Inspirational Women from the North East and Yorkshire | Living North

Inspirational Women from the North East and Yorkshire

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In honour of International Women’s Day, we’re sharing 10 of the national heroes and local superstars we’ve had the pleasure of meeting recently

BRENDA HALE
It took four months for Living North to set up an interview with Brenda Hale, the first woman to sit at the head of the judiciary, because getting through to the UK’s most powerful woman isn’t easy. But Lady Hale did want to talk to us as one of the small number of interviews she was granting last year, as ‘Yorkshire is, of course, very close to my heart.’

Raised in Richmond, Lady Hale began her degree at Cambridge University at a time when women were only just beginning to make their way in the legal profession, with the first full-time female judge being appointed. Upon learning that she had become President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale felt conflicting emotions. ‘One was surprise – something I’ve felt throughout my life at the opportunities that have come my way – but on the other hand, there was enormous gratification that it has been possible for someone like me to reach this place,’ she says.

Over her years in the profession, Lady Hale has seen a happy change in the profession as, when she was at university, she was one of only six women in her year, whereas now 60 percent of students reading law are women. ‘It’s good for the population as a whole to see that a genuinely reflective judiciary are sitting in judgement on them. And that involves a goodly proportion of women, as well as other things like ethnicity, background and education.’

HELEN SHARMAN
Sheffield’s own Helen Sharman was Britain’s first astronaut. ‘Back when I was growing up, nobody expected to go into space,’ Helen explains. ‘The Americans and the Russians did that; we didn’t.’
Thanks to a confluence of many different and disparate events – including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the need for Russia to sell spaces on its Soyuz spacecraft to third countries, and Helen just happening to flick the station on her car radio one night to hear an advert asking for applications to be an astronaut – the chemistry buff from Yorkshire became Britain’s first person in space, decades before Tim Peake. But first, she had to undergo a battery of tests.

As you’d expect, Helen wasn’t the only person to hear the advert. From 13,000 initial applicants, Helen made it down to the final four who were selected to work with Russian cosmonauts in Star City for 18 months, in preparation for flying on the Soyuz TM-12 mission. At blast off on 18th May, 1991, Helen was just 27 years old.

Most astronauts struggle to sum up what it’s like to be confronted by the vastness of our planet appearing tiny beneath them, but Helen – who is now the Departmental Operations Manager at Imperial College London’s Department of Chemistry – is effusive about her thoughts at seeing the world laid out beneath her.

‘We often like looking at flames flickering or water moving down a stream because we like moving things,’ she says. ‘Looking at the earth as it spins below us is incredible. We went all the way around the earth in 92 minutes; you see the whole of western Europe in five minutes or so. But then you look at it the other way and see the stars. It’s just amazing: millions of stars.’

KATHRYN MANNIX

At the age of 18, Kathryn Mannix arrived in the North East to undertake a medical degree – four decades later, she’s still in the area as a flag-bearer for the movement to die well, and her book With the End in Mind was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2018 – an award that highlights works engaging with themes of medicine, health or illness. 

After completing her degree, Kathryn moved into the professional world and quickly realised her interest lay more in making sure patients approaching the end of their lives were treated with respect and care, and endured the minimal amount of suffering – in short, palliative care. The only thing was, Kathryn was ahead of her time, as palliative care didn’t really exist in 1986. She went on to lead Newcastle’s NHS Palliative Care Services, and has made it her mission in life to change the conversation around death, and spark an interest in improving end-of-life care. 

This is what she achieved with her book. ‘It’s fabulous to be able to have this opportunity to give what I think of as good news: that dying isn’t as bad as you probably think it is,’ says Kathryn, ‘and is an awful lot better if you approach it without feeling terrified.’

MICA MCNEILL
Team GB Olympic athlete Mica McNeill became Active Newcastle’s first This Girl Can ambassador in May, 2018. Originally from Consett, bobsleigh driver Mica is the perfect role model to inspire not only women, but everyone in the region – if driving a sled down a dizzying slope at 80mph isn’t enough to warrant your respect, Mica won a silver medal at the 2012 Youth Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and is now fresh from competing in last year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, after enduring a terrifying crash at Altenburg that flipped her sled over and dragged her, upside down, along the ice at breakneck speed. 

Indeed, the very fact that Mica was there to compete in the Winter Olympics is a true testament to her tenacity; less than five months before the competition, her team’s funding was ended by her own federation (the British Bobsleigh & Skeleton Association) amid allegations of mismanagement, whilst three men’s crews continued to be financed. Her defiant response was thrilling: Mica – along with her brakewoman, Mica Moore – managed to raise £30,000 through crowdfunding to cover her team’s basic running costs and get them to Pyeongchang. 

‘Becoming a This Girl Can ambassador was quite exciting for me, not only because of everything that went on before the Olympics – where we had to fight for our career,’ says Mica. ‘I do really believe strongly that it is my job to be a role model and get, not only women, but everyone more active and get people believing that they can achieve whatever they put their minds to.’ 

TALA LEE-TURTON

Barnsley-born Tala made history when she became one of only three female ballerinas to have graduated from the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy in its 245-year history. Now 22, Tala is a professional dancer with her company, Astrakhan State Opera and Ballet Theatre, but she’s also dedicated to sharing her passion for dance with budding ballerinas, hosting local masterclasses when she’s back in her hometown in Yorkshire. 

