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International Women’s Day: Inspiring voices, inspiring change

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Published on 08 March 2018

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland Shirley Atkinson
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland Shirley Atkinson

International Women’s Day has marked the battle – and achievements – of women for more than a century.

 From its first informal observance in 1909, the day has gone on to be formally recognised by the United Nations and will today be celebrated around the world.

 The original aim – to achieve full gender equality for all women – has still not been realised.

 Today, in the North East, a gender pay gap persists and women are still not present in equal numbers in business and many vocations.

 To mark International Women’s Day the University of Sunderland has spoken to a cross-section of women from across the region who have each, in their own unique way, pioneered a path.

 Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, Shirley Atkinson, said: “Since the ambitious Hope Winch established our School of Pharmacy in 1921, and grew it to become a centre for excellence, the University of Sunderland has continued to support and champion women in the arts, sciences, business and industry.

 “My thanks go to the North East’s leading women who have shared their inspirational insight. There is still much to do and our role at the University is to inspire future generations to reach their potential.”

 Leading women in the region were asked what their hopes are for International Women’s Day 2018? What obstacles they have overcome; and what their hopes are for future generations of North East women?

 Julie Elliott became the 307th woman elected to Parliament in 2010 when she took up her position as MP for Sunderland Central.

 She said: “International Women’s Day is important because of its focus on the achievements of women to date and the challenges that we still face in reaching equality.

 “It was a huge privilege for me to be elected as a member of Parliament representing my home city in 2010 – however, I was only the 307th woman to ever take the Parliamentary oath and there are still only 489 women ever been elected as British Members of Parliament.

 “Considering at every general election 650 MPs are elected it shows you just how far we still have to go

 “IWD lets us put the spotlight on the inequality that still exists on the grounds of gender in society today.”

 Heidi Mottram joined British Rail in 1986 as a management trainee and rose within the rail industry to become managing director of Northern Rail. In 2009 she was named Rail Business Manager of the Year.

 In April 2010 she joined Northumbria Water as its Chief Executive Officer, becoming the first woman to take the top post in a major British water company.

 Heidi said: “With less than 10% of the UK engineering sector made up of women, we clearly need to do more to encourage female entrants into the industry.

 “International Women’s Day is an opportunity to address the gender imbalance in engineering and highlight the fantastic opportunities available to girls and women in the industry and celebrate those who do those jobs.

 “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career in both rail and water, both considered to be men’s worlds. I have been welcomed, have had amazing experiences and have never faced barriers to career development.

 “My hopes for the future?

 “I hope women will enjoy working in an age when women engineers are seen as normal, when the question of what it is like being “a woman in a man’s world” is no longer deemed appropriate.”

 Professor Stephanie Atkinson MBE, from Allendale in Northumberland, might not be a recognisable name, but she is a trailblazer.

 Today a professor at the University of Sunderland, she broke down barriers in the 1960s to become the UK’s very first female woodwork teacher.

 Stephanie said: “It’s very different now, we have an abundance of females studying design and technology, which is fantastic, it’s a far cry from when I first started.

 “But I was lucky, I have always done things that I wanted, and no one actually ever said to me ‘no you can’t’.

 “At the time I never even thought about the difficulties I could possibly face, all I saw was a challenge and that I just wanted to go for it, and if I made a mistake it didn’t matter.”



Every day Melanie Johnson oversees a team that carries out lifesaving work across Tyne and Wear.

 Executive Director of Nursing with South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust and City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, Melanie is leading the way in care.

 She said: “For me, today is an opportunity to remember the contribution women have made throughout history – often unseen but nonetheless. In particular, I remember the Suffragettes who fought so hard to gain women the right to vote and I believe women should always exercise this right to try and shape our country in a more positive way.


“I hope future generations of women continue to find nursing to be an attractive profession and that they will continue to change and develop nursing to make it fit for our ever-changing health needs.

 “I hope future nurses will enjoy their work as much as I do and, finally, I hope everyone will continue to cherish and protect our NHS.”

 Katie-Bulmer Cooke

The University of Sunderland Sports and Exercise Development graduate hit the headlines when she took part in BBC1’s The Apprentice.

 Already an entrepreneur, Katie is a leading light in the exercise and fitness industry.

 She said: “In 2018, I firmly believe there are more exciting and dynamic opportunities for both males and females in my sector than ever before.

 “A career in any of the industries I’m involved in – from fitness and professional speaking to social media and consultancy – is rich in opportunity regardless of gender .

 “My hope for future women in business is the same as my hope for men – that hard work, talent and enthusiasm are rewarded with success.”

 Bridget Phillipson is MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.

 After reading Modern History at Hertford College, Oxford, she returned to the North East. Before becoming an MP, Bridget managed a refuge for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

 She said: “International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the progress we have made in improving gender equality for women, and to pay tribute to those who worked tirelessly to make these advances possible.

 “One such woman was Marion Phillips, Sunderland’s first female MP and one of many who campaigned for the rights so many of us enjoy today.

 “We should honour their efforts by looking at what more can be done to break down the barriers holding women back, whether at home or at work, both in the UK and around the world.”

 Award winning North East businesswoman Sharon Appleby is currently heading up Sunderland BID and is at the forefront of working towards developing the city centre.

 Former Head of Marketing and Communications at Gentoo Group, she steered the company through a period of diversification.

 Sharon said: “Today is a chance to celebrate all the great achievements of women all over the world.

 “It does shine a light on many regular women who do extraordinary things, things you wouldn’t normally hear about.

 “I have seven-year-old twin daughters and I truly hope that as the world continues to change and get smaller, the opportunities that are open to them in whatever area they choose are exciting, fulfilling and genuinely open to everyone, regardless of gender.”


 IWD facts

1. An extra year of education can help a girl earn 15-25% more as an adult, according to UNICEF

2. Educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their children to school, according to UNICEF

3. Worldwide, 62 million girls are out of school, according to the United Nations Girls Education Initiative

4. If present trends continue, 142 million girls around the world will be married before the age of 18 by 2020, according to United Nations Population Fund

5. Worldwide, an estimated 5,000 women and girls are murdered every year for a perceived dishonour to their families, according to the United Nations Population Fund

6. Domestic violence—just one form of gender-based violence—is costlier than warfare, with a worldwide annual cost of $8 trillion, according to Copenhagen Consensus Centre

7. Domestic violence is not yet considered a crime in more than 20 countries, according to the Huffington Post

8. IWD is also an official holiday in 15 countries including China, Ukraine and Vietnam.