Openreach has long been applauded as an inclusive employer, with a commitment to developing people to the full, regardless of gender, age or background. Suzanne Rutherford joined the company in 1985 and is now the Chief Engineer for Openreach in Wales – heading-up an expert team of specialists who are called upon to deal with the most difficult escalations, working 24/7, 365 days a year in all weathers to solve the widest array of engineering challenges.
To celebrate International Women’s Day and Suzanne’s own remarkable professional journey, we spoke with her about a working life that began as a cadet with Merseyside Police before switching to a career path that’s seen Suzanne progress to become one of the UK’s most senior field engineers, as well as a renowned diversity champion and a highly valued voice on the Openreach Cymru Wales Board.
“When I was younger I only ever wanted to join the Police – and being a passionate horse-rider, I cherished the ambition to join the mounted unit. But this was the early 1980’s in a very different Britain. At that time, female police officers were not allowed to join mounted units, or even the CID. It’s very different now of course; and I have many female friends in the police who have gone on to have tremendous careers pursuing the path they wanted. But it was different back then – so I decided to look for a new direction and was accepted to join the MOD, the Ministry of Justice and BT. I chose BT and have never looked back.
“I became the company’s first ever female field engineer manager”
“The company has evolved – with Openreach now legally separate from BT – and we’ve matured and progressed in all that we do. On my first day I had to ask the cleaner for the keys to open the female toilets as they were being used for storage. It was like most other places at the time – with a male engineering workforce – but it was always a friendly and inclusive environment; and we have built on that ‘people culture’ to make huge strides since those days. My patch at that time was Liverpool and I’d just started my family. Working and getting up with little kids in the middle of the night was tough but I made it work – you adapt. I went on to recruit more women and Liverpool is now one of the most diverse engineering workplaces in the Openreach network; and I’m really proud of that.
“It’s my job to remove barriers and obstacles, to enable everyone to fulfil their potential.”
“The woman who encouraged me into the engineering profession told me that I’d have to work twice as hard as the men to prove myself. I felt I had to really know my stuff or I’d be ignored. That’s not been an issue for at least fifteen years – but I always tell the women who I sponsor and mentor that everything comes from within. Don’t look at anything from the top down. Look within yourself. If you have the belief, our training and support will do the rest. I genuinely believe that. I’m an example of that. And I look to share that every day. It’s my job to remove any barriers or obstacles and let the potential of people to come through.
“It’s also a company that can and will teach you anything and everything you need to learn. I had to learn engineering from scratch, but the company has been so supportive of me, including allowing me to complete a Masters Degree in my first five years. It’s taken me many years to get to the Chief Engineer’s Office – and this really is the pinnacle of engineering, bringing together all the technical, team and customer skills that I’ve developed across all parts of Openreach. That means I have a perspective and a platform to encourage women to make the most of themselves here in this company – because they really can do that and we want that to happen.
“The work of our engineers has made headlines around the world”
“The technical challenges of the job still give me incredible satisfaction. It’s my team’s responsibility to find an engineering solution that brings world-class connectivity to the most difficult terrain. We’re building a fibre infrastructure in both rural and ultra-rural areas – and no matter how tough we find it, we don’t walk away.
“One of our most challenging projects made headlines around the world – when we solved an 18-month mystery at Aberhosan near Machynlleth. For months the village suffered poor broadband connectivity every morning at 7am. Openreach engineers tested continually and replaced large sections of cable, but the problems persisted. They called in our team, but because of Covid restrictions we had to camp in a field 55 miles away from Aberhosan and travel there to identify and resolve the problem. It proved a hard one to solve and we’d exhausted nearly all possibilities when we decided to use a special Spectrum Analyser, walking up and down the village at 6am in the pouring rain to see if we could find an ‘electrical noise’. At 7am, our device picked up a large burst of electrical interference, which we traced to an old TV being switched on in a property, which in turn knocked out the broadband for the entire village. Problem solved, but the story had only just begun – it went viral and I was getting messages of congratulations from all over the world, from the US and Australia to Iran and Afghanistan.
“We want to engage with more females who share our engineering ambition”
“It shows why the team here at the Chief Engineer’s Office has been described as Openreach’s ‘SAS’- the women and men they send in for the special jobs. And it’s also a great example of how we work from an engineering perspective, starting with the community and ending with the connectivity. We take the same approach to the way we recruit and develop our people – most recently working with Exeter University to understand the language and tone of voice we need to adopt in our recruitment campaigns – Watch me (openreach.com) – and employee communications, to make sure that they’re gender neutral and encourage everyone to apply and to succeed. We’re a company that never stands still and are always looking to improve.
Our Openreach Cymru Wales Board is a great example of our success in diversity. The Board has a female to male balance of 45% to 55% and is run by a fantastic senior woman leader – Kim Mears. But complacency is the last word you would associate with us. We know there’s more to do and that’s why we’re committed to building an engineering team that’s at least 20% female – and why we want to engage with more women who share our ambition of becoming the best you can be.
Green shoots indeed, but there’s much more to do within our engineering field force.”