Service user who stole the show at women's awards

Theresa May flanked by winners Tessa Ross and Dame Stephanie Shirley

Theresa May flanked by winners Tessa Ross and Dame Stephanie Shirley

Women of Distinction were honoured at Jewish Care's annual WoD fundraising lunch on Monday. But the biggest ovation from the 200 guests at the Institute of Directors went to service user Susan Schlaen, a resident at the charity's Sidney Corob House for adults with mental health issues.

Ms Schlaen was diagnosed with lung cancer last month, an illness which her father died from when she was six-years-old. "After my father died, my mother went into a depression," she recalled. "She couldn't cope. I went on to teach PE in Hackney for 15 years [but] I had my first manic depressive attack and ended up in hospital for 17 weeks."

She spent time in care homes "where I was abused by management - I lost all my top teeth", before moving into the Hampstead home after meeting a Jewish Care social worker. "I've always wanted a home but never had one. I feel so much safer and secure now."

Home Secretary Theresa May, who was the guest speaker, thanked Ms Schlaen for sharing her story. She said that the government was committed to breaking down gender barriers by "keeping up pressure in the private and public sector and to get companies to agree principles to help ensure female staff are treated equality. If women started businesses at the same rate as men, there would be an extra one million female entrepreneurs."

Before presenting WoD winners Dame Stephanie Shirley and Tessa Ross with their awards, Ms May added: "It's not just about inspirational figures and what the government do - it's what women in this room do day in and day out. We all have a role to play."

I feel so much safer and secure now

Philanthropist and entrepreneur Dame Stephanie, who came to the UK from Vienna on the Kindertransport in 1939, received a lifetime achievement award. She said afterwards that she had used the pseudonym "Steve" to circumvent gender discrimination in business.

Dame Shirley - who has built up her £150 million fortune from a software company - declared: "There's nothing holding us back now."

The Woman of Distinction was Bafta award-winning film executive and next National Theatre chief executive Tessa Ross, for her contribution to film and the arts. She came to the lunch committee's attention after chair Philippa Mintz spotted her on the TV coverage of the Oscars.

Ms Ross - whose Channel 4 films include Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave and This is England - advised ambitious women that "you can only be good if you're true to yourself".

She also praised Jewish Care for doing "such important work in the Jewish community". The lunch raised £80,000.

    Last updated: 10:45am, May 19 2014