'I've never worked at a company as progressive as this one' – LGBT+ staff and allies on life at IOE and IT

Fri 2 Jun 2023
Posted by: William Barns-Graham

IOE&IT pride symbol

The Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) is an organisation that’s undergone significant growth over the last three years, expanding from employing just under 20 staff in 2020 to over 150 in 2023.

It was highly commended at last year’s British HR Awards on account of its ability to hire quickly during the pandemic, pivoting to a more remote and flexible way of working. It has an almost precisely even ratio of male and female staff, and employs people across all age groups, with 26 languages spoken among its workforce.

But, partly because of this rapid growth, IOE&IT has had to adapt its policies and work practices to ensure its newly expanded workforce is properly supported, whatever their situation. This includes its growing cohort of LGBT+ employees.


As a full disclaimer, I should say that I am a cis gay white man who’s worked at the IOE&IT for six years, throughout its recent period of growth. IOE&IT has become a much more public advocate for important issues, such as supporting women in trade, during this time.

Nonetheless, I found myself wondering what we are doing to support and empower existing and prospective LGBT+ staff.

While I’ve personally never felt discriminated against or held back because of my sexuality while working at IOE&IT, I was nonetheless curious to investigate how IOE&IT is looking to progress on this front. After speaking to colleagues across the company, including those leading on the IOE&IT’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies, I was encouraged to hear there’s plenty being done to support people like me.

Updated policies

Hollie Ward, an HR administrator in IOE&IT’s people services team, tells me a lot is being done to update the company’s HR policies.

“We’ve just launched a brand-new EDI policy. Before it was just called equality and diversity but this one has new subject areas and sections added. For instance, we’ve got gender identity as its own separate area now. We’ve added neurodiversity and unconscious bias policies too.

“We also have a new fertility policy we’re working on, which is focussed on being gender neutral and inclusive to support all types of families.”

Ward notes that diversity monitoring is relatively new at IOE&IT and this information is being provided by staff on a voluntary basis, so is not yet comprehensive. However, the data already collected indicates a diverse range of identities among the staff.


The impact of enshrining inclusivity within the company’s policies has not gone unnoticed.

Mark Lamming, a trade and customs stakeholder relationship specialist at IOE&IT, was shocked when the organisation allowed him to take compassionate leave following the death of this partner’s father. When he told his manager, Divia Patel-Smith, about his situation, he received support straight away.

“I’ve never worked in an organisation that is as forward thinking and progressive as this one.

“As a gay guy, I’m very used to not being included in policies around things like compassionate leave. I’m 40 years old and from a generation where you wouldn’t even consider asking. I didn’t look at IOE&IT’s policy because, why would I?

“I explained my situation to Divia, because I’ve been with Ben, my partner, for 10 years. It’s a long-term relationship and I’m close to his family. It hit us both hard when his father died.

“It was Divia who pointed out to me that I was included in the compassionate leave policy and said that, even if I wasn’t, she was going to sort something out for me anyway.”

Lamming says this level of support hasn’t just been important for him, but has also had a positive and appreciated impact on his partner and his partner’s mother.


Although Mark is no longer managed by Divia, he’s found that the same level of empathy and support from his new manager, Sonia Gutierrez.

“It’s not just enshrined in the organisation’s polices, but it's also the quality and the empathy of managers that we have here.

“Even in our current stage of development as a business, where everyone’s so busy, there’s been nothing but completely unbiased, non-judgemental support.”

Divia and Sonia are not alone in showing their allyship. When announcing that I was writing this story to the wider team, I received several messages of support from both LGBT+ and heterosexual colleagues.

Lindsay Bliss, a client services associate, said:

“I just wanted to say that as a parent and a sister of LGBT+ individuals, society has changed a lot to be more inclusive, but there is still growth to come. I am thankful for individuals and companies who still promote and advocate equal opportunities for all.”

Victoria Rudduck, a talent acquisition executive, said:

“A workplace, a community, a world that fully embraces diversity and inclusion will be a better place and will allow communities to grow, to improve and to be the best we can be.

“I am an ally. I stand by the repressed. I support minorities. We are equal.”

Gavin Johnston, a consultant, said:

“We’ve got to a stage, at IOE&IT, where there are opportunities for progression for anybody that wants them, no matter who they are. No one’s ambition is knocked on the head and people are encouraged to be the best person they can be.

“The atmosphere is very supportive and I feel my team is very supported by the management.”

