How can we build a more supportive and inclusive environment?

24th Jun 2021

“The task for everyone, straight or not, is to make sure that the culture of the firm is as welcoming, inclusive and warm as possible so people feel able to say something about themselves.”


This, from Lord Chris Smith, Chair of IPReg and the UK’s first openly gay MP, was one of the powerful takeaways from our webinar in celebration of Pride month.

Also on the panel was Triona Desmond, who is a Senior Chartered Trade Mark Attorney at Pinsent Masons and member of the IP Out committee, as well as being a Stonewall Education Role Model.

She was joined by Al Skilton, Senior Hearing Officer at the UK IPO, who is also an IP Out committee member, and co-Chair of iPride, the IPO’s LGBTQ+ network. The discussion was ably chaired by Mark Bearfoot, Head of IP and Brand Protection at Tommy Hilfiger.

What does Pride mean to you?

The aim of the session was to explore how the IP sector and firms within it can be more supportive of LGBTQ+ people and improve diversity and LGBTQ+ representation at all levels.

It was very appropriate that on an issue that is so personal and sensitive to individuals, each panellist shared part of their own story and what Pride means to them.

For Al, who became a gay rights activist when the section 28 legislation was passed in 1998, Pride is about celebrating the successes the LGBTQIA+ community has had on equality and inclusion, but also about protecting the progress that has been made.

It is also about being with others who have shared some of your experiences; the first Pride event Al attended was a very emotional and affirming experience in that respect.

Chris shared his experience of coming out as a newly elected MP and his belief that Pride is about enabling people to feel totally confident in who they are, something he emphasised is incredibly important whether at work, at home, or among friends.

Triona described her reluctance to come out at work and experience of hearing homophobic comments in the workplace. For Triona, Pride is all about acceptance, and she described the joy she feels in being able to hold hands with her wife at events and the experience her son has joining the Pride march in London.

How can we improve LGBTQ+ representation and support in IP workplaces?

The panel recognised that creating an inclusive workplace with a diverse employee base is a multi-faceted undertaking. To change the status quo, organisations need to think differently about everything from recruitment processes to HR policies and be prepared to drive change at all levels.

Chris noted that having a champion at board and/or partner level is essential to ensure that the policies being created or revised to build a more inclusive workplace are fully enacted and adhered to.    

The panel shared thoughts on several key action areas:

Recruiting for diversity

Al urged organisations to be creative in how they recruit and shared some of the UK IPO’s initiatives to increase the diversity of applicants to the organisation across all roles.

This involved stepping away from the standard civil service recruitment processes and altering the language used which, Al noted, had previously tended to attract only candidates from certain backgrounds.

The roles were advertised in places different from channels previously used, and social media was employed to promote them among diverse online communities. The result has been a growth in diversity, with a better mix of backgrounds and protected characteristics.

Highlighting the business benefits of a reputation for inclusivity, Al noted that UK IPO has had applicants approach the organisation specifically because of its record on LGBTQIA+ support.  

Triona emphasised the importance of working with recruiters who also make diversity and inclusion a priority, to ensure values are shared by all stakeholders in the recruitment process. Incorporating relevant training for recruitment teams on mitigating unconscious bias, and ensuring that all new staff receive diversity and inclusion training as part of the onboarding process, were two further recommendations. 

HR policies backed up by active implementation

The panel underlined the importance of reviewing and revising company policies regularly to ensure they reflect the needs and concerns of employees.

Al explained how UK IPO has revised all its HR policies to adopt non-gender-specific language and to explicitly support diversity, but emphasised to firms that “you will soon get found out if you don’t mean it.” Al continued “the whole culture of an organisations has to be inclusive day-to-day and we need to reassert it.”

Triona echoed this sentiment, noting that policies cannot just be written and left on the shelf. She also recommended that firms need to have confidential platforms and processes for raising grievances around homophobic abuse.

Networks and allyship

All the panellists emphasised the importance of building and enabling access to LGBTQ+ networks that ideally also include allies. Networks enable those not yet ready to come out to make connections in a safe space, and those who wish to be active allies are not excluded.

At Pinsent Masons 10% of employees are part of the LGBTQ+ and allies network, which organises events including an annual global conference where topics such as intersectionality and trans rights.

Chris echoed the essential nature of LGBTQ+ networks noting that they can be “completely transformative” for individuals as they will recognise that there are others in the organisation who may have shared experiences which he says, “gives huge confidence and comfort.” He also raised the challenge for smaller organisations where creating a network isn’t realistic given the small employee base. In this case, he recommended firms and individuals connect with IP Inclusive, which can provide a networking facility for those who work in small firms and solo practice. 

Role models

Diverse role models are hugely powerful in helping the LGBTQIA+ community find its voice and presence in firms. Chris noted that people who are prepared to be out and proud and are succeeding in their careers, while bringing their whole selves to the task, give others real confidence that they can do the same.

“Culture is it”

The panel agreed that workplace culture is critical to determining whether someone will feel confident to share their sexuality and experiences when they are ready, with Chris strongly emphasising: “The task for everyone, straight or not, is to make sure that the culture of the firm is as welcoming, inclusive and warm as possible so people feel able to say something about themselves.”

Additionally, Al advised that we: “Don’t assume anything about anybody […] let people tell you in their own time about experiences. Create an environment where people are comfortable, and they are more likely to talk about all aspects of diversity. Culture is it, really.”

Thank you to Al, Triona, Chris for sharing their experience and insight, and to Mark for leading the discussion and contributing your own experiences.

Throughout the discussion, the support and resources offered by Stonewall were mentioned. You can find out more at

For more great insight into how we can make our workplaces better for everyone, check out the on-demand webinar.