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Sunday sit-down with… 11 women on breaking the bias here in the North East this International Women’s Day

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is breaking the bias. So, we’ve collected the experiences and advice from 11 North East women who are all working in traditionally male-dominated industries – from butchers to bobbies, surgeons to security guards, politicians to playwrights, and almost everyone in between…

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 05.03.2022

We’d have loved not to have written this article.

Because this article is all about breaking down the bias and stereotypes that surround women living and working right here in the North East. We’d have absolutely loved it if this article wasn’t relevant; that gender equality is alive and thriving and women aren’t held back at all, particularly when it comes to our careers. But unfortunately, whether we like to recognise it or not, bias does still exist.

“Why do we have an international Women’s Day? What about International Men’s Day?” We’ve all heard that little chestnut once or twice, haven’t we? But imagine a properly gender-neutral world. A world completely free of stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable and inclusive. A world where differences are valued and celebrated. It still seems a long way off, doesn’t it?

And that’s why we have an International Women’s Day every year. Because, for one day, the whole world is encouraged to celebrate women’s achievements, raise our awareness against and our understanding of bias, and take action for equality.

Here at HLN, we try and do a little of that every day, where we can. But we can always do more. We could take a leaf out of any one of these 11 women’s books, for example.

Because here are 11 women working right here in the North East who are breaking the bias each and every day, simply by being in the career they’re in. Why is that unexpected? Well, because, these jobs have traditionally been held by men.

We caught up with these women to find out more about their experiences working within such male-dominated sectors – the challenges they’ve faced, the assumptions which have been made about them, and how much positive representation matters.

Take it away, ladies…

LYNSEY MCVAY

LYNSEY MCVAY

Principle Officer at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service 

‘Being a minority isn’t always comfortable, but you’ve just got to keep going and know that better times will come and that’s always been the case. Throughout my career, I’ve experienced some pushbacks, some comments – both from the public and from individuals who I’ve worked with – specifically in relation to my gender, but you’ve just got to persevere and demonstrate that women can do the role. Hopefully that’s what I’ve done.

Comments from members of the public demonstrate to me that we still have work to do, but I do believe that it directly links to perceived societal, cultural and generational “norms”. I’ve been in charge of incidents where other agencies or members of the public haven’t been speaking to me, they’ve been speaking to the male firefighter who stood beside me, because I think they just don’t see a female as being in charge. But, hopefully, things are changing.’

ISMA IQBAL

ISMA IQBAL

Consultant ENT Surgeon at the Freeman Hospital and Geordie Hospital star

‘Skull base surgery allows treatment through a less invasive approach, which is better for patients. It also allows me to manage complex conditions as part of a multidisciplinary team. The satisfaction you feel when you’ve changed someone’s life for the better is an amazing feeling.

‘I’m glad I took part in Geordie Hospital as, hopefully, I will send the message that surgery is for anyone who has the passion, discipline and determination to go for it. I hope that women – particularly from the BAME community – will be inspired to pursue a career in surgery.’

KAT MEADOWS

KAT MEADOWS

Head of Nicholson’s Butchers

‘I’ve definitely met a lot of resistance to the idea of me being a butcher, as a woman. A lot of the time at markets or in the shop, customers will come up and ask me if they can speak to the butcher – assuming that I’m just a member of the front of house staff.

‘My husband and I were at a trade exhibition in Harrogate once and I saw a gentleman selling spices, who I thought may be great to work with. I started chatting to him, but he kept directing his questions about meat and supply to my husband (who isn’t a butcher). I’ve been in this business all my life, but he instantly assumed that I wouldn’t know anything about it, even though I had approached him. I ended up just walking away.

‘I think it’s the assumption that you have less knowledge or that you’re less likely to have a specialism than men that I find hardest to swallow. There’s absolutely nothing to back that assumption up!’

NATALIE IBU

NATALIE IBU

Artistic Director, Northern Stage

‘Any challenges that I’ve had as a woman have been made more intense by being a black woman, specifically. You can’t be it if you can’t see it. Simply knowing that it was possible for me was a challenge. To articulate a thing that you don’t know exists for you or that you can’t see takes courage.

‘It has always been important to me that, particularly when so many stories are centred around the male experience, that if we’re going to perform those plays then it’s balanced by women makers. That the female lens is applied to it.

‘But activism and change come in so many different forms: it’s in the plays we choose to tell; who’s in the room – how many females are working on the project, how we cast it; but, also, I think there has to be perspective. I think theatre is at its best when it gives us possibilities. We need authenticity and integrity, but I think there also needs to be interrogation. Simply replicating life in theatre feels devoid of possibilities.’

