As I write this, it’s one week before the Defense News Conference. And I can say sincerely it’s setting up to be a massive success: two acting secretaries; a chief of staff; three four-star generals, five three-star generals and one three-star admiral; the Pentagon’s top weapons development official; the Air Force’s acquisition head. The list goes on.

I’m proud of this, and I am incredibly appreciative to the defense community for delivering in spades.

But not including our own editorial team, we have only three women participating in the conference. Candidly, that’s pretty unacceptable.

And we got dinged for it. Social media spotted the lack of diversity and called us out. In the words of Maggie Feldman-Piltch, founder of #NatSecGirlSquad: “There are so many of us.”

Some sympathized a bit. They said our conference simply reflects the lack of diversity in senior leadership. Others felt we were just part of the problem by not working harder to spotlight the many smart women in this industry. In the words of one on Twitter: “Conferences like this only want very senior leaders. And few women occupy those roles. So rather than recruiting up and coming women whose inclusion might (over time) prepare them for said senior roles, it becomes a self perpetuating cycle.”

There’s truth to all of that. We do indeed host this conference to provide our audience with access to and perspective from senior leadership. But I’m not going to apologize for fulfilling that goal. And let’s be honest, people come for that access. They want to hear from the people making the decisions and writing the policy. Right now, those are predominantly men. I’d love to say as many seats would get filled if we went one, two or three levels down, but I simply don’t believe that to be true — not in the current state of the industry.

Also — we did try. We’ve tried for the last few years, in fact, and saw some success in 2018. But it’s never been easy. This year was particularly hard.

Does it sound like I’m making excuses? It does. Another truth is we should’ve just tried harder.

But it does, once again, shine a bright spotlight on the fundamental problem — one that has been a bit camouflaged as of late because of the occasional appointment of a woman CEO or undersecretary of defense; or the celebration of the first female Marine to pilot a F-35 fighter jet. Diversity can only be achieved for real when it permeates an entire institution, usually from the bottom up.

In July 2018, I wrote an editorial right after Northrop Grumman announced that then-Chief Operating Officer Kathy Warden would be the next chief executive. I pointed to statements I had heard implying that the market has done it — that defense and aerospace was 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.

I warned at the time we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. I recommended then: “Let’s just keep moving.”

And I actually would argue that we have a huge opportunity now to do so. The Pentagon seems to sincerely be seeking innovators — those that can spur advancements in technology; experts in science and engineering. The leaders of tomorrow perhaps don’t have to prove their commitment with deployments that last for months. They can earn their place in the military or certainly the defense industry by exceling in STEM. Perhaps that’s one way we can level the playing field.

But it will take time and effort. We need hiring and promotion decisions to reflect this standard we aspire to see. And it’s the women who do exist in the community that we need to see out front and — yes — on stage. We need to make them hard to ignore.

So I offer a big thank you to Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for agreeing to speak on hybrid warfare, and for Splunk Chief Technical Advisor Juliana Vida and Lockheed Vice President Maria Demaree for taking the time as well. And more important than our conference, credit goes to those institutions for elevating women through the ranks, and to the many others that have done the same.

Because yes, they are out there. And next year, we will work even harder to find more of them.

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.

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