Reaching for new heights

Susanna Chiu has gone where no woman has gone before in the world of accounting and is keen for more to rise up the corporate ladder

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 2:41am

When Susanna Chiu was born, her mother apologised to her paternal grandfather for not giving birth to a son for the family.

Her mother had no need to say sorry - the baby girl went on to achieve many things to make her family proud. Among those many achievements was Chiu's election late last year as president of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the first woman to break through the glass ceiling - an unseen, impenetrable corporate barrier affecting the rise of women and minorities - to head up the organisation in its 40-year history.

She said that as a woman she had to work extra hard to win the respect of peers but, thankfully, men were now supporting women climbing the corporate ladder.

She was elected president by the 19 council members at a special council meeting. A dozen of those members were men.

"This shows there are men who are very supportive of having female leaders," Chiu said.

The institute, set up in 1973, issues accounting licences, sets industry standards, and regulates the city's 35,000 accountants.

The men who helped elect her to top office have not been the only ones Chiu has had among her supporters. One key male influence was closer to home. "My grandfather was very open-minded. When my mother said sorry to him for giving birth to a girl, he told her not to worry as he loved all his grandchildren equally, whether they be boys or girls," she recalled.

Chiu's grandfather helped shape her attitude to life. She is not afraid to speak up and do what she thinks is right, including fight for lead roles.

Born in Beijing, Chiu is the eldest child of four children, with two brothers and a sister. She was still a child when she and her family moved to Hong Kong, where she completed secondary school before going to Britain to attend university.

Her girlhood ambitions were to do something creative like become a movie director or a journalist but her father wanted her to follow in his engineering steps or become an architect. But architecture was not an immediate option when she applied to study at the University of Sheffield in the 1980s so she ended up doing a bachelor's degree in economics. "I found economics very interesting and fell in love with it immediately," she said.

After graduation, Chiu accompanied a friend to a job interview in Sheffield at accounting firm Grant Thornton. Chiu had not planned on applying but she did, was given a job offer and started her career as an accountant in Sheffield specialising in computer audits.

But her life in Britain was not restricted to work - she was very active in promoting women's rights. Chiu and some friends set up the Lai Yin Association to help migrant Chinese women living in Britain. "Back in the 1980s, there were many Hong Kong Chinese women who married and then migrated to England. Many of these women did not speak English and could not establish a social life in the British community," she said.

Chiu's work included helping the women learn English and lobbying for government funding to give the migrants better access to community services.

"We were lucky to be able to have a good education and good job opportunities. It made sense to spend time and effort to help underprivileged women," she said.

Chiu continues this work today, giving impoverished village girls on the mainland the chance to study. She also supports women taking a leading role in the business world. She has backed a Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing plan to be implemented in September requiring companies to enlist more women and people of different ages and backgrounds as board members.

The HKEx proposal came after a survey showed that women made up just 10 per cent of board members of Hong Kong-listed companies, well behind the 20 to 40 per cent of board members in Western markets. "[The situation in Hong Kong] is not purely due to discrimination but the fact many companies may not be aware of the need to have women on boards. The HKEx proposal will change that," she said.

Chiu returned to Hong Kong more than two decades ago to continue to working for Grant Thornton and spend more time with her ageing parents.

This is also enabled her to work in China-related roles.

"I believe you have to work for your own country so I returned to Hong Kong to develop more of my career in China," she said.

After leaving Grant Thornton she worked in several positions related to China and joined Li & Fung Development (China) as a director in 2006.

Chiu has remained single and believes that not marrying may have helped her career.

"I have no regrets about staying single. I made a conscious decision to do so, and I have some very good memories of past romances," she said.

"My ex-boyfriends are now my best friends, and we stay in touch as good comrades. This is perhaps the meaning of 'eternity' and 'love'. Many women need to take care of their husband and children. For me, I can spend all my time on my work and on my responsibilities at the institute.

"This is the advantage of being a single woman."