What is happening with the women in the oil and gas industry?
Vivienne Cox steps down after 28 years at BP
BY AVIVAH WITTENBERG-COX
Vivienne Cox is the latest high-profile female executive to leave the industry, stepping down at the end of this month [JUNE 30] as head of BP’s Alternative Energy business and after 28 years with the company. (See also BP’s alternative energy chief to retire, Financial Times) Cox had developed a number of new businesses for BP in Central and Eastern Europe in the mid-1990s, a new branded fuels sales division in 1998, and an integrated supply and trading business in 2001. Her last start-up venture inside BP was Alternative Energy, which she took on in 2006, and which included solar power, wind, and biofuels.
Last month, Shell announced the resignation of Linda Cook, who as executive director of gas and power at Shell Trading, Global Solutions, had built up the company’s new liquefied natural gas (LNG) business. In July 2008, Shell also lost Lynn Elsenhans, then the head of refining at Shell, who left to run Sunoco. Cook was one of the contenders for the CEO job at Shell, who was passed over in favour of Peter Voser. And with Roxanne Decyk, the former director of corporate affairs and sustainable development moving to head Shell’s Washington-based government affairs office, there will be no women on the company’s Executive Committee, assuming no new appointments of women directors are made.
The women who left BP
Before Cox, six senior women had left BP since 2007: Anne Quinn, group vice president for gas and LNG; Linda Adamany, group vice president for commercial directorate and business support, refining and marketing; Ann Hand, senior vice president of global brand marketing and innovation; Mary Shafer-Malicki, CEO of BP Angola, who left as one of the few top women in the Exploration & Production division, considered the most crucial training ground for top leadership positions in the company; and Cynthia (C.J) Warner, group vice president for refining. A chemical engineer by background, Warner has 27 years of experience in the energy sector. In February 2009, she was named president of Sapphire Energy, a company developing “green crude” that it hopes will produce a clean fuel for transportation.
Finally, Patti Bellinger, vice president of diversity and executive education left BP in June 2007. Bellinger had been recruited by John Browne seven years previously to help the company develop a more diverse set of people to the top. She came from the pharmaceutical company, Bristol-Myers Squibb where she worked as the director of culture and diversity.
Go back to 2003, and you find another major female director leaving BP in Anna Catalano, group vice president for marketing from 2000, which made her one of the key players in the development of the company’s Beyond Petroleum ”helios” branding. Catalano’s resignation was followed a year later by Iram Shah, a marketing and innovation vice president.
Why it matters
No company can afford to lose good people, with proven capabilities and long experience. More to the point, companies today need a balance of women and men at the top to produce challenging discussions, informed by a variety of perspectives. A number of studies have shown a clear correlation between gender diversity and higher profitability. BP is certainly not the only company to be dominated by men at the executive and board level. But if companies like BP are to create a better gender balance at the top, they do need to ask some hard questions about why women of this calibre leave. They need to ask if there were some subtle cultural barriers that made it difficult for the women to stay and work their way to the very end of the leadership pipeline.
Women make up just 21% of the oil and gas workers in Britain, according to Annette Williams, director of the U.K. Resource Centre. She says that women outperform men in science subjects at “virtually every level,” yet many women are put off from entering the sector. “For many, the idea of working in the oil and gas industry conjures images of brawny men doing dirty work in isolated locations from their families,” she wrote recently. Losing female role models who worked their way to the top can only add to the feeling that energy is not a profession for women.
The question for BP, and other companies in the sector, is whether it can really live with the message sent out by these women’s departures.
A BP spokesman declined to discuss individual departures. The company’s press office has yet to provide comparisons in the attrition rates of senior women and senior men.
The exits of the women who left BP in the 2005-07 period can be linked to the organizational changes that took place following Lord Browne’s sudden resignation as CEO in 2006 and the establishment of a new strategy by his successor, Tony Hayward.
Change following the appointment of a new CEO
Hayward inherited a grim situation. In 2005, an explosion at the company’s Texas City refinery, an oil spill in Alaska caused by corroded pipes, and extensive hurricane damage to the Thunder Horse oil field in the Gulf of Mexico weakened the company. In 2006, BP reported poor financial results and faced legal action in the U.S. over charges that it had tried to manipulate propane prices. In a public address at Stanford University last month, Hayward said that BP had too many people “trying to save the world” – a reference to the Beyond Petroleum green vision developed in the John Browne era. They had forgotten, Hayward said, that the company’s “primary purpose was to create value for our shareholders.”
In an October 2007 interview with the Financial Times, Hayward said that Cox’s division, Alternative Energy, was “little today, hopefully bigger in the future.” Natural gas, power and renewables, where Cox and many of the other women who left had built their reputations, were diminishing in stature.
In an interview published online in July 2008 by the French business school INSEAD, Cox established herself clearly as one of Hayward’s “save the world” distractions, saying that she was personally committed to finding new and more sustainable models. The way people live now cannot be maintained, she said, adding, “As an oil company we are part of the problem.”
Maybe these exits are a normal process in a time of upheaval or maybe the women simply concluded that they were better off elsewhere. After all, they were at a point in their careers when they needed to move up to the top level to realize their full potential or move out.
But there are very few women in such senior positions in the oil and gas industry to begin with, and therefore the departure of the nine women from BP is significant. Following their exits, there are only two visible women at the top of BP: Anne Drinkwater, President and CEO of BP Canada (and one of Hayward’s former executive assistants); and Sally Bott, group human resources director. Unless Katrina Landis, who inherits Cox’s job at BP Alternative Energy, joins the executive management committee, Bott will be the only woman facing nine men across the table.
About the author
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is the CEO of the leading gender consultancy, 20-first, and publisher of WOMEN-omics.com. She is also co-author of Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of Our Next Economic Revolution (Wiley 2008), which is to be published in paperback in September. More…
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