IWD 2021: Q&A with Connie Dixon, Partnership Director (Wales and West) at Openreach

Victoria Matthews
Initiative Manager | Business West
5th March 2021

As part of International Women’s Day on 8th March, we spoke to Connie Dixon, Partnership Director at Openreach to learn more about her views on women in business and what a more gender-balanced world-view means to her.

Tell us about your role? 

Openreach is the UK’s digital network business and I am the Partnership Director for Wales and the West. We’re responsible for building, maintaining, and running the UK’s largest phone and broadband network and I lead on partnerships, commercial contracts and stakeholder relationships as part of our Strategic Infrastructure Development team.  

We work across three main areas – co-funded broadband projects with national and local government (Building Digital UK); Openreach’s own £12 billion commercial investment in Full Fibre broadband; and Community Fibre Partnerships, where we co-fund with communities, often using Government-funded vouchers, to build new networks in locations that are outside of our commercial or subsidised programmes.

I’m responsible for the commercial delivery of these contracts and engaging with key stakeholders to make sure the programmes are successful on my patch. I also act as a channel between these partners and customers and our operational teams.  

I manage a team of partnership and engagement managers who work with Local Authorities, community leads and national governments to identify communities that would benefit from better broadband, secure funding sources and then design broadband solutions for them.

What do you enjoy most about your job?  

I love the fact that every day is different and I’m always learning something new.  I joined Openreach three years ago on the Accelerated Leadership Programme which encouraged women from outside of the sector to apply. Coming from a career in welfare and criminal justice, my telecoms experience was limited, but my ability to use my initiative, build networks and collaborate with colleagues stood me in good stead. I’ve been on a fast-learning curve – the industry is really dynamic, and the tech is constantly evolving, which means that every day at work is interesting. And I work with strong teams of devoted and passionate people which makes it a great business to be part of. I love that the work we do improves people’s lives – we make a real difference with what we do.

And what are the most challenging aspects? 

I have to push myself out of my comfort zone to learn about new tech and engineering. And while I’ve really enjoyed this, I also have a huge geographic portfolio, so I need to take in a lot of new information very quickly and make quick decisions to turn the information into action.

I’ve had to overcome self-doubt at times too – questioning my decisions and asking myself if I’m doing the best I can with my work, my family and my relationships; success, for me, is being able to balance all of those things.

What 3 things do you think you need to progress as a woman in business?

My family instilled strong values in me – I’m one of six children so teamwork was the most important thing in our family, along with a fierce work ethic – and it’s these principles that guide and drive me today. Our motto was “hard work beats talent” – dyslexia runs through our family, but our attitude was to focus on our strengths and go for it.

The three things I think you need to progress as a woman in business are:

1. To take calculated risks – we all have times of varying degrees of self-doubt, but you need to take risks that are right for you and your circumstances. I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone with each role I’ve had, and I’ve learned what works for me (and what doesn’t) and what I need from a role.

2. To be authentic – if you know who you are and what’s important to you, you can be confident in your own style. It’s only clicked into gear with me in the last couple of years, but I think that starting with a clear set of values is key.  If you know what’s important to you, you know where your boundaries are and that’s important in business.

3. To collaborate – it’s about building up everyone as you succeed. I’m only as successful as the team around me. A diverse team and collaborative approach helps to get the best out of everyone and for my team to get the best out of me. It’s my experience of other women I’ve worked with building me up that makes me truly value how important this is.

What are the biggest challenges the future generation of women in business face?

Gender bias is still a big issue – and women do still face a challenge with being treated equally. Having said that, as someone who works in an overwhelmingly male organisation, when I applied for my job at Openreach I was attracted by the fact that the advertisement was particularly asking for women to apply.  

As a society, we’ve come a long way and so many organisations now proactively encourage and entice women to apply because they understand and value the benefits of a balanced workforce.  

Openreach recently launched an inspirational campaign called “Watch Me” which was designed to showcase our superb female engineers and the benefit they bring to our business to encourage more woman into the business. Our female engineers act as true role models for others and we’ve already seen an increase in the proportion of women applying for Openreach engineering jobs.

We need to make sure that there’s gender equality not only in access to roles, but with training, development and career building opportunities being provided once people are in roles.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your experiences?

I think the biggest challenge of the past twelve months has been to adapt and be agile without face-to-face opportunities. My role is centred around relationships and doing everything on video calls and email has been very different. Having decent broadband has become more important than ever and it’s a reminder to those of us who work in the industry of how important it is for everyone.

And it’s been tough to find balance at work and at home - I’ve been striving to do a good job at work while home-schooling my three daughters, keeping the wheels of our household turning and remembering to look after my well-being – I’m sure most people can relate to this!

What can the next generation bring to business that previous generations may not have?

When I reflect on my own three daughters, who are the future generation, I can already see that they naturally expect gender equality and feel much more comfortable calling out inequality when they see it - overwhelmingly more than I would have done at their age.

The way in which they learn and communicate is so agile and adaptable and I think this sets them in good stead for their future careers. They’ve got great access to information to be able to diversify and learn about sectors and jobs that previous generations may not ever have considered.

What does a more gender-balanced worldview mean for you?

It’s about women making choices for a life they want, not having it dictated to them.  And for me, it’s about being able to make informed lifestyle choices without compromise. I had children relatively early, and I’ve been lucky to work for organisations that have helped progress my career. I’ve never knowingly been overlooked for opportunities because I’ve been either a woman or a mum. In one of my roles, I had a promotion three weeks before taking maternity leave – this is a great example of a gender-balanced workplace.

How can we enable more women to take a place at the board-room table?

There are now many more successful women leading by example and encouraging more women to do the same. It’s also about building others up and creating an environment where people believe in you and therefore you believe in yourself.

Organisations need to create working environments where women want to work and can themselves thrive and develop into those senior exec roles.

How can businesses evolve to be more gender-balanced?

It’s important for businesses to set the intention to become more gender-balanced and then follow up with a proactive strategy. This should be integral to any Diversity and Inclusion policy. Statistically, the gender pay gap is closing but the topic of equal gender pay will still be important until there’s no longer a gap. Women need to fight their corner, know their worth and feel comfortable speaking up. It’s something that I’ve felt uncomfortable raising previously in my career and I think we need to be courageous when approaching this issue.

Openreach recently did some research into the language used in our job ads and discovered that gender-biased language discourages as many as one in two candidates. When the language was changed, there was a 200% uplift in female applicants. It just goes to show that even when you’re running a campaign to recruit more women, you can still be blighted by unconscious bias in the language being used.

What advice would you give to young women and men starting out in business today in context of promoting a more diverse worldview?

Be driven but always show respect, no matter who you’re working with. Treat people the way you want to be treated – you can still be results-driven, challenge, disagree, and discipline but you can do it with kindness and respect.

What women inspire you and why?

I feel very privileged to be surrounded by strong and inspirational women in my personal life – my family, friends, and colleagues and in particular my Mum.

And New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern is a particular favourite of mine; I love that she is focused and ambitious and has a natural and caring style but also that she clearly doesn’t suffer fools!  

I think it’s easy to be inspired by those people who are in the media, but we can forget that everyone has their own battles to fight and can be an inspiration to people around them every day. In my role as a Trustee of Safer Wales, I’m inspired by the work of volunteers and staff who support, protect, and empower groups of people who are often invisible in society. And I’m also inspired by those individuals who overcome battles or demonstrate selflessness on a daily basis.

The women that inspire me are often those who have overcome adversity.

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