A man's world? Don't count on it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am


Accountancy is still a man's world, but Winnie Cheung Chi-woon, chief executive of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA), has managed to smash through its glass ceiling. And she says women are playing a much bigger role than when she started.

'When I first joined the industry more than 30 years ago, very few women were taking senior roles in accounting firms or in the business sector as a whole. But this is changing and I believe we'll see women chief executives in future,' Cheung told the South China Morning Post.

Cheung, 54, retired at the end of last week after 22 years at the institute - including eight years at the helm. Before that, she worked for Ernst & Young in London for 10 years.

She says she has seen many changes in the industry during her 32 years crunching numbers - beginning with the role of women in the profession.

There are now more young women accountants than men, according to HKICPA figures.

And 59 per cent of all accountants under the age of 29 are women.

But in terms of accountants over 40, the men clearly outnumber the women. Just 14 per cent of accountants aged over 55 are women.

And men still dominate the senior ranks of the 'big four' accounting firms, with about 30 per cent of the partners women.

Many young women join the industry, says Cheung, but then many also leave to take care of their families. Cheung herself has had to juggle career and family - she has a son aged 24 and a daughter, 19.

'I had to be one of the boys at work so that I could communicate with the men, since most of the HKICPA council members are male,' she said.

'But if possible, I always left work at 8pm to have dinner with my children every night. That's important for me because I need to be able to communicate with my children every day. I couldn't abandon my role as a mother because of my work. Luckily, I was able to handle both.'

Cheung was born and raised in Hong Kong and went to high school and university in Britain. Armed with an economics degree, she joined Ernst & Young as an accountant, which she says was almost by chance.

'The husband of my piano teacher was an accountant and I thought it was a good profession,' she said.

Cheung began in auditing and moved to the technical side of things, focusing on setting accounting standards and guidelines related to new government regulations. This niche area turned out to be a good choice, she says.

'The technical side may be boring but that was how I was able to stand out from other auditors,' she said.

Cheung returned to Hong Kong with her husband in 1989. It was supposed to be a short visit, but she was offered the job of technical director with the institute.

That two-year contract turned into a 22-year stint that has seen significant change, including the introduction of accounting rules for the first batch of mainland companies to list in Hong Kong in 1993. Several hundred mainland firms are now listed in the city.

She has also worked with her mainland counterparts on full convergence of accounting and auditing standards between Hong Kong and the mainland.

When she started at the institute, Hong Kong did not have its own qualification programme and local accountants sat their examination overseas. In the 1990s, Cheung developed a programme for Hong Kong - the HKICPA qualifications are now recognised by 14 accounting bodies worldwide.

Now, there are 34,000 qualified accountants in Hong Kong - almost double the number 20 years ago - as more mainland initial public offerings create business opportunities.

But it hasn't been smooth sailing for the industry here. Accounting scandals in the United States and Hong Kong in early 2000 prompting the local administration to set up the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). This accounting regulator was set up in 2007 to take over - from the HKICPA - investigation of alleged auditing failures at listed companies.

After its investigation, the FRC reports to the HKICPA, which decides on any disciplinary action.

The creation of the FRC put an end to the era of self-regulation, which Cheung says was in line with the international trend. 'It's good to have independent people investigating accounting problems, but the HKICPA still has a regulatory role to play because we're the licensing body for accountants and set standards for the industry,' she said.

Accounting problems have been in the spotlight recently since the FRC put 13 companies on a watch list when their auditors resigned.

'I don't think this means that there are problems with accountants. If an auditor can't get information from company management, they should resign to let the public know about the problems,' Cheung said. At 54, Cheung is not yet ready to retire - she wants to try something new, but she's not sure what. 'I may do something that's got nothing to do with accountancy. But first it's time to take a break.'

She will be replaced by Raphael Ding, who is an executive director of listed investment firm Guoco Group.

Mabel Chan Mei-bo, who owns an accounting firm and is an HKICPA council member, said Cheung had been a CEO with vision.

'I hope the accounting industry can generate more opportunities for women. More and more women are working nowadays but few are bosses or senior management. I hope that can change over time,' Chan said.