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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Women Making History Today: Joan, Malorie and Sharon

Dame Sharon White, chairman of John Lewis Partnership, on a panel at the SCDI Forum | Alamy

3 min read

The philosopher Thomas Carlyle suggested history was best understood as the "biography of great men". The House disagrees — and has invited parliamentarians this Black History Month to spotlight inspirational Black women.

I would like to pay tribute to not one but three women who have paved the way for Black women in recent years across literature, healthcare and the civil service and who are all still making history. Having worked in the NHS myself for more than a decade, I would first like to mention Joan Saddler.

She has held a series of leadership roles in the NHS and received an OBE for services to health and diversity in 2007. Joan continues her unflinching commitment to improving diversity and reducing inequalities as director of equality and partnerships in the NHS Confederation and co-chair of the BME Leadership Network. She has assiduously brought attention to the impacts of inequalities on both staff and patients within our health service, championing the benefits that diversity in leadership has on outcomes.

Recently, she has produced important work, not just helping identify the worse Covid-19 outcomes among ethnic minority communities but also proposing concrete steps to tackle this issue. At a time when government has sought to shut down conversations around inequalities, many would do well to listen to Joan.

I’m sure we have not seen the last of what Sharon, alongside Joan and Malorie, has to offer

Malorie Blackman needs almost no introduction. Millions of children and young adults have grown up with her novels for more than 30 years, which have done so much to increase the visibility of Black characters in literature — which is sadly still lacking. Most notably, she wrote the thought-provoking Noughts & Crosses series, recently made into a BBC TV series. These books provide important insights on racism and injustice for all ages.

Yet the nine books in the series are just a small fraction of her incredible output. She should be considered in the top tier of British writers.

The path to Black representation in Parliament is often retold, but neglected are the stories of those who trod similar difficult paths through the civil service.

Formidable economist Dame Sharon White did break down so many barriers, becoming the first Black and second female permanent secretary at the traditionally male, pale and stale Treasury. Thanks to Sharon and others charting the way, the civil service has become dramatically more representative. Now she has gone on to chair the John Lewis Partnership and is helping the company stay relevant, in a difficult economic climate, while retaining its distinctive ethical commitments.

I’m sure we have not seen the last of what Sharon, alongside Joan and Malorie, has to offer.

Kate Osamor is the Labour MP for Edmonton

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