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It’s the highlight in every businesswoman’s social calendar – the First Women awards draw the cream of female business talent from across the country. And last night was no exception: patron of the First Women Awards and wife of the PM, Sarah Brown, opened the ceremony with a rabble-rousing speech.

"Tonight’s nominees have broken through the infamous but not impervious glass ceiling," she announced to the crowd. Then went on to quip: "It’s still a shame that only 11 per cent of FTSE 100 companies have a woman at director level. Even parliament has 20 per cent."

Then Real Business columnist and serial entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan took to the stage. "Women in business are not unique, we’re ubiquitous," she said. "We’re not peculiar, we’re profound."

But the Secret Millionaire star had some sobering words for the audience, too. "Every year the bar gets higher," she said. "It’s not enough to be phenomenally successful or to have overcome tremendous hurdles. It’s not enough to be a role model: all the women in this room have done this stuff. These awards recognise the women that have pulled other women up behind them and made their route that much easier. The women who change the game."

And "First Women" turned out to be an apt name for last night’s event. For who should come to the lectern next but the first ever female president of the CBI, Helen Alexander.

"When I read that it would take 75 years before there are an equal number of men and women on FTSE 100 boards, I thought it was a joke," she said. "This economy needs female talent – ­ and talent that shines is what this event is all about."

She wasn’t wrong. From leotard manufacturers and submarine experts to automotive directors and accountancy partners, the night celebrated pioneering women and genuine "glass-ceiling breakers".

And there was some real comic talent, too. Deloitte’s Isobel Sharp, winner of the finance category, had the audience rolling in the aisles when she described herself as the "Susan Boyle of the accountancy world". She joked: "I started to feel a bit anxious when I saw all the beautiful people collecting their awards." There followed a rip-roaring tale about the (now defunct) Scottish Ladies Accountancy Group, "the SLAGS!" she chuckled. And she went on to point out that women have conquered almost all sectors of the business world – "The only thing we have left to master is car-parking!" And the crowd went wild.

She wasn’t the only woman to crack a few gags on stage. Karen Darby (presenting the award) said: "I’m not sure if you caught the news this evening but a bank on the Isle of Dogs has just had to call in the retrievers." She also used an oldie but goldie from RB’s own Friday Funnies: "I let my brother borrow a tenner a couple of weeks back. Turns out I’m now Britain’s third biggest lender."

Other winners from the evening included Anne Walker. Picking up the gong in the retail category, Walker’s story is truly inspirational. Having left school at 16 with no qualifications, she started up her leotard-making business with a £50 loan from her mother. Today, her business­, which is based in "deepest, darkest Devon", ­ is turning over £7m a year.

Financial Times Group CEO Rona Fairhead picked up the Business of the Year prize for the Financial Times Group. She said: "I hope that when my daughter goes into the world of work,­ women doing extraordinary things will just be ordinary." Nikki "oh no! I’ve torn up my speech" King, MD of Isuzu Truck, picked up the PwC Lifetime Achievement award. "I’d like to thank my ex-husband," she quipped. "For leaving me and forcing me to start a business!"

All in all, it was a dazzling affair and a fabulous recognition for women in business. But, as the happy winners and gracious nominees chatted after the event, RB was reminded that sometimes, women just have to be women as the cry was heard: "Oh! I love your shoes!"

Last night’s winners:Science & Technology: Paula Bell, RicardoTourism & Leisure: Gaynor Coley, Eden ProjectFinance: Isobel Sharp, DeloittePublic Service: Julie Spence, Cambridgeshire ConstabularyMedia: Emma Scott, FreesatRetail & Consumer: Anne Walker, International Dance SuppliesBusiness Services: Angela Mortimer, Angela MortimerManufacturing: Helen Barratt, BAE SystemsBusiness of the Year: Financial Times GroupLifetime Achievement: Nikki King, Isuzu Truck

The First Women Awards were sponsored by Lloyds TSB Corporate Markets.

Related articlesCA who broke glass ceiling wins top award First Women Awards: Interview with Paula Bell, RicardoSpence wins top award

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Thursday, 11 June 2009
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