The first black permanent secretary to the Treasury has hailed improvements to diversity among senior Government officials over the past 30 years as a “cause for celebration”.
Former senior Whitehall official and current John Lewis boss, Dame Sharon White has said the civil service has become much more progressive since she joined as an economist in 1989.
She spoke with the PA news agency alongside her husband and eminent economist Sir Robert Chote at Windsor Castle where the duo became a Dame and a Knight.
Dame Sharon, 54, said it felt “extraordinary” and “humbling” to be recognised for her work and dedicated the award to her “wonderful colleagues”.
Reflecting on her career, she said: “When I first joined the Treasury it was really rare to be a woman economist, let alone a person of colour.
“When I left the civil service, the Treasury was 45% women at senior levels.
“We had a clutch of female permanent secretaries, I had many colleagues from different backgrounds and there was much greater diversity.
“So I tend to be very optimistic about the progress that we’re making.
“It’s definitely a cause for celebration.”
Sir Robert, 53, said it was “fantastic” to receive a knighthood from the Princess Royal and thanked his “wonderful” colleagues at the OBR and IFS.
When asked what he thought had set him up for success, he joked: “I married well.”
Sir Robert said: “One very important thing is having mentors and people who have encouraged you on the way.
“I started as a journalist knowing nothing and when you get that encouragement on every job I’ve gone to it’s been an opportunity to learn from people.”
Dame Sharon added: “Both of us have been quite driven by working somewhere where you feel like you’re making a difference, however small.
“I think it’s very much your values in life, we’ve both been very lucky to have roles where it’s reflected in your work.”
The John Lewis chief executive added that she believed her colleagues’ “passion and commitment” would get the department store through another Christmas affected by coronavirus.
She told PA: “There’s a lot of uncertainty with the latest news but one of the reasons the business has come out as strongly as it has through Covid-19 is that we’re a co-owned model.
“People who work in the business also own the business, and so that passion and that commitment to keep each other safe and to keep customers safe to provide all of us with the Christmas we didn’t quite have last year,people are quite stoical but also very passionate and committed.”
Dame Sharon was born to Jamaican parents in the UK, and was brought up in Leyton, east London, where she attended a state secondary school.
She joined the civil service in 1989, and her work involved supervising a Treasury review of the response to the international financial crisis in 2007-08.
Dame Sharon became the first black person to become a permanent secretary at the Treasury in 2013, the first female Ofcom chief executive in 2015, and is currently the first chairwoman of John Lewis.
The department store boss has also worked at the British Embassy in Washington, where she met her husband while he was an adviser to managers of the International Monetary Fund.
Sir Robert started his career as a reporter at The Independent, and he was named Young Financial Journalist of the Year by the Wincott Foundation in 1993.
After editing the economics section of the Financial Times, he served as chairman of the Office of Budget Responsibility from 2010 to 2020.