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Women are increasingly ascending to top posts at aerospace firms

Female engineers, scientists and managers who joined aerospace firms during the Cold War are rising to prominence in an industry long dominated by men.

November 20, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s largest defense firm, announced this month that electronics whiz Marillyn A. Hewson would become chief executive — the first woman to take on that role at the company.
Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s largest defense firm, announced… (PR Newswire )

At a time when federal budget cuts are reshaping the nation's aerospace industry, a far different makeover is underway in the executive suites of some of the country's biggest defense contractors.

Lockheed Martin Corp., the world's largest defense firm, announced this month that electronics whiz Marillyn A. Hewson would become chief executive — the first woman to take on that role at the company.

The move came abruptly after the Bethesda, Md., company's incoming chief executive, Christopher E. Kubasik, was forced out after an ethics investigation confirmed he had a "close personal relationship" with a subordinate employee.

It was an announcement that might have drawn much greater attention from the nation's defense establishment in Washington if it hadn't come the same day CIA Director David Petraeus suddenly resigned amid headline-rich reports of an extramarital affair.

After all, no aerospace firm so large — or influential — has ever been run by a woman. Hewson's promotion followed the summer announcement that Phebe Novakovic would take over as chief executive at General Dynamics, the nation's fifth-largest defense firm, in Fairfax, Va.

Both take over the top posts Jan. 1, as female engineers, scientists and managers who joined the industry during the Cold War are rising to prominence in a staid industry long dominated by men. Although women have climbed to the top of other industries for decades, aerospace has gone without women at the top until recent years.

"The ascension of women like Marillyn Hewson and Phebe Novakovic to the top of the corporate ladder suggests that while the glass ceiling in aerospace and defense may not have been entirely shattered, it's certainly become more transparent," said Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Assn. trade group.

Come Jan. 1, there will be a record 21 women who serve as chief executives of firms on the Fortune 500 list of the nation's largest public companies, including Hewson and Novakovic.

Deborah Soon, senior vice president of strategy at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that tracks the progress of women in the business world, said parity is still a long way off.

"We look forward to the day when a woman leading an aerospace company is no longer news," she said.

Other women in the industry are rocketing to the top as well. By next year, six women will sit on aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp.'s 14-member senior management team. This month, Boeing Co. shook up its executive ranks and named seven people to leadership roles — five of whom are women.

It's a big shift from the boy's club culture that once pervaded the aerospace business after World War II, said industry pioneer Simon Ramo, 99.

"At the time, for all practical purposes, prejudice against women was supreme," said Ramo, co-founder of former aerospace giant TRW Inc., now part of Northrop. "Things have definitely changed."

A main reason for the male predominance and evolving shift, experts say, is that most aerospace leaders have risen through the science and engineering ranks, which has been populated mostly by men. According to the National Science Foundation's most recent data, women make up about 27% of the 4.9 million people working in science and engineering. In 1993, women made up 22% of the 3.2 million people in those fields.

Industry experts do not expect a dramatic change in the way the companies are run. Especially at a time when U.S. military spending — which grew at double-digit percentage rates after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — is expected to decline $487 billion over the next decade.

"Although the demographics are shifting, the basic behavior of the industry will largely remain the same," said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst with the Lexington Institute. "The metrics by which the modern defense industry is judged are sales numbers. That's not going to change whether the chief executive is a man or a woman."

The promotions of these new top executives has been greeted with enthusiasm and a bit of curiosity. But no group seems more pleased than other women executives who now see one of their own running the place.

"I do believe women's roles have shifted significantly in the more than three decades that I have been in aerospace," said Lillian Ryals, vice president of the Mitre Corp., a nonprofit government contractor. "It is not just our numbers that have grown, but also our reach and influence across the sector, from the civil aerospace industry to our ranks on the military side, from aviation to space."

Lockheed's Hewson built her reputation in a variety of business sectors. In her most recent assignment, she made the company's sprawling electronic systems business the most profitable unit for Lockheed, better known for building fighter jets, Navy warships and spy satellites.

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