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HomeSep 12, 2019Jen DiMascio | Aviation Week & Space Technology

This article addresses the need for reaching out to our youth and supporting / participating Girls in Aviation Day.


Women In Aerospace: Stuck at 24%

Sep 12, 2019Jen DiMascio | Aviation Week & Space Technology


Podcast: Can the Aerospace Industry Shake its White, Male Image?

When Linda Hudson took over as president and CEO of BAE Systems in 2009, she had been the first woman to occupy nearly every job she had held throughout her career. Since then, at least six women have become the CEOs of top U.S. defense and aerospace companies. Two have held the top civilian post in the U.S. Air Force; a handful have become four-star generals in the military.  

With the elevation of women such as Hudson to leadership roles, it is easy to assume that the aerospace industry has begun to achieve some sort of gender parity. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

In fact, for the last two decades, the percentage of women in the aerospace field has plateaued at about 24%. And the number of female engineering executives in the industry has hovered at around 15%, according to an Aviation Week study conducted in cooperation with the Aerospace Industries Association, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and PwC.

Reports indicate that diversity provides a financial advantage

Midcareer professionals say the environment is improving

Increasing the number of women is not just a feel-good initiative: Expanding diversity helps the corporate bottom line. Rainia Washington, Lockheed Martin’s chief diversity officer, points to a recent McKinsey study that indicates companies with racial, ethnic and gender diversity are more likely to report better financial results. A prior McKinsey study shows that until women have 30% of leadership positions in a company, little impact of that diversity is felt. So while some companies are building diversity and inclusion offices and focusing on recruitment and retention of women and minorities, there is still room for growth.

Why is it so hard to increase the number of women in the industry? Companies point down the chain—at statistics that show the number of young women entering engineering universities has not changed, or saying that children unknowingly choose their careers by or before middle school. Because women make up a fraction of engineering students graduating from college, Sara Bowen, vice president of global diversity and inclusion at Boeing, says competition for female talent is fierce. “I think one of the biggest challenges is attracting women into the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields at a young age,” she says. 

When Maggie Feldman-Piltch hears that it will take time to bring talented women into the workforce, “it truly makes me crazy,” she says. She has established a for-profit consulting company and professional development outfit called #NatSecGirlSquad to serve as a conduit for women looking for jobs in national security and for government agencies and companies looking to hire women. She says she adds 10-15 resumes a day into a database of women hunting for jobs in the national security sector.

Source: Aviation Week Network 2019 Workforce Corporate Study


Even once they enter the workforce, women may opt to take any number of exit ramps. Those who leave engineering careers say the pay gap and a hostile environment helped them make that decision, according to a University of Wisconsin study, “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering.” It found women were most likely to take jobs outside of engineering and left after being “treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their superiors and co-workers.”


Is All the Workforce Hype Helping A&D Hire and Recruit?

Women who have stayed in aerospace faced similar trials. Years before her CEO days, Linda Hudson attended the University of Florida’s honors program. Engineering professors frequently told her she was taking a man’s spot in the class. “It was a very isolating and lonely environment,” she says. “I got through all of that by being one of the best students in the class. And one of the lessons I learned early on is that if you are really, really good at what you do, people will overlook the fact that you are female.”

Like Hudson, other midcareer professional women say demonstrating competence is necessary but not sufficient to navigate the gender imbalance. A persistently positive attitude goes a long way toward winning over skeptical colleagues, they say. Without female associates at work, Laura Garnett, a senior manager in test and evaluation for Boeing, found support by pursuing a master’s degree after work hours. “I was able to find a stronger community at school than I was at work,” she says.


Linda Hudson, former president and CEO of BAE Systems, chairwoman and CEO of The Cardea Group: Midcareer professionals should look for varied job assignments, even if they are not 100% qualified at the start, she says. “Too often we see midcareer folks unwilling to increase skills by doing something different. I don’t believe I would have been a CEO if I didn’t have a portfolio of skills to run a business.” Credit: The Cardea Group

Being underestimated by male peers is a battle evidenced by the experience of Diana Kirkwood. She came to the U.S. from Colombia while in high school. She is now an assistant engineer and the lead for the Lockheed Martin F-35’s change management group, but throughout her career she has worked at several other companies. She struggled to win respect. “They didn’t give me the challenging jobs,” Kirkwood says. “I kept asking for more. ‘What’s next? Give me more, more,’ The more challenging the jobs got, the more I liked it. Then they figured out, hey, she can do the job.”

