It would be fair to say that defence is a male-dominated sector. With women notoriously under-represented in science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) fields, proportionally few enter the industry in the first place, and even fewer make it to the higher echelons. Ask your average layperson to picture a senior defence executive, and chances are they’ll think of a man.

Of course, this is not necessarily an area in which the average layperson knows best. In recent years, there have been signs of change, with a spate of high-profile appointments signalling a real shift towards gender parity.

As late as 2009, there were no female chiefs in the entirety of the US defence sector. Today, there are three: Linda Hudson (president and CEO of BAE Systems), Phebe Novakovic (chairman and CEO of General Dynamics) and Marillyn Hewson (president and CEO of Lockheed Martin). Beneath them sits a growing contingent of women in senior posts. At Northrop Grumman, for instance, the corporate policy council is almost evenly split, with six women and seven men.

The change has been sufficiently pronounced – and sufficiently rapid -to command industry analysts’ attention. One commentator spoke of a "revolutionary demographic shift that may soon make women the dominant gender among senior executives". A Forbes article of July 2012 was more exultant still: "The defense industry’s image as a bastion of white male executives is melting away fast as a rising generation of high-performing females reaches for the gold ring".

Unfortunately, it may be too soon to herald defence as a model of equal-opportunity-employment. While it’s certainly true that women are acquiring the top jobs as never before, longstanding hurdles are not so easily taken down and challenges remain at every level.

It’s a topic Karen Conti knows all too well. As president of the US-centred non-profit professional organisation Women in Defense, she is personally committed to supporting the advancement of women in national security. The organisation was established in 1979 to provide women with a formal environment for professional growth and, as their status has risen in the sector, its membership has taken off. In 2013, there are 20 chapters across the nation, representing more than 4,400 individuals.

"When I began, there were very few women in the field," recalls Conti. "When I attended technical meetings there might be one or two, and almost none in leadership positions. Over the years, more women have entered the STEM field and companies are doing a better job of mentoring them and preparing them to assume leadership positions. It has been great to see this change over the years and to have so many women in executive positions across the defence industry."

Rising through the ranks

Conti has worked in the sector for over 30 years but, raised at a time when women in defence were an anomaly, she didn’t grow up with any particular ambitions in the field. In fact, her choice of profession was as accidental as it was unorthodox.

"My hopes for women working in the defence sector are for employer support to continue and accelerate."

"I entered the defence industry by taking a temp job at General Dynamics, Electric Boat Division, right after graduating from college," she says. "At that time, I didn’t really have an idea that I would make defence a career; it was more about getting a decent job close to home. I was working on the development of the Ohio class submarine combat system Newport, RI. Immediately after joining Electric Boat, I became incredibly involved in all aspects of this work and decided I had found a career."
Since then, the career in question has shown impressive breadth of scope. She has worked for three large integrators, various small businesses and, for 12 years, the US Navy. Her special skills include programme management, production and marketing; her job titles have ranged from acquisitions manager to chief operating officer. Today, she is director of business development at Raytheon.

Conti’s trajectory has been all the more remarkable because of the barriers she encountered along the way. When she started out, the defence sector was not best equipped for women who wanted to balance work with family life.

"As someone who worked full time, went to grad school nights and raised two children, I can tell you, you have to have a support system both at work and home," she says. "Many women come in well prepared and do all the right things from a career perspective, but get overwhelmed with work-life balance when they start raising families."

This issue has been well documented, and is hardly specific to defence. Conti cites a line from ‘Lean In’, by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg: ‘In the past 30 years, women have made more progress in the workforce than in the home. When a husband and wife both are employed full-time, the mother does 40% more childcare and about 30% more housework than the father.’

Sandberg’s bestseller crystallises much of the current popular thinking in the field. Having sold over a million copies since its release in March 2013, the book is essentially a rallying cry to professional women. Its impact has been such that its title has entered the vernacular: ‘lean in’ implies a willingness to rise to challenges, assert oneself in the workplace, and tackle impediments to success.

In many ways, of course, the onus is on the industry to create meaningful structural change. Conti contends that employers are starting to improve in this regard.

"I think the traditional challenges are still issues, but companies are getting better at providing support," she says. "From simple things like establishing rooms for nursing mothers, to more extensive programmes such as establishing women’s affinity groups, and creating a flexible work environment, they are helping women tackle the work part of the equation."

She feels that defence companies can stand only to benefit from encouraging women into managerial positions. As sequestration, congressional shutdowns and budget cuts continue to bite, the US defence industry is facing a trying time. We only need look at Lockheed Martin, which, under the charge of CEO Marillyn Hewson, was forced to furlough 2,400 employees. Situations of this kind require a diversity of management styles.

"Women are extremely collaborative and hardworking, and are willing to compromise to get the job done," opines Conti. "We saw that during the shutdown a group of women senators created bi-partisan support to re-open the government. With little fanfare, they planted the seeds for a compromise. We need them to accelerate their effort to turn around the government malaise and do what is right for our warfighters."

In short, the industry needs all the intellectual capital it can harness, and will do itself no favours by alienating half its potential workforce. With its new wave of female executives, it has surely taken a step in the right direction.

Recruitment and retention

This is not just about smashing the glass ceiling, however. Not all women in defence are interested in becoming decision-makers and, through extolling the women ‘at the top’, we risk ignoring the vast majority. Outside of the boardroom, the primary issues are those that beleaguer any male-dominated field: how do you attract women into the industry, and how do you retain them once they’re there?

The ‘attraction’ piece of the puzzle is perhaps the hardest. With women still excluded from various front-line roles in armed forces around the world, defence is not renowned for its female-friendly credentials and the industry as a whole might be said to have an image problem. Work needs to be done to overturn negative stereotypes, improving its appeal for young women on the cusp of a career.

Various large contractors have therefore invested in STEM programmes designed to steer young women into scientific disciplines. Northrop Grumman, for instance, spends millions of dollars a year on precisely this cause, resulting in a relatively high proportion of female hires. It surely doesn’t hurt that the corporation has so many women on its board.

This latter point is crucial. For the likes of Marillyn Hewson, Linda Hudson and Phebe Novakovic, their climb up the ranks had no precedent; it was a case of boldly going where no woman had gone before. For their young counterparts, we can only assume their path ahead will be smoother. Now that women have attained such visibility in the sector, there is a template for others to emulate and a roadmap firmly in place.

Conti is guardedly optimistic about what lies ahead. "I am personally committed to growing our membership through support of our chapters and increasing our focus on military women," she says. "My hopes for women working in the defence sector are for employer support to continue and accelerate. If women decide to "lean in" we should create an environment for them to thrive."