Alison Cowzer: Business gender imbalance is 'not good enough'

The Dragons' Den star also praised Mary Mitchell O'Connor's broadside against Leo Vardkar at the WXN conference this week...

Alison Cowzer: Business gender imbalance is 'not good enough'

"Power and success doesn’t just come in a pinstripe suit."

Demoted former Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor made headlines this week with that pithy, cutting quote aimed not so subtly at Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Speaking at the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) Ireland’s Most Powerful Women awards, the now “super junior” Minister of State for Higher Education accused her party leader of failing to improve Cabinet's gender diversity to bring it in line with other progressive nations.

The sentiments chimed with frustrations in the room at the low female representation in business as well as politics.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor

One thriving entrepreneur in attendance was Dragons' Den star and East Coast Bakehouse owner Alison Cowzer, who was full of praise for O'Connor's impassioned speech the following morning on Breakfast Business.


"She brought the house down frankly," she told Donal O'Donovan. "Clearly a very sympathetic audience but I think what was really refreshing to see was absolute honesty.

"No deciding to say the political thing; she said the right thing. She spoke the truth and I think it's really refreshing to see that being called out when we see very disappointing figures from the Cabinet appointments this week particularly.

"We've got to hear more of that, we've got to hear more real views."

Cowzer (centre) with fellow Dragons Eleanor McEvoy and Chanelle McCoy

Cowzer said of the platform WXN provides for those kinds of views:

"Really what the organisation does is showcases female talent, female expertise and female achievement across many sectors. Most particularly in the business area but also across areas of the public sector, sport, arts and entertainment.

"It's about showing what's possible. It's about showing that it can be done and putting in place examples for younger women coming through...

"We've got to put in place the supports and networks that will drive change. Because we do need change."

Turning specifically to the business world, Cowzer cited a 2013 IoD study on the obstacles facing female directors in Ireland.

"The ISEQ index is showing 12% representation of females on boards; it's just not good enough.

"It's not good enough for those companies – and those companies' consumers and customers either – to see such an imbalance.

"When you consider how many purchasing decisions are made across our society by women, in many categories it's significantly well above that 50% level. To see that level of representation in business, just does not add up."

Asked whether the criticism of Varadkar's decision to select just seven women in a government team of 34 ministers has served to galvanise people to the gender equality cause, Cowzer responded:

"I think there's a lot happening to galvanise women across the globe. We only have to look to what's happening in the US...

"We look to some fantastic examples of what's happening in Canada with Justin Trudeau and his 50/50 cabinet. And organisations in Ireland working to change that."

"I'm on the board of Women For Election," she continued. "We're crowdfunding at the moment. We raised 50 grand to train 300 women.. But it's really about putting those supports in place and showing that there is a way forward.

"Change is extremely difficult, change is disruptive, change means that the incumbents have to move and that is not easy."

'Unfinished democracy'

Cowzer was also moved to draw attention to an "extremely honest" comment from Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald at the launch of Women For Election last week, where she described Ireland as an "unfinished democracy".

"I thought it was extremely powerful to hear that from a minister in our cabinet," Cowzer said. "I think that organisations like WXN that are working across all areas of business to change that is something that is going to deliver change. But we've gotta get behind it."

She concluded by paraphrasing recent words from Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy's that we have to stop think that women are a minority:

"We're 51% of the population! Get that mindset out and move forward."