax. But it's a very satisfying area of work if you've got the right sort of analytical mind,” she says. 

Women in the tax profession have added challenges to overcome, especially in decades past. But Alice believes many of these challenges still exist.

“Over the years there are certainly more women in senior roles everywhere, but it’s still not easy. There's still a lot of misogyny, both open and disguised. There's still sexual harassment. There are still people missing out on training opportunities. It is a little smoother because there are more women around, but at the same time, it's absolutely not easy and it's not equal. The stats speak for themselves.”