Businesswoman of the Year rejects 'superwoman' tag

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The Independent Online

When Vivienne Cox broke into the male-dominated world of the chemical industry, her first boss was one of the very few women in her firm. More than two decades after joining the energy giant BP, the 46-year-old is a female boss herself and firmly believes in the "woman's way" of running a business.

Ms Cox, BP's chief executive for gas, power and renewables, was yesterday announced as the winner of the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year award.

She rose to head one of Britain's largest energy companies while juggling the demands of motherhood, but Ms Cox is loath to accept such grandiose epithets as "superwoman", a term often applied to other working mothers like Nicola Horlick and Cherie Blair.

"The notion of a superwoman makes everyone feel inadequate," she said.

After the birth of the eldest of her two daughters Rebecca, now aged seven, Ms Cox held business meetings with her BP team at her kitchen table while nursing her three-month old daughter.

But she said it was her discipline and her ability to draw boundaries that has led to business success and a balanced home life.

"I'm incredibly disciplined about what I do and what I don't do. The question I keep asking myself is 'what is it that only I can do?'. When I was offered a big step up the ladder when my eldest daughter was only a few months old, I actually said to my boss, 'don't give me the job' and told him I had to be out of the office by 5pm three days a week, I couldn't work weekends, and I couldn't travel more than five nights a month.

"I thought he would say, 'clearly you don't have the commitment,' but instead he said, 'that is precisely why I want you to do the job.' He thought it was a good thing that someone challenged the notion that work had to be done every hour, every day," she said.

Ms Cox was born in Devon and joined BP after graduating from Oxford University in 1981.

She said the fact that her first boss was a woman was an "amazing statistic" in a such a male-dominated industry. "She was amazingly supportive and a great businesswoman," she said.

"Ten years ago, I did not think there was any difference between the sexes in businesses, but I now think women have a different way of working in executive positions. Women really use their intuition more, particularly their intuition around people, and are more willing to delegate. It gives you huge opportunities and perhaps more effectiveness," she said.

In her 20-year career at BP, she has worked on the testosterone-fuelled trading floor with oil traders, run a BP refinery in Rotterdam, set up the firm's business in central and eastern Europe, and headed Air BP, the company's aviation fuel business.

In 1987, she took a year out from BP to complete a MBA at the business institute Insead in Fontainebleau, near Paris.

Now, as vice-president, she is the most senior woman executive at the company, managing 7,500 staff across the world.

Last year, she created BP Alternative Energy, which has seen the company commit to invest more than £8bn over the next 10 years in low-carbon power.

In spite of her achievements - she is part of the 10 per cent minority of women executives among the 400 top-tier business executives in the company - she said she had never encountered a "glass ceiling".

"I have never felt a barrier in any way. In fact, working in an industry like this is a real opportunity for a woman because there are not many of us. I do things the way I do them. I don't try and be like a man and I don't go out and play golf!" she said.

Mrs Cox said that her mother, a trained accountant and full-time housewife, was a great inspiration to her, but that she would never put pressure on her daughters, Rebecca, and Hannah, aged two, to take a certain career path.

"I would certainly want my daughters to be confident and clear about who they are. The only advice I will ever give them is, 'follow your heart'.

"If you do that, you have the greatest chance of being successful and being happy," she said.

"Talking to younger women today, I have found that they are confident to make different choices, be that working three days a week or running a business from home, or taking three years out before returning to the office.

"There are many ways to be successful and they don't all have to be linear."