Inspirational Woman – Michelle Thomson

Michelle Thomson

Jane: Michelle, thank you so much of giving us your time. I am really pleased to talk with you having been bowled over by your very honest and moving speech at the 2018 Edinburgh Inspiring Women in Business Conference. 

Anyone who cares to look can find a lot of noise on the internet about recent events in your life but I’d like to take you back a bit, if I may. I’d like to know more about your early background, where you grew up, did you have siblings, how did you like school, what did you like doing for fun?
Michelle: My Father grew up in Glasgow. He did not have a privileged early start as his family initially lived in various rented rooms. He recalls as a boy his Mother making a wish to have a council house after the war so the family could have security. My Mother grew up in Reading and Surrey and then moved as an 18 year old to Glasgow where she met my Father. He had a good job as an engineer and I grew up outside Glasgow in a suburb called Bearsden. 

I have 2 brothers. It wasn’t the easiest family unit and there were times when it was aggressive. My Mother was clever and took herself to University when I was 5 and my brothers were aged 7 and 9. I recall my Father noting she could study if she wished but that he would not help with the family or housework in any way. It was testimony to her intellect and resolve that she subsequently graduated with a 2:1 Honours degree in History. 

I was a curious child and quite politically aware. In those days if you asked what was thought to be a challenging question you were reprimanded. I recall being hit with a leather belt twice in primary school aged 10 for asking “why does the Queen have so many houses when some people have none” and “how do you know there is a God”. 

I was a tomboy and liked climbing trees. I started playing the piano and clarinet from quite an early age and music has always been part of my life.    

Were there any early indications of the politician you were to become?
I have previously described myself as always politically aware but not politically active. Had I taken the conventional route to University I would probably have ended up getting more involved in politics earlier but I decided to go to Conservatoire to study music. That said, I was in the secondary school debating society and was always an avid watcher of the news. I always believed it was natural that any state should determine its own future and never understood why many of the channels from which people took their information routinely noted that Scotland was either to small, too poor, or its people uniquely in the world too stupid to run their own affairs. I was one of few voices in school that disagreed with this and actively challenged people to be more ambitious about the future they could create. I joined the SNP when I was 16.        

What was your very first job? Do you remember what you were paid?
My first job was doing a paper round. I wasn’t very good at the organizing of the streets in the run and am sure I made many mistakes. I have no idea what I was paid but I recall it seemed riches beyond my comprehension when I was given my first brown envelope with money in it and I immediately spent it on sweeties.    

Ah, the joy of those brown pay envelopes.  Do you remember when you first became aware of discrimination and sexism? When did feminism impinge on your consciousness?
I was aware from an early age. I was often told to help my Mother clear the table as my Father and brothers sat down to watch TV after a meal. I could see that the ambition for study my Mother showed was actively discouraged by my Father. He was not ambitious for me at all and managed to obtain an interview for me at the age of 17 as a trainee clerk in an office. I auditioned in secret for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and he was angry when I was successful in getting a place and chose this over the job.  My Mother recognised early on that I had drive and ambition and encouraged me.  

How did you make the decision to enter politics, and what influenced your choice of party? (Michelle entered Parliament in 2015 for the SNP sitting in Westminster)
Some time after the Scottish Independence referendum was announced I decided I had to participate. I could not pass up the opportunity to help shape future events given that I have always believed that Scotland would get better outcomes if it took full responsibility for running itself. I stopped working and spent the next 18 months working full time in the referendum. I spoke at many events and ended up doing a lot of TV and radio speaking. There were few women speaking about the economy and business and having spent a career in business (mostly in Financial Services) I was often in demand. After the referendum, I realised that I could only go forward in what I passionately believed and so stood in my local area, Edinburgh West for election.           

What was the highlight of your political career? What has made you most proud professionally?
Undoubtedly it was speaking about being raped at the age of 14. I was very alone when I chose to speak of it but firmly believed that politicians of all parties must give voice to those who cannot speak out. There are many women who have been subjected to much worse than I, and most people assume it does not happen in leafy suburbs. I was shaking with fear prior to making my speech but I am glad I found the courage. I hope that it helped at the time and will help other women in the future. I was also proud of my role on the Business Select Committee where we took Sir Philip Green to task over his treatment of the BHS staff and pensioners. Making a difference to people’s lives is a privilege.        

Michelle, you have been very open about what happened in that you were investigated for fraud and cleared. You have also been very frank about the mistakes you have made. I note that almost inevitably you were subjected to misogynist abuse in the media. How did you deal with that? Had you experienced much of that at Westminster?
Ironically, you have inadvertently taken what was written by the media when the story first broke as true – but I was never investigated for fraud! I had a 25% stake in a company that, along with others used a particular solicitor 6 years before being elected and it was the solicitor that was investigated. Police Scotland confirmed this which resulted in numerous retractions or changes to online articles from papers such ‘The Herald’, ‘The Daily Mail’, ‘The Guardian’, ‘The Daily Record’ and ‘The Sun’. Of course, the initial story was front page news and the apologies were tucked away on Page 2.     