More to be done

All organisations can do more to support their minority staff and should strive to avoid complacency, and this certainly includes IOE&IT. The organisation is still adapting to its new size as an employer, so has to introduce new policies and frameworks that support the increasing diversity among its staff.

George Shaw, a product manager who has recently joined the IOE&IT, has been involved in EDI working groups at previous companies. He says there’s more that IOE&IT can do to prove itself as an LGBT+ supportive company.

“Being a diverse and inclusive company isn’t just good from a PR perspective, but it’s been shown that more inclusive companies are generally more profitable, happier places to work and have fewer HR complaints.

“As a charity, IOE&IT is already quite diverse and there’s a lot of international colleagues, too. But there’s more it can do, including having more internal champions and making it easier for people to find out about the different working groups and policies.

“It’s about going above and beyond. It’s not just about how the business operates, but its how it treats divergent team members, ensuring its language and actions are more inclusive.

“So rather than tackling these issues on an ad hoc basis, it’s better to establish a framework. Even if this means aiming towards accreditation or recognition from another organisation, at least this gives you very discrete tasks to works towards.

“The new EDI initiatives are a good first step, but it’s always a long road because you are tackling structural issues. Sometimes biases exist that we don’t even recognise or haven’t even thought about, and it’s quite hard to tackle that underlying foundation of how a business operates.”

Equity, not equality

Shaw notes that the conversation needs to move towards being about ‘equity’ – the recognition that different people require resources and support that align with their individual circumstances to reach an equal outcome to others – rather than focusing only on equality – the notion that everyone should just have the same opportunities.

“I think it’s important to talk about equity as much as equality. Just because you create a situation where people have equal opportunities, this doesn’t mean there’s an equitable situation overall, because there may still be other advantages that certain people have.

“There’s also a whole conversation to be had about intersectionality and how discrimination can compound itself if you’re part of multiple groups. These issues can balloon, and you must be careful not to let this happen.”

For her part, Ward acknowledges there’s more to be done and that this is an ongoing process for the organisation.

“We’re always revising our policies, and always looking for ways to improve them, to ensure they’re more inclusive and applicable to everybody.”

Supporting staff

Ward also says that IOE&IT is introducing a range of new activities and initiatives to help LGBT+ staff feel better supported by the company.

“We’re rolling out our new EDI champions initiative, with the group meeting for the first time this week, which is exciting. We’re also launching a ‘celebrating culture’ blog this week and we’ll be doing something on there about Pride Month.

“For the month, we’re also setting up LGBT+ supportive background MS Teams images, with a couple of different selections for people to choose from, to show their support for the community.

“As part of rolling out the EDI policy, we’re pushing staff to include their preferred pronouns in their email signatures, which is not currently common practice at IOE&IT. This is important because it creates a comfortable space for everybody, whether that’s team members or clients and customers.

“We also run ‘respect in the workplace’ training, which includes a focus on inclusion and the language people use to create a comfortable environment for everyone. This, with emotional intelligence training, is important. Further D&I training is in progress to increase knowledge and best practice across the organisation as part of our constant improvement.”

Representative body

And the importance of getting this right isn’t just about keeping IOE&IT’s staff happy.

Chris Martin, who’s recently joined the organisation as its new external affairs director, tells me that IOE&IT has a responsibility to its members and the wider trader community to take a lead.

“IOE&IT, as the UK’s representative body for traders, has a key role in driving EDI policies and support across the international trade industry, and this means it needs to lead by example.

“Several of its members will either be or employ LGBT+ people, so IOE&IT has a role to play in raising awareness of LGBT issues both within the workforce and in trade more broadly.

“This means raising awareness of how ceilings can be broken down for LGBT+ staff working in organisations across the sector, ensuring they are not discriminated against on account of who they are.

“It also means raising awareness of where LGBT+ issues intersect with trade policy. The UK, while not perfect, has made great strides on LGBT+ rights over the last few decades, but not all countries around the world share these values.

“Trade can be a force for good that can challenge these differences and create better understanding of LGBT+ issues internationally.”

Get in touch

The IOE&IT Daily Update team will be publishing features about LGBT+ issues in trade throughout Pride Month this year and is keen to hear from LBGT+ individuals and members working in the international trade sector about your experiences.

We’re looking to cover the following issues:

  • Do LGBT+ supply chain, trade and customs workers feel safe in their workplaces?
  • How should LGBT+ issues be factored into UK trade policy?
  • How can businesses ensure LGBT+ rights are protected across their supply chains?

If you’d like to be featured in or to support our content about LGBT+ issues and trade, please contact content@export.org.uk.