Accounting is commonly viewed as a predominantly massculine profession, but times have changed and an increasing number of female executives have made it to the top of the corporate ladder.
After some 25 years in the field, Alison Wong, currently a partner in specialist advisory services at Grant Thornton Hong Kong, heads the company's corporate finance service.
"When my family and I migrated to the UK in the late 1970s, I was faced with the choice of studying either sociology or accountancy. I picked the latter because I could see myself in an accounting role and not the other," Mrs Wong recalls.
By a stroke of luck, she was recruited by Coopers & Lybrand, one of the top three accounting firms in London as a trainee soon after she graduated from university.
The only Chinese female employee there at the time, Mrs Wong embraced the new prospects and cultural challenges. She dedicated herself to working with extra diligence and soon won the admiration and trust of her colleagues and supervisors.
"Back then I was the first batch of trainees to be allocated to a specialist department and was furnished with plentiful training opportunities through works on insolvency related cases and audit assignments," notes Mrs Wong who subsequently become a specialist in liquidation.
During the training period, Mrs Wong worked hard and simultaneously studied to be a Chartered Accountant (ACA) at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). "The company paid for the examination fees and offered me a 10-week study leave every year to prepare for the examinations," a point which Mrs Wong gratefully notes.
Having excelled in her career, throwing away the assumptions that have faced female workers in the past, Mrs Wong readily embraced new opportunities when her husband decided to return to Hong Kong to take up his family business in 1991. With the recommendation from a former Cooper & Lybrand partner, Mrs Wong was quick to tap into the local accounting field and continued work in liquidation at KPMG Hong Kong. She spent around five of her initial years at KPMG dealing with the liquidation work related to the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce Hong Kong.
"The job was both psychologically and physically demanding. People in the field usually work long hours and many of my female counterparts have no time for children; some of them choose to leave the profession when they get married," Mrs Wong says. In 2001, her youngest daughter entered Primary One, and she decided take a break from work. However, it lasted only two months before she made a come-back. This time, it was at Grant Thornton Hong Kong. Over the past few years, she has taken up additional managerial and decision making responsibilities, with a keener focus on business and staff development. She also successfully expanded the firm's specialist advisory services.
In spite of a hectic work schedule, Mrs Wong maintains a healthy balance between work and family. "I perform charity work and enjoy a game of golf over the weekend with my husband and two children in Zhong Shan, China. It's also the best way to take the children away from the computer, iPods and mobile phones," she says.
A well-heeled professional in her own right, Mrs Wong considers integrity one of the primary advantages in her profession. "Social skills are essential and if you're not smooth enough, you have to be a good team builder at least." She adds, "A hardworking attitude and attention to detail are just some of the basic requirements. I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with some highly capable, considerate and dedicated supervisors. Without their guidance and support I would not have reached where I am today."
According to Mrs Wong, more females find success and satisfaction in this highly charged profession. "They show high levels of perseverance and tenacity. Moreover, they are more adaptable and quick to react to specific instructions or requests." Currently, more than 70 per cent of staff in Mrs Wong's team are female.
"Many fresh graduates prefer investment banks to accounting firms only to avoid the tough qualification examinations or to get a bigger starting salary packet. Yet, qualification is just like a passport to entering the profession." She continues, "Chartered accountants can certify certain documents just like lawyers do. This is a valued recognition of their professional status."
Mrs Wong also suggests local accountants look for openings on the mainland —a booming market that will soon become one of the largest financial centres in the world. "I've always advised qualified accountants with six to eight years' experience to keep an eye on China. It might even be worthwhile to station there and learn the ropes." Meanwhile, she is closely examining the prospects for her firm to further develop its scope of services in mainland China.
"Mainland corporations are less experienced compared to those in Hong Kong, so there are ample opportunities within the accounting profession for Hong Kong accountants who have the extensive international exposure, adaptability as well as flexibility," she notes.