Women of the Year 2013

Dagenham Women of the Year _2702837b

The Dagenham Women are recognised some 40 years on for their efforts to stamp out the equal pay gap

Meet Britain’s true ‘It Girls’ – from Waris Dirie to those Dagenham women

As far as women’s award ceremonies go, there’s only one that stands out on the business calendar: The Women of the Year lunch. It’s one of the rare times a mix of steely Dames, Olympians, bestselling authors, FTSE 100 directors and politicians both laugh and cry in equal measure. Josephine Fairley gives us the low down from yesterday’s invite-only event.

I do feel that the Women of the Year Lunch committee is missing a trick by not going to Kleenex for sponsorship. Because if you think that Dames, Olympians, bestselling authors, überagents, FTSE 100 directors, architects, politicians and magazine editors are too steely to be moved to tears by other women’s tales of bravery, fortitude and general indomitability, you’re dead wrong.

At yesterday’s annual Intercontinental lunch, as ever, it was hankies a-go-go. As Sandi Toksvig, for the last nine years MC (and a woman who manages perfectly to walk the tightrope between hilarity and poignancy as she leads the proceedings) put it: ‘This is an event where women find ourselves laughing and crying in equal measure.’ To wit: the lunch segue-ed from Sandi’s self-deprecating jokes about being the event’s mascot (‘I am also available as a key-fob, life-size’), through to a filmed first-person recollection of Female Genital Mutilation from a Somali girl, as a preface to the presentation of this year’s WoY Campaigning Award to Waris Dirie.

Supermodel Waris (who I spotted 10 minutes before the awards ceremony began, fretting over her slight-askew-Afro wig in the Ladies) herself experienced FGM. Now, she campaigns globally to eradicate a procedure that’s carried out on 8,000 girls every day. Waris survived the procedure, but her sister and two cousins did not: try not being moved by that. But try not weeping with laughter at Sandi Toksvig, either.

Strictly, every one of the 400 guests is a ‘Woman of the Year’, by dint of being invited. You can’t ‘buy’ a ticket: you have to be nominated, with donations at your discretion to the Women of the Year Foundation. Which, as Chair, Teresa Graham, told us, has raised over £2 million, dispensing it to a wide range of female applicants (communities, business, individuals) – including, recently, a 17-year-old young woman who couldn’t afford the £10,000 fees for a highly-sought-after place on the catering course which was the first step in fulfilling a foodie dream.

At times, the noise level must surely have rivalled that of several jumbo jets coming in to land on Park Lane at once. Personally, I found myself sandwiched between pioneering food writer Caroline Conran and Cara Schulze, super-bright (but also super-soignée) Managing Director of Barclays. (Who – and this is Kleenex’s loss – are the actual main and very generous sponsor of the event).

But on other tables, before the two-course lunch was served, we were introduced to Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West (the highest-ever military rank ever held by a woman in the UK’s armed forces). To Dame Monica Mason OBE, former Director of the Royal Ballet Company. To Emma Bridgewater CBE (she of the gazillion spotted mugs). And, among others, to Professor Janet Todd OBE, President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, which offers further education opportunities only to mature women. As Sandi quipped, ‘Which means all of you can apply right now…’ One by one, they stood for their applause, though we also took a moment to remember Margaret Thatcher: ‘Whether or not you agreed with her politics, she showed women they could be leaders.’ Outgoing WoY Chair (and all-round force-of-nature) Teresa Graham CBE also got her well-deserved acknowledgment, too. (And as my friend, fellow invitee and TIME Editor-at-Large Catherine Mayer, said to me at one point: ‘I used to think events like this were self-congratulatory. Now I realise: women need all the recognition and congratulation we can get, because there’s still way too little of it.’) Bring. It. On.

Not everyone walks away with a trophy, of course. The bronze eagles are reserved for women who’ve gone above and beyond what is unquestionably a roomful of above-and-beyonders. These, then, are the Kleenex moments. Ever-popular Lorraine Kelly took to the stage to introduce her to the winner voted for by her viewers: Marilyn Baldwin, whose charity, Think Jessica, is campaigning to stop the horrendous scamming of vulnerable old people (inspired by her own elderly mother’s experience).

The sole man in the room who wasn’t pouring wine for a living, meanwhile – Barclays CEO Anthony Antony Jenkins – surely deserved a mini-award of his own for bravery: the first male in the history of the Women of the Year Lunch actually to be invited to sit at a table and join the proceedings. Not as a thank-you for the sponsorship, but as an acknowledgment of his own impressive initiatives to promote women, to listen to women, and to reward women, within Barclays. (To wit: Barclays is also headline sponsor of this year’s European Diversity Awards.)

‘I speak around the world, and this is definitely the most nervous I’ve ever been,’ Jenkins said, continuing: ‘I made the mistake of telling one of my lunch companions I am passionate about women. Actually, I’m passionate about one woman, who I’ve been married to for 29 years. What I meant is: I’m really passionate about diversity,’ he explained, before handing the Barclays Woman of the Year Award to life-long motorcycle nut Andrea Coleman, co-founder of Riders for Health, the charity which is transforming healthcare across Africa by providing (and most importantly, maintaining) transport for health workers – 1,700 vehicles, to date, two-thirds of them motorbikes. When Andrea and her husband first visited Somalia in 1988, health workers had to travel on foot. Now, they can whizz between locations and be responsible for up to 20,000 men, women and children. Riders for Health has now delivered healthcare to more than 12 million, across Africa, in part thanks to Andrea’s inspired, selfless (and leathers-clad) determination.

But actually, the longest standing ovation was reserved for that bunch of Dagenham women who could never in a million years imagined when they downed tools at Ford that they’d be recognised more than 40 years later in such a glamorous roomful of high (and high-heeled) achievers. On 7th June 1968, 187 women car seat cover machinists walked out after refusing to accept a ‘re-grading’ of their pay which meant they’d be getting 15% less than men doing similarly skilled jobs. When, three weeks into the strike, a delegation of eight women travelled to Whitehall to meet Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State in Harold Wilson’s government, and negotiated a deal to end the strike which equated to 92% of the men’s pay rate, it kickstarted a process which led to the Equal Pay Act being passed in Parliament two years later. Yesterday, those Dagenham women – now in their 70s and 80s – stood on stage to accept their award, to thunderous applause from of hundreds of us who’d been reminded just what we have to thank them for. (And, perhaps, how far, in so many areas, women still have to go.)

The clapping just went on and on. The Kleenex just got damper and damper. And an extraordinary, uplifting, inspiring rollercoaster of a time was had, by all…

Reproduced with the kind permission of The Telegraph

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