JADE BETTS

Security Supervisor at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital

‘As soon as I mention that I work in security, people usually question what it’s like, especially with me being female.

‘I started out working on the doors in Newcastle. We all know what a night in town can look like and there are always a few fights, usually started by young men. This can create quite a stressful and scary situation, especially if there are large groups of men.

‘Similarly, when I started working at the hospital, there were many patients who would start acting out – whether because of mental health issues or being in pain. In the beginning it felt quite overwhelming, but I’ve learnt that just talking to the patients usually does the trick. A violent situation can turn into a nice chat with someone who just need a bit of support.

‘If you’re a female wanting to go into a male-dominated job, my advice is to just do it! I’ve done it and I know that you can do it too.’

CHI ONWURAH

CHI ONWURAH

Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central

‘Having women in politics is key to ensuring that we are fairly represented in politics and decision-making. Unfortunately, many want to get involved but can’t see politics as a realistic career choice due to stereotypes, online abuse and how the political environment is designed. But this is changing and we continue to work towards equality for all.

‘I’m proud of Labour’s progress on this matter, with 51% of Labour MPs being women. Labour have proven themselves as the Party of equality – having delivered the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equality Act, the Minimum Wage and introduced Sure Start. Today, we continue working towards equality for all and it’s great to have more women join us in this mission.’

LESLEY MOORE

LESLEY MOORE

Curriculum Leader in Energy at Newcastle College

‘I began my engineering career in the late ‘80s, after seeing an advert for a “women in engineering” course. I was paid to attend college and gain an electrical and electronic engineering qualification; despite this, only nine women joined the course. At the time, the college had very few female facilities as it was a predominantly male technical college, and it just wasn’t something that girls did. We were regularly belittled by our male counterparts, who constantly tried to trip us up with questions, and even my dad had his doubts about my career choice.

‘The industry is still male dominated, and people are still surprised by my occupation – but it’s definitely improving and evolving. Female engineers are really well respected in places like the RAF, where they’re recognised for their unique abilities, and engineering companies are now seeking out female apprentices.’

CHELSEY WARNES

CHELSEY WARNES

Bikini Model and Bodybuilder

‘How I felt when I first started training compared to how I feel now has completely changed. Bodybuilding used to be a lot more male-dominated, but now there are so many girls competing that I don’t feel out of place at all. The only thing I found is that men do sometimes spectate when I’m training and show a little too much interest in what I’m doing, but it doesn’t bother me.

‘When I first started, I used to help guys in the gym by giving them hints and tips or by letting them know if they were doing something wrong, but they’d just laugh and ignore me. But now they listen to me and appreciate my advice. I’ve got a good group of lad mates there and I can talk to them about the gym.’

ZOË HINGSTON

ZOË HINGSTON

Inspector at Northumbria Police

‘Being a woman in the police is something that, even to this day, some people outside of policing have a view on – whether we can be as efficient as men and whether we are strong enough or tough enough. The simple answer is that my colleagues and I are.

‘Being in the police isn’t just about being strong; it takes emotional intelligence, resilience, teamwork and other skills. It can seem hard trying to prove yourself and challenging those who still believe that policing is for men, but policing has changed significantly and there are so many inspirational female roles models.

‘Northumbria Police is fully committed to being representative of our communities, so that means ensuring that everyone gets a fair opportunity. My main goal is to make it better for those coming after me.’

SOPHIE TEASDALE

SOPHIE TEASDALE

Photographer, Theatre Technician and Stage Manager at Von Fox Promotions

‘Photography-wise, I haven’t noticed anything different about being a woman. But definitely as a Stage Manager and Theatre Technician, I’ve encountered obstacles because I’m a woman. I’ve often worked within an all-male team. There are a lot more female technicians now then there were a few years ago, at least where I’ve worked anyway, but I remember when I first started out I was the only woman on the team – I was a 19-year-old girl within a team of about 10 men. It was very daunting. I felt like I really had to prove myself: like, yes, I am strong, I can do this.’

VERONICA SPOWART

VERONICA SPOWART

Director of Digital Technologies at Newcastle College

‘I entered the digital industry later in life, returning to the UK to raise my family after living in Africa, where I wasn’t allowed to work as an ex-pat woman. When I started my degree in Business Computing in 1994, there were only eight female students out of 308. But interestingly, when I graduated four years later, there were only 66 graduating – still including those eight women.

‘The gender split remains hugely imbalanced across the globe within the digital sector, though I don’t believe I’ve ever faced any gender discrimination and that all my opportunities have been on merit.

‘Within my current role at Newcastle College, addressing the gender imbalance is a priority for me and my team. My advice to young girls choosing their career now is that digital, or any STEM subject, is the future.’

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