I felt there was a clear discrepancy in the way I was treated throughout. Ironically, I felt I was well treated in Westminster by politicians of all parties but both the SNP and much of the Scottish press did not acquit themselves well. Even after it was apparent that no action would be taken against the solicitor I still recall one journalist who insisted I was ‘brazen’ for daring to speak out about the way I had been treated. This is a word often used by men of a certain age about women who dare to stand up for themselves. I have personal friends who had previously considered standing for election who now say they will never do so because of what they saw happen to me. That is a loss to us all as women are still so under-represented. 

I have adopted a positon of quiet insistence – no amount of bullying; for that is what it is, is going to stop me. From being a young girl I have felt I have had to push back against limitations others have sought to put on me. I believe that is a common and repeating story for women through the ages.     

Michelle, an unreserved apology from me for believing what I read. How long did it take you to pick you yourself up and move on? What helped you to do that?
It has not been easy. My family has been very supportive as have a few select friends to whom I shall always be grateful. I am blessed for the time I did have and the learning it gave me. I get up every day and work and am thankful for all that I do have. There is always someone worse off that you and it is important to remember we cannot take back the past – but we can choose to forge a future filled with hope and optimism. Although events are not what I would have chosen I have grown and learned a great deal – learning I would not have had if things had been different.        

You have started a new business called Momentous Change. What is it, what inspired it and how will you know when it is a huge success?
Change is happening at a faster and faster rate for us all be it in business organisations or society. The tools of the past are no longer enough to guide as they did. I formed Momentous Change with a former colleague and our unique set of skills from primary research to academic and practitioner consultancy, combined with real experience of politics is unique. We have already undertaken some research that was published in 240 newspapers with a reach of 11 million people, we have been appointed to an advisory board of a social entrepreneurship enterprise in Kenya and also to lead some work based in Westminster to do with banking. Most my life has been about helping shape positive change and I want to continue that. I will know it is a huge success when we are acknowledged as being one of the ‘go-to companies’ for supporting change. But more importantly, that I carry on getting up every day filled with passion for what I am helping to create and the change we are supporting.          

Who has most inspired you in your life and work?
My Mother. She was a lady. As a girl I used to look at her and despair that I could ever emulate her quiet fortitude. She regrettably died of breast cancer when she was still quite young but I still imagine that she is there to talk to and ask for advice. She was ahead of her time and also pushed back when others sought to keep her in her place.      

Stick to your principles and they will carry you through. Always remain humble – 90% of your conversation should be about your constituents and only 10% about yourself.     

What is the best piece of advice you have been given (and did you follow it?)
‘Pick your battles to fight’: this from a boss in corporate life. This was good advice for a head-strong young woman filled with the drive to change things. I did follow it – and was glad that the resilient streak within me was there to see me through some difficult times when I needed it.   

And finally, if you could introduce one piece of legislation that would significantly improve the lives of women, what would it be?
While some advances have been made to ensure women are not stopped in reaching their leadership potential in business there is still a long way to go. The recent advances to encourage women on boards have resulted in an improvement in female non-executives – but there is still little progress in executive roles. I am now in favour of introducing quotas and think both the UK and Scottish Government can do more now for publically funded boards. Without a more fundamental shift it will take several generations to improve. 

I also despair at the recent introduction of Universal Credit threatening financial autonomy for women. If there is an abusive partner controlling a woman’s finances she herself can be controlled and this is a step backwards for recent advances. Also, with Universal Credit, the recent limitation introduced on child tax credits for a third child unless the Mother can prove to the authorities she was raped is deeply insensitive. It says a great deal about the values we hold as a society when women who have been raped before giving birth to a third child have to disclose all the details to claim any benefits. Both the Conservatives in Westminster and the Scottish Conservatives in Holyrood stand by this policy – to their shame in my view. 

Michelle, thank you so much. I wish you much success with Momentous Change.

Forthcoming Events for Women

If you missed the post of Michelle’s stunning speech at the Edinburgh Inspiring Women in Business Conference you can read it here.

RenewYou, personal development for women. On September 25th I am personally running a RenewYou course in Bristol. All details are here. There is an early bird booking offer of over £50 off! Grab it while you can.

Train the Trainer. I am holding a RenewYou licensing event for in house and independent trainers on October 3rd. Perfect for organisations looking for ways to meet their gender equality targets and for independent trainers to offer something new. Please get in touch for more information by simply replying to this email.

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Posted on July 3rd, 2018 by

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