Come 2019, four of the five largest defense companies will have women CEOs.
We’ve been throwing that statistic around a lot since Northrop announced transition plans for chief executive Wes Bush in July. But what does it mean beyond, well, that four of the five largest defense companies will have women CEOs?
First, that stat even brings an asterisk. Included in those four is Leanne Caret, who is CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security — not of Boeing the company. Of course, considering she oversees a business with a revenue of about $30 billion, it’s notable. But it’s just not apples to apples.
This latest installment of appointments of women at the helm signifies progress, of course. But what I have heard since the announcement is statements implying that the market has done it — that defense in aerospace Is no longer an old boys' club. That women get a fair shot. That sex no longer factors into opportunity. That we’ve come so far.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I’ll start with what that statistic does accomplish. It sets a wonderful and important example. Here you have some of the most powerful companies in our market recognizing that women leaders in their ranks are as capable and as qualified as the men. They would not be named chief executives if not. Considering these are the companies that (according to their numbers) have mastered this business better than any others, at least for now, that is a powerful message. As is true in any market, change often must happen at the top for others to follow. We have that happening now. Those who might have thought naïvely that the market is not ready for a woman CEO have been proven wrong. Suddenly it’s okay to have a woman leader — perhaps even a badge of honor, reflecting a supposed culture of diversity.
The other success here lies beyond that statistic. While Northrop Grumman may be the last to name a woman CEO among the four, the company is among the best when it comes to promotion of women from within. Women are scattered in leadership positions throughout the company. Seven of the 17 executive officers there currently are women — an unusually high percentage. What happens when that is the case is that yes, a woman will eventually make it to the top of the ladder because all things being equal, her odds are solid. In other words, Northrop as an organization stands as a compelling example of what it means to actually embrace a diverse workforce and culture.
It’s about more than any one person.
Now let’s look at what that statistic does not show. Among the 2017 largest defense companies included in the Defense News Top 100, four were women. Four.
The statistic also does not reflect what we learned from the #metoonatsec open letter, signed by more than 200 women from the national security community describing themselves as survivors of sexual harassment, assault or abuse, or as women who know others who are. And while I would love to say anecdotes such as those noted in that movement are in our past, they are not. Within the last month I had someone refer to a woman in the industry to me in casual conversation as a bitch.
We’re not there yet.
As I’ve written in the past, I respect the perspective of these women in leadership positions who often shy away from speaking about their sex in interviews and avoid honors that are tied to the fact that they are women. The Fortune event tied to its list of Most Powerful Women is perhaps the one occasion where Lockheed’s Marillyn Hewson and General Dynamics' Phebe Novakovic will address the topic directly. I understand why. They landed in these positions on merit and expertise — that’s what should be recognized. But the cynic in me would argue they had to work harder, wait longer, tolerate more bad behavior. So, no, even for them, all things were not equal. But who are they to complain, you say? I’d argue the perfect people in fact.
Back to that statistic — it is good news. It is encouraging. But let’s just keep moving.
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.