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Women of Distinction Awards recognize a record number of nominees, from artists to entrepreneurs

Shelley Chochinov doesn't think she did anything distinctive when she refused to stay within the patriarchal confines of her Jewish faith.

This was at a time when it was considered unacceptable for women to pursue religious studies, but the Winnipegger dove right in.

"I've never wanted to be a second-class citizen, so I started studying quietly," says Chochinov, who never really stopped. The recent graduate of the Florence Melton Adult Education School of Jerusalem's Hebrew University is one of 79 nominees -- a record number -- for the 2012 YMCA-YWCA Women of Distinction Awards.

Second-class citizens? As if.

The list of nominees for the 36th annual awards, which salute women for their achievements and service in fields ranging from arts and education to business and science, includes a metabolic geneticist working on a treatment for a rare bone disease, the University of Manitoba's first female professor of finance and an engineer whose work has aided the mobility of aging Canadians. There's also the U of M law faculty's first female dean, a couple of members of Parliament and an artist who uses male handprints to raise awareness about domestic violence.

The 12 awards will be handed out at a gala dinner at the Winnipeg Convention Centre on May 2 that's expected to draw up to 950 people.

When the Winnipeg YWCA launched the Women of the Year Awards in 1977, 41 women were nominated and YMCA-YWCA associations across Canada soon followed suit. In 1991, to mark the 15th anniversary, the event was renamed the Women of Distinction Awards.

This year's record 79 nominations represent a nearly 60 per cent increase over last year's total, says Betty Black, chairwoman of the awards committee.

"We've increased our efforts significantly this year to get a higher profile in the community and reach out to more community groups," Black says. "I think that has really paid off, where more organizations and groups are aware of the award and our desire to recognize the accomplishments and achievements of women."

Winnipeg psychologist and U of M professor Judy Chipperfield, whose research on the psychological aspects of healthy aging has been highlighted in the House of Commons, says she has received many professional accolades, but this is different.

"This is the first award that really seems like it recognizes my role beyond just a researcher," says Chipperfield, who is nominated in the science, technology and the environment category.

"As I understand the nomination, it recognizes my contribution to the next generation, to training students and the work I've done to help people in the community and that's really nice."

Unlike Chochinov, she says there were really no gender barriers for her to overcome as gerontology, much like nursing, is a female-dominated field.

"We're interested in babies and we're also interested in what happens at the other end of the age continuum," says Chipperfield, whose current research focuses on the devastating effects on older adults who are sedentary and perceive their world as uncontrollable. …