Although being a ballet dancer is a lot tougher than it looks, Tala is an inspiration for all young women hoping to follow their dreams, whether that’s dance or not. ‘There’s a lot of pain involved and there’s a lot of mental strength as you have to deal with the different pressures,’ she explains. ‘I’ve always known that I really wanted to dance, so I think that carried me through. I knew that I had the passion, determination and the right work ethic, and I didn’t believe that if I was putting my all into it, I couldn’t achieve something.’

TINA GHARAVI

Tina Gharavi is a BAFTA-nominated, award-winning filmmaker/screenwriter, and the founder and creative director of Bridge + Tunnel – one of the leading independent production companies in the UK, based in Newcastle. 

Tina has always been inspired by powerful men and women who did extraordinary things. ‘Martina Navratilova was an early idol, someone who was at the top of their game and a distinct personality,’ she says. ‘But perhaps my absolute favourite is Yoko Ono – not only for her strength and ability to stay on course, but to be a unique person in a world that did nothing but try to tell her she didn't “fit”.’

Having always wanted to create things that moved people, Tina feels incredibly lucky to be doing the work she does now. ‘Cinema is a machine for empathy and I have always wanted to be part of making people feel things. I am a lucky, lucky person because I get to do that every day.’

CARA TOMAS

Cara Tomas is a post-doctoral researcher inspiring the next generation of scientists at Newcastle University, where she is conducting vital research into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Newcastle University has been awarded an Anthea SWAN Silver Award for promoting gender diversity in research.

Having suffered from the disease herself, Cara now wants to break the stigma surrounding the condition. 'People often say that CFS patients spend their days pretending to be ill, when in fact the reverse is true – patients spend their days pretending to be well,’ she says. Cara now has the opportunity to work alongside some of the leading scientists in the field of CFS research, but her favourite aspect of the job lies elsewhere. ’It is the highlight of my year when we get students in the lab to do their projects and I can watch them enter a lab for the first time and experience the joy of research’.

Cara hopes to lead the way in a new wave of women entering the world of science. ‘It makes me sad when I hear the statistics about the lack of girls entering science,’ she says. ‘I think, in order to change this, we need to be encouraging girls from a very young age to pursue what interests them. If we instil in girls the belief that they can do anything [then] their gender should not hold them back’. Cara’s own passion for science came from an inspirational woman closer to home. ‘Watching my mum do her science degrees [later in life] tipped the scales in favour of science. To know that I have someone like that standing behind me, whatever decisions I make, has allowed me to go through life with confidence.’

LINDA KIRK
Founder of social enterprise Just For Women, Linda Kirk was awarded the British Citizen Award this year for her dedicated work with vulnerable women in the North East. After leaving social work in 2001, Linda aims to empower women by giving them a voice through providing opportunities, knowledge and support at her women’s centre in Stanley. The centre is now home to a tearoom and the Just Handmade Creative Studio, where Linda holds workshops for women to create handmade craft products which are then sold in the on-site shop. 

Linda believes that the key to equality is for women to work together; ‘Women are key to empowering other women, and I believe this concept is of benefit to all parties. In the North East we have many courageous, strong and inspiring women who can mentor others who need support. Using their own experiences, strengths and empathy, they can give a voice to those women who desperately need one’.

GISELLE STEWART
Excelling in a field traditionally dominated by men, Giselle came to the games sector over 20 years ago, but for the last few years she’s been working in government relations for video game giant Ubisoft, as well as being a board member for Creative Fuse North East.

Her proudest achievement to date is playing a crucial role in opening the new North East Futures UTC school, which offers education – with a strong focus on STEM subjects – to 14–18 year olds. But she’s still got plenty she wants to accomplish. ‘I’d like to be part of the region’s digital and tech growth, with ambitious projects to grow and retain talent in the North East, bringing more inward investment to the region. And I’d like to save Ponteland Middle School.’

Although she thrives in her field now, when she was a young girl she wanted to run an equestrian school, and then considered dentistry. ‘Lots of people to chat to and perfection to be achieved!’

KATHERINE SHARP
Riding bikes has been a part of Katherine’s life for as long as she can remember. ‘Mountain biking for my family wasn’t really a choice. My dad was obsessed with two-wheels, which meant my mum, brother, sister and I all had to participate in some way or form’, she says, laughing. These fond memories were often formed around the family’s biking business, Hope, yet when tragedy struck in 2016, Katherine really had to dig deep – biking was the therapy she turned to.

After losing her father to suicide, Katherine showed an immense amount of bravery and she was determined to make him proud. This 24-year-old, two-wheeled champion has gone on to compete in two Enduro World Series, which consists of a total of eight races in eight different countries across all four corners of the globe – including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Tasmania, Chile, Colorado and Columbia. She now ranks 14th in the world and fourth in the UK, and all this alongside completing a Masters degree and starting a personal training and nutrition business, Nutrition Savvy, to inspire others. ‘I’m more motivated for my future in mountain biking than I ever have been,’ she says.

Published in: March 2019

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