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International Women’s Day: ‘Being a woman is still an issue’, says successful Dundee social entrepreneur

Kirsty Thomson
Kirsty Thomson

On International Women’s Day, Michael Alexander speaks to successful Dundee serial social entrepreneur Kirsty Thomson about her inspirations – and the hurdles she’s faced as a female business woman.

Dundee businesswoman Kirsty Thomson doesn’t have to look far from home to identify the women who have been key role models in her life.

The serial social entrepreneur cites the tenacity of her grandmothers who were both Dundee jute mill workers.

She is “massively inspired” by her mum who has dedicated her life to looking after Kirsty’s younger sister Elaine who has profound and multiple learning difficulties.

In wider Dundee, Kirsty is “really inspired” by the work that Gillian Easson does to raise the profile of the creative industry through Creative Dundee.

Gillian Easson of Creative Dundee is an ‘inspiration’ for Kirsty Thomson

She is “spoilt for choice” looking up to Dundee’s strong history of prominent social reformers including Mary Lily Walker and Mary Slessor.

And internationally, people who stand out for her include Michelle Obama for speaking out on behalf of women’s rights.

But as International Women’s Day 2019 celebrates women’s achievements and strives to build a “gender-balanced” world, Kirsty says that, despite her own success as the founder and chief executive officer of Dundee-based Circle Scotland CIC, and Along Came Kirsty, she believes there is work yet to be done if gender equality in the business world is to be assured.

“I absolutely think that unfortunately issues do still exist,” said Kirsty in an interview with The Courier when asked if being a woman could still be a hindrance in the business world.

“I’ve had various meetings in my role. I’m obviously chief executive of an organisation. I run a staff team.

Kirsty Thomson, CEO of The Circle, makes the NatWest WISE100 list

“I’m also on the board of my company as well. I think the root of some issues I’ve had to deal with have been people judging me because I’m a female.

“I can give an example: A meeting I attended last year where I attended a meeting in a board room with my peers, mostly males and myself.

“I was singled out every single time to answer certain questions and was really scrutinised.

“I know that’s because I was the only female in the room.

“That was the first time I’d experienced that and I think to the males who were on the board at the time it was actually quite a concerning thing that they saw.

“They said ‘look we knew you were handling it but didn’t really want to step in’.

“I have experienced it first hand in The Circle as well. I have a male manager who is responsible for the day-to-day operations and when people come into the building they’ll often talk to him first assuming that he’s the manager in charge of the whole thing.

“I think it would surprise a lot of people and for me it would be wrong not to highlight that being a woman is still an issue, unfortunately. However, it seems to be less of an issue amongst young people, which is a good thing.”

Born and raised in Dundee, Kirsty, 41, is a former pupil of St Peter’s and Paul Primary and St John’s High School who went on to study social sciences at Abertay University.

After a few years working as a research associate at Dundee University and for a charity, she taught English as a foreign language in the Czech Republic for eight months before working as a speech and language therapy assistant in the NHS and as a research assistant at Newcastle University exploring issues around child development and autism.

Completing a postgraduate diploma in psychology at Sunderland University, she considered a career as a clinical psychologist.

However, after deciding she wasn’t suited to the “hierarchical” environment of academia, she moved back to Dundee jobless in 2011.

Frustrated at the lack of suitable work, her JobCentre asked if she’d ever considered creating her own business.

The result? She set up and runs ACK Third Sector Consultants CIC (formerly Along Came Kirsty) and Circle Scotland CIC (The Circle) – a community hub for charities, social enterprises and commercial businesses which provides accommodation, consultancy, fundraising support and business planning support.

She has raised more than £13 million in funding and created 70 jobs.

Kirsty Thomson

Kirsty is also a Saltire Fellow through Entrepreneurial Scotland, and in 2017 was recognised as a Women of Inspiration by the Association of Scottish Businesswomen.

Last year The Circle won Social Impact Business of the Year in The Courier Business Awards.

She is also on the NatWest WISE100 2018 list which recognises the most inspiring and influential women in social enterprise, impact investment and mission-driven businesses in the UK – going on to be granted a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts in February alongside prestigious members such as Marie Curie and Dame Judi Dench.

“It’s really important that we create role models for women in business and social enterprise,” she said, adding that women shouldn’t be afraid to “speak up” for themselves or ask for mentoring in the business world.

“We need to ensure that women are given an equal profile in the business world and I think it’s really essential to show there are different kinds of business models that exist.

“It’s not just a profiteering approach to business. There are other ways you can tackle significant problems as well.”

The first International Women’s Day (IWD) occurred in 1911.

Today, those promoting it say IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific.

The 2019 campaign aims to build a “gender-balanced world”.

The 2019 #BalanceforBetter campaign runs all year long.

Michelle Obama – another of Kirsty’s ‘inspirations’

The IWD website states: “Balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue. The race is on for the gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government, gender-balanced media coverage, a gender-balance of employees, more gender-balance in wealth, gender-balanced sports coverage. Gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive.

“Collective action and shared responsibility for driving a gender-balanced world is key.

“International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women – while also marking a call to action for accelerating gender balance.”

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