Northrop’s new CEO adds to growing number of women leading defense firms

Northrop Grumman President Kathy Warden will become chief executive next year.
(Michael Reynolds / EPA/Shutterstock)

The already small roster of Fortune 500 companies led by women will shrink even further after PepsiCo Inc. Chief Executive Indra Nooyi steps down from her role this year. But in one sector that has been male-dominated, gender balance seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

By next year, three of the top U.S. defense firms — Lockheed Martin Corp., General Dynamics Corp. and most recently, Northrop Grumman Corp. — will have a female CEO. And Boeing Co. has had a woman at the helm of its $21-billion defense, space and security business since 2016.

While industry officials and observers have cheered the progress, many also say the corner office moves don’t reflect sweeping change in the overall industry. An survey released last year by trade publication Aviation Week found that only 24% of the aerospace and defense workforce is female. That number is down from 26% 10 years earlier.


Women made up only 3.2% of the logging industry, 9.1% of the construction workforce and 23.5% of the transportation and utilities industry, according to a report published last year by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that supports women in the workplace.

“Half of the population in the world today is women,” said Leanne Caret, chief executive of Boeing’s defense, space and security sector. “If we want to take full advantage and be the company we can … then we need to have full access and availability to the talent globally. And why would we ever want to limit ourselves to a portion of the population?”

Northrop Grumman is the latest defense company to name its first female CEO, announcing last month that company President Kathy Warden will move into the top job next year. She will join CEOs Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin and Phebe Novakovic of General Dynamics.

Hewson, Novakovic and Caret were all named to Fortune’s list of most powerful women in business last year. Nooyi of PepsiCo also made the list, as well as Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors Co., and Denise Morrison, then-CEO of Campbell Soup Co.

“It’s a lot of the larger companies and heavier industry today where the meritocracy reigns supreme again,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean and a professor in the practice of management at the Yale School of Management.

Warden, like Hewson, Caret and Novakovic, has steadily ascended the ranks of her company over the years since joining Northrop Grumman in 2008 as vice president of strategic intelligence initiative. In the last 10 years, she served as president of the company’s software-focused mission systems sector and chief operating officer.


That kind of upward trajectory into various leadership positions is important if women are to advance within these companies, industry observers said. And the growing number of female CEOs across the defense industry indicates that the pool of women engineers that joined the workforce decades ago has finally reached senior positions that are eligible for higher promotion.

“You almost have to get to the point where you have women in executive vice president and senior vice president positions in order for them to demonstrate how successful they will be,” said Rachel McCaffrey, executive director of Women in Defense, a professional organization that supports the advancement of women in the national security sector.

Companies can help eliminate barriers that hold women back, said Anna Beninger, senior director of research and corporate engagement partner at Catalyst. Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin recently won the Catalyst award for their work to increase workplace diversity.

“It’s not surprising to me, honestly, that you now have women leading these companies, because they’re really working to create opportunities for women across the board,” Beninger said.

Increased diversity on a company’s board of directors is also a factor in increasing the number of women in the C-suite as the board signs off on CEO candidates, McCaffrey said. Northrop Grumman’s 13-member board includes four women, while Lockheed Martin’s 12-member board has three women and General Dynamics has three women on its 10-person board. Boeing has three women on its 13-member board.


A report by Catalyst found that in 2016, 21.2% of board seats at S&P 500 companies were held by women.

The increased number of female CEOs in defense could also help recruit and retain women, as it shows career advancement is possible, industry officials said.

“Part of my responsibility is to open the doors for those that come after us, men and women,” said Caret of Boeing. “Make sure folks can see themselves in the future, can see themselves in large roles and they have that inspiration to do that.”

Caret is a second-generation Boeing employee; her parents worked at the firm and met at a facility outside New Orleans where they were building the Saturn V rocket that would take astronauts to the moon.

She joined Boeing in 1988 and has served as chief financial officer for the defense, space and security division, and vice president of Boeing’s rotorcraft programs, and led the firm’s global services and support business, which serves commercial and government customers.

Caret noted that she, Hewson, Warden and Novakovic built a track record by succeeding at tough assignments over the years.


“I think a lot of people assume the aerospace and defense industry is a traditionally male-dominated and male-led industry, and I think what folks are realizing is that that’s not quite true,” Caret said. “This industry specifically recognizes talent wherever talent exists. These aren’t positions you get to because someone handed them to you. We’ve earned them just like everyone else.”

The industry has made strides since Linda Hudson was dubbed the “first lady of defense” by Washingtonian magazine after she was named president and CEO of the U.S. subsidiary of BAE Systems in 2009.

But some of the industry’s most notorious C-suite scandals have hinted at a “boys’ club” culture. That includes the dismissal of former Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher in 2005 after he had an affair with a female executive. In 2012, incoming Lockheed Martin CEO Christopher Kubasik resigned after an ethics investigation confirmed he’d had a “close personal relationship” with a subordinate.

He was replaced by Hewson, who became Lockheed Martin’s first female CEO.

More recently, the editor of trade publication Defense News wrote in an op-ed that more than 200 women from the national security sector recently signed a #MeToo letter describing themselves as survivors of sexual harassment, abuse or assault, or knew others that were.

“We’re not there yet,” Jill Aitoro wrote.

Beninger of Catalyst said more needs to be done to ensure better representation of women of color in the workforce and in leadership ranks. And work has been done to increase awareness of science, technology, engineering and math careers as early as elementary school, said Robin Thurman, director of workforce policy and industrial base development at the Aerospace Industries Assn. trade group.

“The fact that these women have been able to be successful does say a lot about these organizations,” Beninger said of defense firms. “But they do have a ways to go in terms of reaching parity.”


Twitter: @smasunaga