How Women Are Reshaping the Defense Industry

6 minute read

Women currently hold a little over four percent of the Fortune 500 CEO positions. However, in the defense industry, women are at the helm of 50 percent of the largest firms. Although women are hardly new to the industry, they are moving rapidly into the top jobs, and in the process melting away the defense industry’s male-dominated image.

As the vice chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, a subcommittee I have served on for eight years, and the chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee, which I have been at the helm of for the last six years, I have witnessed the transition, and seen the challenges, firsthand as more women serve as leaders within the defense community.

The defense industry is facing unprecedented challenges. Yet, with the help of a new group of women leaders, solutions to the defense industry’s challenges are being advanced, and in the process the future of our national security is being shaped and secured.

For years, Della Williams, a constituent of mine, was one of just a handful of women defense industry executives. She started the company Williams R.D.M., formerly known as Williams Pyro, in 1963. Williams R.D.M is a defense contracting firm with more than 100 employees. While she has overseen tremendous growth of her company, establishing a positive name for her business did not prove to be an obstacle-free endeavor for Williams. She founded her company at a time when women’s roles in the workforce were only beginning to change, and she dealt with her share of gender-related challenges early on.

Back then, and even today, women in the workforce often feel they are not listened to. Instead of letting this serve as an obstacle, women have turned it into a strength by becoming better listeners themselves and in the process stronger leaders. This trait becomes very important when you have management-union issues, for instance. It also leads to more win-win decisions and less ego driven results.

Fifty years ago, most engineers were men, and when they picked up the phone to call Williams Pyro, they expected to speak with a male counterpart on the other end. When they heard Della Williams’ voice on the line, many of them were skeptical of whether she could help them. To the skeptics, Williams would say, “Try me.” If she couldn’t help them, they were no worse off than before they called — but that was rarely the case.

Like most executives, earning a good reputation and rapport with customers and other industry leaders didn’t come without Williams spending a lot of time at work. Unfortunately for her, as a woman, the idea of balancing work and family would inevitably come up. She felt a duty to her employees, their families and her customers, so there were many nights when Williams remained at work instead of going home. She was so devoted to the success of Williams Pyro that she even returned to work four days after having her third child during the full-scale development of Lockheed Martin’s F-16.

Similarly to Williams, Marillyn Hewson, who now serves as the chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, has shown herself to be an exceptional leader in the industry. Her employment at Lockheed began in the early 1980s, and she has since served in 18 different leadership positions. She claims she climbed the ladder at Lockheed because of her self-reliance, which she learned from her family growing up. Her father died when she was nine, and her mother was left to raise five children as a single mother. This tragedy taught her not only self-reliance, but to be responsible for her own personal successes or failures.

In November 2012, Hewson became Lockheed’s CEO because the corporate leadership and the board of directors recognized her talent, and because she was known for never holding back when given an opportunity.

When she took over the top job, the Joint Strike Fighter program was uncertain, and even the smallest mistakes made were amplified by the media. The Joint Strike Fighter is unique in the world, but has had continuing problems with the Pentagon. There was a real lack of partnering that changed almost immediately when Marilyn took over. The conversation changed as did the attitude. Decisions were made that had been delayed for months.

Women tend to be problem solvers by nature. In many cases, that trait becomes more important than having a particular title, their name on the door or the highest salary, but this can also work to their detriment and make it take longer to reach the top.

To combat problems with the Joint Strike Fighter program, Hewson appointed Lorraine Martin as the program’s general manager in April 2013. As a result of Hewson and Martin’s work, criticism of the program has been significantly reduced. These women achieved this outcome by bringing authenticity to the table and rebuilding the program’s credibility. Rather than tucking away the company’s previous errors, they acknowledged them. They supported contract incentives that now hold Lockheed accountable and pushed the company to make the aircraft for less money.

At General Dynamics, Phebe Novakovic earned a similar reputation for authenticity within her first weeks as CEO. When the company’s $2 billion loss first hit the news on January 23, 2013, General Dynamics’ stock price fell by more than five percent within a span of a few hours. Rather than whitewashing the situation, Novakovic spoke candidly about the problems at hand and emphasized measures that were going to be taken to fix them. Her honesty caught the attention of Wall Street, and it responded. By the end of the day, General Dynamics’ stock rose 50 cents higher than the previous day.

Through using their instincts of honesty and authenticity, these women made it to the top of their industry — even when they were sometimes the only women in the room. Linda Hudson, CEO of B.A.E., also understands the feeling of being alone in a room full of men. As the first female CEO of a major defense company, she has played a critical role in changing a culture that has traditionally been closed to women. Although the market was starting to sour when Hudson took over at B.A.E. in October 2009, Hudson successfully reversed the negative opinions that were out there. She streamlined the company, better integrated the two dozen businesses that B.A.E. had cobbled together through acquisitions, and cut costs as the market demanded.

Hudson, Williams, Hewson, Novakovic and other women leaders in the defense industry are meeting and exceeding demands for better management during this time of fiscal restraint. They are proving that one’s gender doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do with the opportunities given to you. In the process, they are shaping the world.

Congresswoman Kay Granger represents the 12th District of Texas. She is the Chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on State-Foreign Operations.

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