Vivienne Cox to leave BP: does the oil industry make careers too difficult for women?

With Vivienne Cox’s departure from BP, Europe’s two biggest oil companies have both lost their most senior women executives in the space of a month, following Linda Cook’s resignation from Shell.

Ms Cox is being replaced by another woman: Katrina Landis, her deputy at BP’s alternative energy business. But even so, the news that Ms Cox is going, aged just 49, has reignited the debate about whether the oil industry makes it more difficult for women than men to have successful careers.

While the downturn may have eased skills shortages recently, over the longer term the oil industry is going to need all the talent it can find, and putting barriers to women’s employment is clearly going to be counter-productive. But making the industry more workable for women would require some radical changes.

The oil industry still has an overwhelmingly male workforce. Norway, where the offshore workforce is about 30 per cent women, is the one real exception. But gradually more women have been joining the industry, and rising to prominent positions. The latest departures raise the question of whether that progress is being reversed.

The argument that the oil industry is failing to attract, develop and retain talented women is made by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, who runs the website www.women-omics.com and the gender consultancy 20-first, and wrote the book Women Mean Business. She asks: what is happening to women in the oil and gas industry?

Women are the majority of talent. Companies simply cannot afford to lose female talent. Not only does this female brain drain at BP and Shell have an impact on their leadership capabilities today, but it threatens to deter women from entering the oil and gas sector in the future.

She points out that several other senior women have left BP, and Shell has lost the highly-regarded Lynn Laverty Elsenhans, who some at the company said should have been given the top job in the downstream business. (Admittedly, Ms Elsenhans went to a good job as chief executive of Sunoco.)

Shell’s eight-strong senior management team has lost both its female members, with Roxanne Decyk, director for corporate affairs and sustainable development, stepping down from the executive committee to head the Washington-based government affairs department.

Ms Wittenberg-Cox suggests that the pressures in the oil industry caused by the plunging oil price and the squeeze on profits may be partly to blame.

We find that while some companies respond to crisis by ‘innovating forwards’ and push women into new roles, others ‘hunker down backwards’ and focus on the core businesses and teams that made them successful… yesterday. This is not favourable to women or to innovation for the 21st century.

There may be an element of that at BP; Ms Cox’s decision to go comes at a time when BP is cutting its rate of investment in alternative energy very sharply.

More than that, however, Ms Cox’s decision may have been influenced by the demands of her family. An interview in the Daily Telegraph in 2006 gave an insight into her life with her daughters, then aged seven and two.

Like many working women, she finds it hard to make enough time available for her family.

“This notion of work-life balance I find puzzling. To me it is all about my life, what am I going to do with my life. But I don’t always get it right and my seven-year-old in particular will say to me ‘hey, I haven’t seen you’.

“When I was made a group vice-president my elder daughter was three months old. I told one of my bosses: ‘I can’t do this job. I can’t work the hours that other people work’.

“He said: ‘What will it take’. I said: ‘At least three evenings a week when I leave the office at five o’clock, I’m not going to work at weekends and I won’t travel away from home for more than five nights a month’. But he said: ‘This is why we need you.’

“And that is the deal. I don’t quite manage it, but every three months I sit down with my secretary and say ‘how close did we get’.”

If Cox gets the balance wrong then she is miserable. “If that gets out of balance and I don’t have enough time to spend with my kids then I just get so completely ineffective.”

Those demands are commonplace for male excutives as well, of course. But it does seem to be easier for men to ignore competing pressures.

BP had clearly made an effort to make it easier for Ms Cox to balance her life. Interviewed in the company’s in-house magazine, Ms Landis praised BP’s flexibility:

Having promised never to be separated from her family for long periods, Landis is now based in London for the foreseeable future, allowing her four teenage children to stay at the same school. “BP has always helped with managing the work and home environments. I’ve learned that it’s not necessarily how many hours you work, but whether you are having an impact—what you are spending your time on, rather than how much.”

Her CV, however, points to another problem. For BP she has worked in Alaska, London, Singapore, Chicago and then London again. For women, who are more likely than men to have working spouses, such global mobility presents a particular problem. Relocation like that militates against the two-career household.

Changing that – in what is inescapably a global business – will be very difficult indeed.

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