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Women who lead: Stories from the Third Sector

In Conversation with Joy Gillespie: A woman committed to ending human trafficking in Scotland

Joy Gillespie, CEO of Survivors of Human Trafficking in Scotland (SOHTIS), takes us through her journey from shy teenager hailing from North Lanarkshire to CEO of a charity which tirelessly advocates for the rights of survivors of trafficking in Scotland.  

We discuss how the roots of social justice planted in her upbringing blossomed into a commitment to ensuring justice is pursued in all its forms in her work with victims of modern slavery. During our conversation we explored industry specific themes including gender dynamics and ingredients for success in the sector. 

Roots that grow justice: 

Reflecting on her early years in a traditional Christian family in North Lanarkshire, Joy traces the beginnings of her commitment to advocacy: 

“I think my roots around social justice emerged during this period through growing up in a family home that really prioritised helping people who needed support. There was always compassion for vulnerable people.” 

Transitioning from a career in the NHS to volunteering, Joy's passion for helping others flourished. She reflects about her time establishing a youth club and later volunteering with an infant feeding program in Glasgow, citing the enriching experiences as central to her journey: "That's the beauty of the third sector. I think that as you invest in people, you get something back as well." Volunteering with her husband in Africa broadened Joy's perspective, providing operational and strategic insights that shaped her career.  

What does justice mean? 

During our conversation Joy provides an insight into the scale of the problem of trafficking, “In the UK, we're recovering about 10% of the people that we think are trafficked every year. So, for me that's just not good enough.”  

Joy describes a key challenge in her work with SOHTIS as deciding what the right support looks like for victims. Recently SOHTIS supported a group of men who were victims of labour exploitation, men who had been continually let down by the criminal justice system.   

“We've got 12 areas in which we work to support people, but the most important thing is what they prioritise, not what we prioritise for their recovery. Listening to those men that day sitting in that room, the only thing they could speak about was justice.”  

In response, the charity convened a meeting with the Solicitor General so the men could share what had happened to them and what their experience of the justice system had been. Providing them with the opportunity to be heard.  

The third sector – gender matters 

Discussing the third sector in general our discussion turned to the dominance of women in paid positions, Joy offers a theory rooted in her own experience: 

“I do think that a combination of low paid work, insecure work based on short term funding is significant. When I think back to my early days working in this sector, if I hadn't been married or had a partner who was financially supporting me, I wouldn't have been able to work in this sector. I've compromised because I want to work in this sector. No doubt I could have had a more stable and financially rewarding career elsewhere.”  

Joy’s experience demonstrates how many talented women make a conscious choice to enter the sector to instigate real societal change. But, despite the dominance of women in the workforce, we discuss how men are still more likely to be CEOs. Joy identifies financial security as a key driver when it comes to men taking up these higher paid, permanent positions;  

“So maybe when they've had more consistency throughout their career, they've not had to step out of their career to have children, meaning it is easier for them to attain these positions.” 

A sector which gives as much as it takes  

Joy acknowledges that life as a CEO of a charity is more than a job. She explains, “It is a vocation. And I don't meet many people that work in this sector who don’t feel that way and aren't passionate about the work that they do.”  

Returning to the theme of benefitting from experiencing the sector, Joy shares her personal experience as someone who has been a recipient of support during a difficult time, 

“I think that one of the things that shaped my thinking most about the sector is when I've used it. My husband had cancer and passed away about seven years ago. During that time, I experienced the third sector, and it was really special to me. Hospices are not fully funded by the government and must raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to exist to support people in their final hours. I just want to put on record it's not all about giving as a CEO of a charity, sometimes we've received from the sector.” 

A recipe for success: prioritising collaboration 

Joy identifies the unique draw of the sector as providing opportunities to be part of a movement to improve lives across the country, but what does it take to succeed in the industry? She urges people entering the sector to take every opportunity to seek out like-minded people. She explains: 

“Working in this anti human trafficking world, working to seek justice in this area, it almost feels impossible at times, and it would be impossible if it was just up to the passion that I have. That's not enough, it needs to be partnership.  That prioritising collaboration is something for me that I would recommend to anyone who is starting out in this career path.” 

Joy continues to lead from the front as CEO of a charity doing incredible work supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society. Although she has had many colourful and interesting professional and personal experiences along the way, her continued desire to see injustice challenged continues to serve as a motivating factor just as it did in those early days in North Lanarkshire.  

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