Pioneering female accounting academic
JEAN ST GEORGE KERR ACCOUNTING SCHOLAR 31-12-1922—13-3-2013
Jean Kerr, who has died in Melbourne at the age of 90, had an international reputation as an accounting scholar and was the first female to hold a full-time
lecturing position in accounting at an Australian university.
Born in Camberwell, the fourth of six children of Robert Gordon and Grace Margaret Kerr, her middle name, St George, was inherited from her maternal grandmother. An early hint of her independent spirit occurred when the family doctor called to remove the Kerr children's tonsils, using the dining-room table for the procedure. Jean was far too fleet of foot to be caught and brought to the table.
Educated by the Brigidine sisters at Lyndale College, Hawthorn (now closed), she completed leaving
honours in 1938, just before her 16th birthday, topping the state in
commercial practice and finishing second in commercial principles.
Enrolling in the University of Melbourne's bachelor of commerce degree on a free place in 1939, she was still only 16 when she placed second from 221 entrants in Accountancy I in that year, one spot ahead of Donald Cochrane, a future dean of economics at Monash
University. At the university, Kerr played competition tennis and
netball, becoming secretary of the netball club.
In 1942, with only two subjects of her then 14-subject degree to
complete, she started work at £5 per week as an accountant at the
Tottenham pump works of
McPhersons Ltd, where she spent almost five years preparing payroll and job-cost records, often for products related to the war effort. A male contemporary who was
"manpower planned" to an accounting job at the same time enjoyed a starting salary of £7 per week.
The post-war influx of ex-serviceman to the university under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme created an urgent need for more staff. At a graduate dinner in late 1946, Kerr was approached by the dean of
commerce, Professor Gordon Wood, who astonished her by inquiring whether she "would like to come back and lecture for them". The upshot was a position as temporary (post-war) lecturer in accountancy, for a period of three years from December 1, 1946, at an annual salary of £450, not subject to cost-of-living adjustments, making Kerr, after Louis Goldberg, Australia's second full-time university
accounting academic and the first such female appointee.
"Everybody I had contact with went out of their way to help me," is how she remembered her
introduction to lecturing.
With her lectureship upgraded to permanent status, she took
sabbatical leave from August 1954 to undertake the master of science degree by coursework at New York's Columbia University. With trans-Pacific passenger shipping virtually non-existent, the journey took six weeks by sea via London.
On returning to Australia —
travelling now by plane — she showed one of her Columbia course papers to Melbourne's professor of accounting, Sir Alexander
Fitzgerald, who also edited The
Australian Accountant. As she recalled, "he grabbed it".
Her "Three concepts of business income", published in the April 1956 Australian Accountant, provided a masterly analysis of the income-capital nexus under three different measurement systems - historical cost, current purchasing power, and current operating capacity.
It would become one of the most widely cited and reproduced articles of its time, generating a major
international reputation for its
With Fitzgerald's support, she was promoted to senior lecturer the following year. This was before the "publish or perish" ethos in accounting academia, and she published only sporadically during the remainder of her academic career, which she devoted largely to
teaching - to the benefit of some thousands of current Melbourne alumni.
Her lack of ambition is reflected in her
promotion to reader in 1968. Louis Goldberg, who had replaced
Fitzgerald as professor of accounting, became frustrated when Kerr declined to apply for
further promotion. In an era of
relatively informal personnel
processes, he successfully applied on her behalf.
When she retired from the
University of Melbourne on her 60th birthday, Kerr was then the most senior female academic accountant in Australia, and had she been more ambitious, would undoubtedly have become Australia's first female
professor in the discipline. Contrary to the "glass ceiling" stereotype, she readily acknowledged that her career progress owed much to the encouragement of her senior male colleagues, Fitzgerald and Goldberg.
A research career that began
brilliantly but could be construed as having petered out at the university was revived in her retirement through the influence of one of her former students, Kevin Stevenson (now chair of the Australian Accounting Standards Board). In 1970, Stevenson had topped the accounting theory course taught by Kerr and been impressed by her intellectual depth. As director of the Australian Accounting Research Foundation (AARF) in the 1980s, when the body was seeking an author for a monograph on
liabilities to extend its conceptual framework, Stevenson, in what he labelled an "inspired choice", approached his former teacher, who duly obliged.
The resulting monograph, The Definition and Recognition of
Liabilities, was later translated into Japanese and served as the basis for the prestigious CPA Australia/
University of Melbourne Annual Research Lecture, which Kerr delivered in 1985. A companion monograph for AARF, The Concept of Equity in Financial Reporting,
followed in 1988.
An elegant and gracious woman who never married, Kerr lived for many years in Kew, as well as
keeping a holiday haven at Sorrento, where family, friends and former colleagues were frequent, welcome visitors. She later moved to Berwick until falls, hip replacements and a series of strokes necessitated high-level care for the last three years of her life at Cabrini, Ashwood.