WASHINGTON — At a time of national debate about women's struggle to land top corporate jobs, an unlikely industry is leading the change in the executive suite: defense contractors, where three of the biggest firms are now led by women.
General Dynamics, BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin have defied a long history of male-dominated culture and appointed female chief executives. But that new crop of leaders arrives as the industry faces destabilizing change involving the federal budget.
All three executives must reshape their firms to deal with military procurement cuts, including those recently triggered by the sequester. In her first two months at the helm of General Dynamics, for instance, Phebe Novakovic declared the company had lost its way, halted a years-long string of new acquisitions and eliminated executive positions.
"I think it's a chance for all of us . . . to make an imprint on an industry," said Linda Hudson, the chief executive of the American branch of BAE Systems, who became the first woman to lead a top U.S. defense company when she assumed the job in 2009.
She and her counterparts - including Marillyn Hewson at Lockheed - must prove themselves in companies that remain far more male-dominated than the economy as a whole. The defense industry has been slow to promote women to its highest levels, in part because of its close connections to the military. Many retired officers eventually become executives at contracting firms, and only recently have women been promoted to the top military posts.
The executive compensation data firm Equilar analyzed financial filings for almost 20 of the largest publicly traded government contractors, at the request of The Washington Post. The analysis found that one in eight executives (at any level) at those firms is a woman. In the economy at large, two of every five managers is a woman, and one in four chief executives is, according to the Labor Department.