A passion for equality

Features Posted 10/06/18
Science is still a male-dominated world, says the ecology entrepreneur who is fighting to ensure women have at least a 50-50 chance of success.

Nancy Thomson is on her soapbox. As a woman who has made it to the top in a traditionally male-dominated profession, she is passionate about balancing the odds for young women on their way up the steep business ladder.

I have expected strong views on the subject, having read Nancy’s report entitled “How to make it as a woman in the science sector” in which she says: “Latest statistics show that, although growing, the number of women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects is still low, compared with men. Just 35 per cent of girls choose maths, physics, computing or a technical vocational qualification compared with 94 per cent of boys. This reduces with the number going on to do a degree or level 4 qualification in maths, physics, computer science or engineering – 9 per cent of girls compared with 29 per cent of boys.”

Admittedly, the trend is upwards, but Nancy is impatient for the balance of men and women in the sector to be equalled – and she’s doing her bit to ensure that aim is achieved sooner. Staff in her business, Thomson Ecology, are roughly equally split 50-50 men to women and pay scales are the same on both sides.

As we sit across the desk in her modern, glass-fronted office overlooking a lake on Surrey Research Park, Nancy fixes me with her blue eyes and says: “I was very aware in the early days that I was probably only one of a few women running my own business in the STEM sector. I seldom met other women working at a senior level and I was regularly patronised in meetings by men who were surprised to meet a successful female entrepreneur, when actually I never noticed whether I was dealing with men or women! I just focused on getting the job done. I think things are better now and that the younger generation are more tolerant about issues such as gender and race.”

She adds: “When we interview, it is about who is best suited for the job, gender does not come into our decision-making process at all. Our senior leadership team has three men and two women and, again, gender is not something that I consider when looking at new appointments. I believe that, as a woman, I should be supporting other women – after all if women don’t help women, who will?” Who indeed.

Thomson Ecology, an environmental consultancy, was founded in 2004 with just Nancy and an ecologist on the payroll. It was run from an office in a technology hub at Guildford and made a quarter of a million pounds in its first year. It now employs 150 people, with a plan to double turnover this year and take on more staff. So how did a self-confessed academic all-rounder find herself in this niche sector? Nancy takes a deep breath and, rather reluctantly, shares her life story, beginning with her birth in Glasgow and the move south to Abingdon with her family. She admits she does not like talking about herself and apologises if she comes over as boastful.

“My career was definitely not mapped out early on,” she says. “When I was at school I was an all-rounder academically – good at science as well as art. In fact, I originally thought I would end up working in the art world. As it turned out, the first job I landed after finishing my studies was at Cranfield University, running an in-house environmental consultancy. It was the decision to take that job that shaped the rest of my career.”

Nancy loved the new role at Cranfield, working in the relatively new field of environmental science in the early 1980s. She stayed for three years, then came what she describes as “a political shake-up” after which the university closed the unit of between 40 and 50 people.

Undeterred, Nancy borrowed money and set up her own consultancy at the age of 26, selling it for £1 million 15 years later. She briefly considered retiring, but decided instead to take up a job as chairman of a Scottish salmon farm and a non-executive directorship of a textile manufacturer, both roles she loved.

Then came an extraordinary change in her life. Nancy and her husband took the bold step of buying a 50ft steel yacht and setting off on a five-year world trip. She becomes animated as she describes the adventures they had and how their relationship withstood the pressures of being together at close quarters under some very stressful conditions at sea.

“We completed 45,000 miles, met some very interesting people and learned a lot,” she says simply. “I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to do next.”

Her decision was to get back into running some sort of business – but doing what? Nancy took a year to decide, then started Thomson Ecology “because ecology seemed to be a fast-growing niche”.

Asked about her management style, Nancy looks thoughtful and replies slowly: “I like to create an environment where people can do their job well. No job within the company is more important than the others – including mine. We all work to the same end.”

Nancy is also keen to stress that employees are offered flexible working hours and encouraged to embark on the company’s new leadership development programme which has been set up “to pinpoint younger potential”. Candidates can learn at their own pace, some online, some with mentors and at workshops featuring professional actors to play out scenarios.

“None of that awful role-playing stuff,” Nancy shudders. “Just real-life activities related to work issues.”

So where next for Thomson? Again, Nancy pauses to consider her answer. “We have recently diversified and offer a wider range of services, to meet more of the needs of our clients. We will expand, possibly even double in size this year and I am in the process of appointing a chief operating officer, which will allow me to focus on the best way forward.”

All this sounds very time-consuming, but Nancy assures me she has time for personal pursuits like walking the dog, working out with a personal trainer and taking part in extreme outdoor sports such as canoeing. She’d like to find time to return to painting and drawing, but they are on a wish list so far.

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