Vivienne Cox is 45, she has two small children and she also has one of the biggest jobs in British business.

Earlier this year, she was appointed to the top table at BP, the UK energy company, after Lord Browne, the company's chief executive, put her in charge of its gas, power and renewable energy division.

Ms Cox's senior role is a first for a woman in the oil industry and rare for business in general. As such, she has become a role model for women operating in male-dominated environments. Last year, Fortune, the US business magazine, ranked her 19 in its list of the world's most powerful women. Today, Harpers and Queen, the fashion magazine, has named her their businesswoman of the year.

Like many top women, however, she eschews publicity, making an appearance at last week's Harpers and Queen party but otherwise avoiding the limelight. She is part of a generation of high-achieving women who just want to get on withthe job.

But inside BP, Ms Cox is a powerful advocate of women's networks. “Formal and informal networks are important to achieving [diversity and inclusion],” she says, “and a host of initiatives allow women across BP to develop their potential and to be supported in their career choices.”

BP and the other great corporations were originally designed, built up and run by men. Of course, things have changed. But only a little. Even today, only 8 per cent of directorships at FTSE 100 companies are held by women, and only 15 per cent of these jobs (17 out of 114) are full-time.

Last week, Tesco, the UK's largest supermarket chain, appointed Karen Cook, managing director of Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, as a new non-executive director. Ms Cook will be only the third woman - out of 16 directors - on the board of a company whose primary customers are female. The position of women in business is a little better in the US - but not much. In a survey released in 2001, women were found to occupy 12.4 per cent of board seats in the Fortune 500, up from 11.2 per cent in 1999.

Men's informal networks have stood them in good stead over the years. But, as Helen McCarthy, a researcher at Demos, a UK think-tank, confirmed in her recent pamphlet Girlfriends in High Places, professional women's networks are now springing up - inside and outside corporations.

These provide support and encouragement to women who find themselves either overlooked for promotion or lacking the confidence to push themselves forward in the way that their brasher - but no better qualified - male colleagues do. Type “brash”, “male” and “business” into a search engine and you might expect to come up with the name of Jack Welch. For 20 years, he led General Electric, the US giant, with characteristic energy. And from the outside, you might consider the culture of GE to be one of the most macho and least women-friendly you could imagine.

Think of GE's so-called “work-out sessions”: robust, sometimes confrontational exchanges between colleagues on what needs to change, now. Think too of the notorious “forced ranking” system of performance management, whereby the lowest performing 10 per cent of staff should be, according to the Welch doctrine, managed out of the business every year.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that, four years before his retirement, Mr Welch started grappling with the question of women's professional career development at GE. Why was the company not attracting and retaining enough female talent? How could it bring in more women recruits and enable them to fulfil their potential?

The General Electric Women's Network was launched in 1998. At that time, only 6 per cent of all middle management positions were held by women. Today, the figure is more than 12 per cent. Also, whereas 10 per cent of senior executives were female six years ago, the figure has risen to 14 per cent today.

This is modest progress perhaps - but the trend is moving in the right direction. It is also true that at GE, one of the most unsentimental of companies, the idea of a women's network did take some time to get off the ground.

“My first reaction was that I wasn't sure I needed to get involved in a network,” says Mary McNamara, president and chief executive of GE Fleet's European business - part of the company's $10bn global fleet management business - and now one of the champions of GEWN in Europe.

This was a typical attitude at the outset, as Cora Stahrenberg, executive vice-president in human resources at GE insurance solutions in Munich, confirms.

“It was the more senior women who were critical of the network at first,” says Ms Stahrenberg. “Their feeling was, ‘I have got where I am on my own, so why should anybody else need help?'”

In time, senior colleagues started to see the benefits of the network and began to play a much more active part in it.

“The attitude of many women had been: ‘If I get my head down and do a good job, then I'm bound to get recognised eventually',” Ms McNamara says. “Men tend to be different. They say, ‘look at what I've done'.

“The network gives women the confidence to put themselves forward. It's not about being boastful. You only want to talk about your work if you've done something impressive,” she adds.

Much of GEWN's work focuses on three crucial aspects of professional development, contained in the GE tag “Pie”. This stands for performance, image and exposure.

“Performance is the key to opening every door at GE,” says Carole Plant, European operations director for Genworth Financial, GE's mortgage insurance business, which was spun off in May.

“But image and exposure are often underestimated by women,” she adds. “Are you creating enough opportunities for people to appreciate what you have to offer? That's what exposure is about and this is where our networking and mentoring can make a difference. The mentor can help you understand how you come across. Are you presenting a ‘can-do' image of yourself? Do you give the impression that you could do a great job?”

Senior managers have realised that tapping into GEWN gives them access to some of the firm's richest talent pools. “Jack Welch came to the first two annual conferences of the network,” says Ms Plant, “and Jeff Immelt [Mr Welch's successor as chief executive] has been too. Another senior manager came to one of our hub [regional] sessions, introduced himself to the group and said: ‘If I don't leave here with a pile of business cards, I've failed.'”

GEWN is concerned not to get labelled as a “flexible working” or “work/life balance” network. Rather, it is aimed at tapping into the fast-moving network of the acquisitive GE machine, which offers career opportunities to those confident enough to go for them.

“Flexible working is a more local issue,” says Ms Stahrenberg. “The network is about professional development.”

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