Sharon White
A Chair’s perspective

When I joined the civil service some 30 years ago, I will never forget the advice I received from one of the few senior women working in the Treasury.

“Sharon,” she said. “You see, the thing you have to remember is that you’re allowed one eccentricity in the Treasury. And for you, that’s being a woman.”

I was fortunate enough that this person mentored me and helped me navigate those early years in what was an almost entirely male environment at the Treasury.  Three decades on the picture in the civil service has improved. It’s not by chance. It’s taken hard work and perseverance.

I believe the corporate world could learn lessons from some of the targeted interventions that proved successful in the civil service.

At the John Lewis Partnership, we have two of the most trusted brands in retail – John Lewis and Waitrose. We’re the biggest employee-owned company in the UK with 80,000 Partners. Our founder, John Spedan Lewis, was a progressive business visionary. Nearly a century ago, Spedan encouraged women into the workplace, even after they had married, unheard of at the time.

Times might have changed, but our ambition hasn’t. In 2020, we made a public commitment to become the UK’s most inclusive business – a bold but achievable goal. Retail is a largely female industry, but not often the case at senior levels.

Our most recent data found that 48.5% of our senior leaders were women, consistent with a year earlier.

The picture for our entry level, lowest paid employees is not as balanced. Recent data shows that 58.3% of our Level 10 Partners were female, slightly higher than 57.8% a year earlier.

Our latest reported median gender pay gap stood at 5.8%, down from 6.4% a year earlier. This compares to an average gap of 14.9% across the UK and 8.5% in retail in 2022.

I’m encouraged by the progress but there is much more to do. It requires relentless, senior focus supported by data, which is the most effective way to shine a light on gender inequalities.

February 2023