This article was first published in the March 2017 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Sometimes it is underestimated how many females are in important positions in Northern Ireland, according to Angela McGowan, whose place at the province’s top table was secured when she took over as the CBI’s director for Northern Ireland in October last year.

McGowan makes her case well, reciting a list of women holding leadership roles in Northern Ireland society. Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and former first minister, heads the list, but there is also Janet McCollum, chief executive of Northern Ireland’s largest private sector company Moy Park, Sara Venning, CEO of Northern Ireland Water, and Suzanne Wylie, chief executive at Belfast Council. Women also lead various health trusts and law and accountancy firms, including Deloitte in Belfast, where Jackie Henry is senior partner.

‘Maybe we undersell ourselves a bit,’ McGowan suggests, hinting that women’s position in Northern Ireland’s professions is stronger than is generally acknowledged. ‘I think there are pretty good opportunities for a female that wants to get ahead in Northern Ireland.‘

McGowan was already one of the best-known business commentators in Northern Ireland before the CBI appointment. As chief economist of the Danske Bank UK, she was a regular on radio, TV and in the press.

So her answer as to what skill has been most important in her rise to the top is no surprise. ‘Communication is absolutely key,’ she says. ‘Communication skills are really important. Putting your point across and recognising your audience.’

Context and content

But communication can be a weak art without context and content. ‘Knowledge accumulation and seeing the big picture really helps,’ McGowan continues. ‘Also being willing to network and meet people, to get the story behind the scenes. When you know all of the picture it gives you more opportunities. And it is important to enjoy what you do. If you enjoy it, the long hours are less of an effort and it doesn’t seem like a chore. The more effort you put in, the more rewards you get out.

‘I think women fare well in Northern Ireland. Certainly I haven’t come across any issues. We have fairly robust labour market legislation, employment and equality practices. Those are really important. That has worked for my generation.

‘I guess for all females, if you are married and have children, balance is always key to being successful in both areas, so that you don’t have to give up one for the other.’ McGowan has two sons, aged 15 and 17, who are busy with exam preparations at present. ‘They still need their parents around,’ she says.

‘I have an absent husband – he works in Dublin as an economist for the Central Bank of Ireland. My approach has always been to be flexible – to leave when I need to leave in the afternoon, but to take work home and do it there when it needs to be done. Flexibility is important. I would like more recognition in society that childcare is not a woman’s issue. There should be flexibility there for men too.

‘I had my sons in my Economic Council days. I took three months off for my first son and four months off for my second son. They went into private childcare, which was fantastic. But my income was about £1,300 a month and a thousand a month went on childcare. I don’t regret it. They enjoyed childcare. But I did go part-time for a few years when the boys were at primary school.’

McGowan is appreciative that the Northern Ireland Economic Council – a public body – had family support policies, which she also benefited from at Danske Bank. ‘There’s good support in the Nordic countries for women in work, for childcare, and also, on the other side, for looking after elderly parents,’ she explains.

Diverse workplace

That commitment to workplace diversity is shared by her new employer, the CBI. ‘There is a recognition there that if you want to drive up productivity, if you want to get the best out of your employees, then you should offer them the opportunity to work in a way that you can get the most out of them,’ she says. ‘If that means working part-time or flexibly, then hopefully employers will do that.

‘The CBI has our Great Business Debate going on in the background, which is focused on how business is about more than making profits. Business is about creating jobs, raising living standards and being connected to society. We don’t work in isolation. Those big societal issues are the responsibility of employers as well. So we are keen for employers to get the most out of females in the workplace, for women to feel welcome and want to stay, and for that to contribute to improved productivity.’

Productivity more generally is one of the most important issues for Northern Ireland – it substantially underperforms that in the rest of the UK – and has been a recurring concern of McGowan’s for many years. The latest official statistics show Northern Ireland’s productivity being only 82.5% of the whole of the UK’s, which itself lags behind that of Germany and the United States by around 30%. So what does McGowan put this weakness down to?