As in other sectors, women are also more likely than men to leave to raise young children. When they do, finding a job again is tough. Charity Ikpe ultimately succeeded because of a program designed to bring engineers back to the workforce. 

Ikpe became fascinated with aircraft as a child, when her father flew from their home in Nigeria to the U.S. She grew up to become an engineer working for a small contractor on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope program. After taking maternity leave with her second child, she left her job. When she started looking for work three years later, companies were unwilling to overlook the gap in her resume. 

Two years later, via LinkedIn, she connected with a recruiter at Boeing who introduced her to the company’s “Return Flight” program for engineers who have left the workforce. “I’m here today because of that. I had no other interviews,” Ikpe says. 


Deborah Lee James, former U.S. Air Force secretary, author of Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success: Play to your strengths but recognize you are part of a team. We are all good at something, but you need to be self-aware enough to acknowledge your weaknesses and find someone else who can contribute in those areas. Credit: Textron

She was chosen to join a structural analysis team in St. Louis for a 16-week “returnship.” Six other women from around the country participated with Ikpe in the program, though with different engineering teams. They met every week and took part in a weeklong workshop in Washington state, working with executive mentors. All of the women went on to earn full-time jobs at Boeing; Ikpe is now a structural engineer conducting stress analysis on legacy F-18 fighters, a dream job for her.

Those returnships, generous tuition-assistance programs, structured mentorships and equal-pay studies are some reasons women in midcareer at major defense primes say the environment has grown more favorable the last 5-7 years—even if the numbers have not changed.
Heidi Jugovic, a solutions architect and digital engineering strategist at SAIC, says when the tone changes at the executive level, blatant disrespect and unprofessionalism are not tolerated. 

Lockheed Martin President and CEO Marillyn Hewson says that the pipeline of women has grown since she joined the company in 1983 as a senior industrial engineer. “You just didn’t have as many women coming into the science and engineering fields that are in such high demand in the aerospace and defense industries,” she says, adding that is why the company works to promote STEM education and to recruit, develop and retain women. “This diversity has made our company more innovative and competitive,” she says.

Women say a subtle change in workplace behavior coincided with the rising popularity of Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect. The book, which stresses the benefits of diversity on innovation, was gaining a following, and an increasing body of studies showed the financial benefit of different perspectives.


Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin: “As two-career families become the norm, we’re finding increased interest from women and men alike for benefits like flexible working schedules. Many of our Lockheed Martin employees, including at our corporate headquarters, work condensed schedules that provide for some Fridays off.” Credit: Lockheed Martin

While at BAE Systems, Hudson shared Johansson’s philosophy with engineering department leaders at her alma mater, the University of Florida, which has since boosted undergraduate female enrollment to 29% versus the national average of 20-22%, according to Cammy Abernathy, dean of the engineering school. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s engineering department has pushed its female enrollment closer to 50%, according to professor Hamsa Balakrishnan, who specializes in research on air traffic control. Thirty-five percent of the Department of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ undergraduates are female. “That is something we are very proud of,” Balakrishnan says. 

Sometimes, it takes time for individuals and institutions to make an effort to reach out to women and then to help them succeed. That was true even for Hudson.

“Early in my career, I had a view that I got here by myself, why should I help anybody else?” Hudson says. “And then I grew up.” Now she encourages young people, particularly women and people of color, to learn about their own corporations and how to advance, polish communication skills, look for high-profile assignments, learn how to risk failure and have confidence that you will figure out what needs to be done. 

“I just think that is a crucial factor for success,” Hudson says. “You need to know that you have the wherewithal to figure out how to get something done and get out of your comfort zone and go do it.”