Role models: Asian Women of Achievement

Sarah Morrison celebrates the inspirational awards by talking to some of those on the shortlist, which is announced today

What do an international burlesque dancer, one of the youngest engineers to work on the Shard, a leading playwright and a top heart-and-lung surgeon have in common? They are all being recognised as breakthrough Asian women in the UK.

More than 50 women making their mark in the arts, business, media, sports, higher education, the humanities and the public sector will be celebrated at this year's Asian Women of Achievement Awards, which aim to identify the "most inspirational Asian women in Britain".

A football coach, pharmacist and a dhol drummer are also among those in the running. Past winners include Meera Syal, the actor, and Shami Chakrabarti, the civil rights campaigner. There are 10 shortlisted categories in this year's awards, which are sponsored by RBS. Winners will be announced in May.

"Since their inception, the awards have become synonymous with ground-breaking females, and this year's nominees are nothing short of amazing," said Pinky Lilani, the author and entrepreneur who founded the awards. "Britain needs more female role models, particularly Asian women, and if we are to develop a pipeline for others to come to the fore, then it is crucial we champion their many successes and demonstrate that anything is achievable."

The surgeon: Six years ago Farah Bhatti, 47, became the first female consultant cardiothoracic surgeon in Wales, and the fourth woman in the UK to hold such a role. Growing up in a “humble” neighbourhood in London, she dreamt of becoming a doctor. When her father suffered a fatal heart attack when she was 14, she decided she wanted to specialise on the heart. She is curriculum co-director for Swansea University’s graduate-entry medicine programme. “If you’re not exposed to professions, you never aspire to them. My role is to broaden people’s horizons and empower them. It’s important to know what education and hard work can do for you. I am delighted to be shortlisted.”

The engineer: Roma Agrawal, 29, an associate structural engineer at WSP Group in London, spent six years helping to design the foundation slab and the spire on the tallest tower in western Europe: the Shard. She was the only female structural engineer in her team for much of the project, and also the youngest. One of her biggest challenges was overcoming her fear of heights. “There are very few women in engineering, and even fewer Asian women. But it’s all about confidence. If you’re well-prepared and confident, then even if there are 15 men there, it doesn’t matter. I try to promote what I do to young students. Many young girls don’t know what structural engineers do.”

The dancer: Sukki Singapora’s parents wanted her to become a doctor or a lawyer. But at 26, she is Asia’s first international burlesque star, and the world’s first from Singapore. Her mother and father, whom she describes as “very traditional”, still think she works in IT. When she first told her father that she was dancing, he almost disowned her. Now, after describing being shortlisted for this award as her “greatest achievement”, she wants to tell them what she does, Singapora, who uses a stage name, founded the Singapore Burlesque Society last year to provide support for other burlesque artists. “I am attracted to the beauty of burlesque, and the freedom; you can express yourself. When I told my parents I’d decided to become a dancer, my dad refused to speak for many months; I’d call and he wouldn’t answer. It was horrendous. One sister doesn’t like walking with me in the street – because of my blond hair. The other doesn’t talk about it – it’s a taboo. The Singapore Burlesque Society was set up as a safe haven; a confidential group for women, and men, who want to explore burlesque. I don’t want anyone to go the suffering I’ve been through. I want to change society, and Asian communities, for the better. I want women to feel that they are really free to have a choice. I don’t want them to feel frightened, judged or [fear being] disowned.”

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