Female Leaders Take Flight

The aerospace and defense sector boasts an unusual number of women leaders. This is what it’s getting right.

When it comes to female CEOs, the aerospace and defense industry is soaring above the rest.

As Fortune put it on releasing its annual “Most Powerful Women” list Monday, “the once male-dominated defense and aerospace industry has, in a few short years, blown up its own glass ceiling, elevating women higher and faster than most of the Fortune 500.” Four of the five largest United States aerospace and defense firms are now run by women—Raytheon is the lone exception. Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, topped Fortune’s list this year, ending the three-year run of General Motors’ Mary Barra. General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic, incoming Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden, and Leanne Caret, who leads Boeing’s defense, space, and security division, also made the list.

“At the board level, bringing women to the forefront and developing a more diverse workforce has been a front-and-center topic for aerospace and defense firms,” says Jon Barney, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Industrials practice who specializes in aerospace and defense.

The rise in female leadership at these firms parallels the aerospace and defense industry’s rapidly changing business model and customer base. Its biggest customer, the US government, is becoming more diverse. Women make up 44% of the federal workforce, for instance. Growth is increasingly coming from international markets—in a survey of 100 aerospace and defense leaders conducted by Korn Ferry, international growth ranked second behind core domestic markets as the largest expected source for revenue generation this year. Changing demographics, consolidation, and issues driving innovation mean aerospace and defense firms, not unlike virtually every other industry, are in a pitched battle for talent with new global competitors. Also, not unlike virtually every other industry, aerospace and defense is not immune to the gender and pay equality issues confronting other sectors; 82% of aerospace and defense firms surveyed by Korn Ferry cite pay equity as being “extremely important,” for instance.

The percentage of female leaders in the aerospace and defense industry is nearly four times as large as any other across all companies in the S&P 1500, Fortune noted. Women CEOs represent 19% of the leaders in aerospace and defense, compared to just 5% across all other sectors. Still, Barney says, the industry has work to do below the CEO level, where he calls the female leadership pipeline “uneven.” According to findings from the research we conducted in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation on women CEOs, that is, unfortunately, a common trait across industries.

“Organizations need help defining and following the necessary steps to maintain a proven pipeline of female leadership candidates, and women need help identifying the right career approaches to prepare for CEO roles,” says Jane Stevenson, Korn Ferry’s global leader for CEO Succession and vice chairman of Board and CEO Services. Stevenson, who noted that aerospace and defense firms do a better job than most, believes that by actively supporting qualified female professionals, organizations can create a virtuous cycle of women leaders who, in turn, can advance the careers of other high-potential women.

Put another way, since diversity and inclusion start at the top, the women now in charge of 80% of the US aerospace and defense industry have the ability to create real impact.