‘There are a number of issues,’ she responds. ‘For example, there is the sectoral mix – we don’t have enough of the high-productivity sectors. There is the matter of company size. We tend to be dominated by very small firms and those small firms don’t get the economies of scale that the large companies achieve.

‘But fundamentally it comes down to education and skills and we need to address those issues. We are really good at the top end of schools and very good at exporting the skills of their pupils. Well-qualified people are leaving and don’t necessarily come back. There is a huge challenge at secondary school level, particularly for boys. About 38% of school pupils leave without getting five GCSEs.

‘So there is a huge challenge if you are going to get those people economically active and with the right skills. There is a large cohort of economically inactive people. If they were integrated into the workforce, that would lift productivity. And we have a lot of people working part-time – if more of those were working full-time, that would help too. Offering more people who work part-time more hours when they want them, that is important.

‘But we can’t forget that productivity and company competitiveness are also driven by infrastructure. The CBI published a big report on this in September. Avoiding transport bottlenecks, getting products to market faster, improving broadband speeds and extending telephone connection coverage are all very important in driving up productivity.

‘Infrastructure is central to the five key areas that we are going to be looking at in 2017 and beyond, which we will address in our policy forums and get feedback from our members. We will concentrate in part on roads and digital connectivity and we have been working on this with Ibec, our partner in the Republic of Ireland, looking at this on an all-island basis. This is important as many of our members operate on an all-Ireland model. 

‘We will hold a policy forum devoted to energy. Energy does fit into infrastructure, but it is such a big issue in Northern Ireland that we will have a separate forum on this. The focus will be on trying to get energy costs down and ensuring there is security of supply, with all-island connections. Many of our large manufacturers feel their energy prices are too high. We really want to maintain manufacturing – it is important to have a diverse economy – and bringing down energy costs is part of achieving that.

‘Innovation is another big theme. We are holding a large conference in June on innovation. Given the challenges around us – Brexit and everything else – innovation is really important. This is about how we compete and drive up productivity. I imagine that a lot of the CBI’s work will be dominated by Brexit, so no matter when it happens we need to ensure that Northern Ireland maximises the returns for the economy and for business.’

Another of the most important challenges facing the CBI is to bring down the cost of doing business in Northern Ireland. To achieve this, it must work closely with ministers. McGowan says the signs here are positive. ‘I’m heartened from the response we have had from meeting with ministers, both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic,’ she says. ‘The environment and the climate in Northern Ireland’s government have changed. Ministers are very keen to work with the CBI and the private sector. They recognise that things need to be moved forward and that the finance for that won’t all come from the public sector.’ 

Lacking clear targets

Despite this, McGowan expresses some frustrations with Northern Ireland’s draft Programme for Government. While she expresses support for its focus on outcomes, ‘the lack of clear targets is a concern,’ she says, adding that ‘businesses like targets – what gets measured gets done’.

It is clear when talking with McGowan that she enjoys her work – economics was the right career choice. She did economics at A-level and enjoyed the subject, regarding it as ‘very easy’, she says. ‘I had a fantastic teacher who made it interesting.’ She adds: ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way, it is where my biggest interest lies.’

And her economist role has been the bedrock for her latest career move. ‘This job is founded in economic policy,’ she explains. ‘This is all about what makes the economy work, addressing the bottlenecks to economic growth. Our members are the economy – it’s a continuum.’

McGowan says her motivation in her new role, as in her previous jobs, is to make a difference. ‘It’s because I want this place to grow,’ she explains, with some passion. ‘I want Northern Ireland to be a successful economy. I want the next generation – including my own children – to feel they can stay in Northern Ireland. I have money in the game here. I want to make it work. From the CBI perspective, what I can do is to tell the truth from the economic point of view. Even if that is not always what the politicians want to hear.’ 

Paul Gosling, journalist