Photographer: Andrew Harrer

Women leaders drive change in the defense industry

March 8, 2016 Robert Levinson

While many Americans focus on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s attempt to shatter the world’s highest glass ceiling by becoming the first woman U.S. president, other women have already broken into what have long been seen as the ultimate boys’ clubs: the military and defense industries.

The nation’s three top weapons makers are now headed by women, after Boeing Co.’s announcement that as of March 1, Leanne Caret would be CEO of the aerospace giant’s Defense, Space, & Security business.

Caret joins Marillyn Hewson, who became CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s largest weapons maker, on Jan. 1, 2013, and Phebe Novakovic, who assumed leadership at No. 2 weapons maker General Dynamics Corp. on the same day. The three women-led companies sold $60.3 billion to the Defense Department (DOD) in fiscal 2015, including F-35 jets; Virginia-class submarines; rockets to launch satellites into space; and tens of billions of dollars in information technology (IT) and support services.

Collectively, Lockheed, General Dynamics and Boeing received about one-fifth of the DOD’s $280.3 billion contracting obligations in fiscal 2015.

According to Katherine Kidder, the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) and one of the authors of “Battlefields and Boardrooms: Women’s Leadership in the Military and the Private Sector,” we shouldn’t be surprised.

In a telephone interview with Bloomberg Government on March 2, Kidder said her research shows women are underrepresented at the senior levels in Fortune 500 companies, but are in the top ranks in the defense industry. Typically, it takes 30 to 35 years to become a CEO, she said, and today’s women leaders are products of their large entry into the workforce that began in the 1970s.

Hence, the well of qualified women executives is deep. Todd Blecher, the spokesman for Boeing Defense, Space and Security e-mailed Bloomberg Government that Caret was head of defense services and support before ascending to her current job, and that Shelly Lavender is now president of Boeing military aircraft programs.

Additionally a half dozen other women head major divisions of the company. Hewson and Caret have decades of service in their companies and Novakovic spent a career in government with the CIA, the Pentagon and the White House before going to General Dynamics in 2001.

Another woman who ascended to the top of the defense industry ranks, Linda Hudson, former CEO of BAE Systems Inc., spent years at BAE and previously at General Dynamics.

Women are also doing well at smaller defense contractors.

According to a the Small Business Administration news release, “In FY15, 5.05 percent or $17.8 billion of all federal small business eligible contracting dollars were awarded to WOSBs, the first time this specific benchmark has ever been reached.” An WOSB is a Woman-Owned Small Business.

While much progress has been made there is still some distance to go. A Commerce Department report commissioned by the SBA found “that the odds of winning a contract for Woman-Owned Businesses (WOBs) are estimated to be roughly 21 percent lower relative to the odds of winning contracts by otherwise similar firms that were not identified as WOBs.”

Where the Stars Fall

And it’s not just the private sector: The face of the U.S. military is changing too.

Admiral Michelle Howard became the 38th vice chief of Naval Operations, the sea service’s No. 2 and a four-star rank, on July 1, 2014. Like her industry counterparts, Howard has decades of service. She graduated the Naval Academy in 1982 and in March 1999 become the first black woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Rushmore.

In a telephone interview with Howard on March 4, she told Bloomberg Government that similar to the defense industry, the women in leadership positions today are products of decisions made 25 years ago, when the number of women in the military was rather small.

Several barriers to women fell while she moved up the ranks. The ban on women on Navy ships was lifted while she was a midshipman at the Naval Academy, and she was able to transfer from support ships to combat ships when that ban was lifted in the 1990s.

Howard said that number of women in senior leadership positions in the Army and Marine Corps will lag behind the Air Force and Navy, due to the former ban on women in direct ground combat positions, which is the most common avenue for senior leadership in those services.

That ban has just been lifted, but it will take years to prime women with direct ground combat leadership experience, such as infantry battalion command, to take on more senior leadership roles.

The admiral said she is surprised that many in the public don’t realize how many opportunities there are for women in the military and she’s excited that young women coming up behind her won’t have limits on potential advancement.

Air Force General Lori Robinson, commander of Pacific Air Forces, has also achieved four-star rank. Robinson is rumored to be the next commander of U.S. Northern Command, which is in charge of the military component of homeland defense. Her selection would make her the first woman to lead one of the nation’s nine combatant commands. Combatant commanders, who control forces in their geographic or functional area of responsibility, can be officers from any service. They report directly to the secretary of Defense and the president rather than any service chief of staff.

With legal barriers to in combat forces now eliminated, more women with many stars on their shoulders are likely in the near future.

Many contentious issues affecting women in the civilian workplace — such the availability of quality, low-cost child care, family and medical leave and pay equity — have largely been resolved in the military by law and policy.

Yet sexual assault and sexual harassment remain a significant challenge for the nation’s armed forces.

In fiscal 2014, the high level of assault reporting seen during fiscal 2013 was sustained, according to DOD’s annual report.

Continued aggressive efforts by leaders are needed to address these issues. Going forward, many of those leaders could be women.

Once the military decides — or is forced by Congress and the president — to take on these types of issues, it can often do so swiftly and effectively. As with racial integration, and that of gay and lesbian service members after the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, the military can adapt relatively quickly to societal changes and maintain their focus on their primary mission — defending the nation.

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