'Trade teams have traditionally been male dominated': meet the women representing the UK at DIT

From leading on historic trade negotiations, to navigating complex legal issues, these women represent the UK when facing counterparts from around the world
L-R: Charlotte Heyes, Maggie Ng, Tara Odeinde, Vivien Life

By Civil Service World

09 Mar 2022

To mark International Women’s Day, five women behind the work at the Department for International Trade share their stories:

  • Vivien Life, director policy coherence, Australia and New Zealand
  • Charlotte Heyes, deputy director and chief negotiator
  • Maggie Ng, senior lawyer, Department for International Trade legal advisers, Government Legal Department
  • Tara Odeinde, head of Latin America and the Caribbean in the International Strategy and Engagement Directorate
  • Baljit Khinder, senior economic adviser in the Trade Agreements Analysis Team

What has your career path been and why did you join DIT?

TO: I studied Spanish and Portuguese at university, which included a year abroad. After university I travelled around Latin America where a bicycle ride around the vineyards of Mendoza convinced me to pursue an interest in wine, an industry in which I worked for a couple of years before joining DIT. At the time, DIT was rapidly expanding and I was keen to get involved in building an international career and making the most of my language skills. Although there’s significantly less wine involved, I've worked on supporting British businesses to export to Africa in the infrastructure sector, as well as the fast-paced world of intellectual property FTA negotiations. I now get to work on cross-cutting trade and investment issues for LATAC, a region I'm particularly enthusiastic about!

VL: I spent most of my career in the Foreign Office, first working on trade policy as an EU member state in 1988, and then in Washington in the 1990s – where I really got hooked on the mix of the economic and the political, domestic and international trade policy represents. I worked in the Foreign Office in London, including on EU and energy and climate and then was ambassador to Denmark. I was just looking for my next role when DIT was being set up in 2016. I jumped at the chance to pick up trade policy again and had more experience to bring than many.

"In the past, trade teams around the world have traditionally been male dominated and, in some countries, this is still the case. Being a woman in trade means I feel strongly that I should be encouraging, showcasing and supporting as many other women in and into the profession as possible"

MN: I qualified as a solicitor in the private sector before becoming a government lawyer. With a view of pursuing a career in international law, I completed my LLM (public international law) around the time that coincided with the Government Legal Department’s first recruitment campaign for trade lawyers to support mainly the then newly-created DIT and also HMG’s wider trade agenda. From a technical, legal perspective, it was pretty clear that the UK’s exit from the EU would give rise to numerous novel, challenging and unprecedented legal issues in the trade sphere (and more broadly). Since joining DIT Legal Advisers, I’ve had varied and rewarding roles working on, for example, the setting up of the UK’s first independent WTO trade remedy system, the UK’s trade preference scheme for developing countries and trade negotiations.

BK: I joined the Government Economic Service via the Fast Stream around nine years ago. I started off in the Ministry of Justice, and moved onto the Home Office, where I focused on migration analysis. I joined DIT to be part of the action in setting up and delivering economic analysis to the trade negotiations.

CH: I have been a civil servant for over 20 years, and in that time I’ve worked in a range of government departments. In the last 10-15 years I’ve mainly worked in economic policy roles. Directly before joining DIT, I worked in BEIS on innovation policy, helping to devise policies which supported business innovation and economic growth across the UK. Working in a range of roles which were business facing and involved developing policies to support economic growth across the UK meant that I brought with me useful knowledge and experience about what matters to business and the importance of considering how our work impacts all the nations and regions of the UK.

What does being a woman in trade mean to you?

CH: In the past, trade teams around the world have traditionally been male dominated and, in some countries, this is still the case. I worked with a range of countries in the lead up to the end of 2020, negotiating trade continuity agreements, and all but one of my international counterparts (at chief negotiator level) were men. So being a woman in trade means I feel strongly that I should be encouraging, showcasing and supporting as many other women in and into the trade profession as possible. We also know from a wealth of research that organisations and businesses are much more successful when they are led and made up of a diverse range of people. Diversity leads to more creativity and better outcomes. That’s why it’s important to me that we build a diverse trade profession.

VL: I am delighted so many women have chosen to be part of the trade profession we are now growing. It’s important to me as head of the International Trade Profession for DIT that we grow a diverse profession. We need all the creativity that comes from diversity of thought and when we face our opposite numbers from around the world, that we are truly representative of the UK.

"For me, being a woman in trade means supporting other women. Being transparent about processes, sharing tips, tricks and knowledge, and building others up"

MN: It’s great to have visibility of women in trade roles as the trade world has been traditionally male dominated. Case in point: on a trip to the WTO in Geneva to discuss the UK’s trade policies, we had a small delegation of four women and one man. It wasn’t by design, but the gender ratio was picked up and commented on in a very positive way by female delegates from other countries interested in promoting women in trade.

BK: Being a woman in trade analysis means role modelling diversity in an area of expertise.

TO: For me, it means supporting other women alongside you and bringing them on your journey as you progress yourself. Being transparent about processes, sharing tips, tricks and knowledge, and building others up.

What have you learnt about negotiating since working at DIT?

CH: A key lesson for me has been to ensure I’m really listening to my counterparts and paying attention to what’s being said or communicated. It sounds like a very simple thing, but the better you understand the motivations and challenges of the other side, the easier it will be to see a route through to agreement.

"Resilience and patience are core skills that make you a more effective negotiator. Also, using silence when in the negotiation 'room' can be a useful tactic!"

TO:I did some brilliant negotiation simulation training whilst working in trade negotiations, but nothing prepares you for the curveball questions from your opposite numbers, the 6am or 6pm starting times and the adrenaline rush of defending the UK's positions. The thing I've learnt most is that resilience and patience are core skills that make you a more effective negotiator. Also, using silence when in the negotiation “room” can be a useful tactic!

MN: The importance of preparation and being a team player – working closely with the negotiating teams, figuring out the bigger picture, and drawing on one’s own and others’ experience to work through how discussions might pan out during a negotiating session; how we can anticipate and cover all bases to mitigate the impact of surprises in the room.

BK: The success of negotiations isn’t just about what happens in the live forums. It’s all about the preparation beforehand.

VL: Negotiations with the other country are the tip of the iceberg. The journey to developing a UK independent trade policy has been one for the whole of government and for our stakeholders. Your opposite number will have a similar context to manage. Understanding all that is key. And armed with that, being ready to hold out for your red lines, especially where you assess the other side could move. I have had to learn to constrain my desire to come up with constructive compromises. But be ready with those at the right time.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a future career in trade?

MN: Try and find out more and go for it – there is a huge variety of trade roles within DIT and across the civil service, for lawyers, policy advisers, analysts and many others. Excellent learning and development opportunities are on offer, too.

"Be prepared that the most challenging conversations might actually be with your Whitehall counterparts as these trade negotiations are truly a cross-government effort"

TO: It is an incredibly privileged position to lead negotiations on behalf of the UK. I would say to be prepared that the most challenging conversations might actually be with your Whitehall counterparts as these trade negotiations are truly a cross-government effort. Also, be nice to your lawyers! The Government Legal Department are the unsung heroes of FTA negotiations.

CH: Come and join us! There are a wide range of roles and it’s not just about negotiations. Trade roles exist across government in a wide range of departments.

BK: Be confident in your ability – your ability to learn, upskill, adapt to challenges and lead!

VL: It’s fascinating and requires all sorts of skills. While I have talked here about trade policy, delivering for businesses means bringing all that together with our trade and investment promotion work. Whatever interests you, whether it’s the nitty gritty direct business facing roles, or big picture thinking how trade fits into our wider international strategy there’s a great career to be had.

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