Women leaders gaining more influence in defense industry

When I told a friend that our next issue would focus on influential women in defense electronics, he suggested I read “Lean In,” a book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. So I did and found remarkable similarities between her lean-in philosophy and the views of the women we are profiling in this issue.

One of Sandberg’s themes is that women are outnumbered in the leadership roles in business today because they choose not to enter it. Men outnumbering women is never more apparent than in the military industry. Go to any trade show and you will see what I mean. Nan Mattai, VP of Engineering & Technology for Rockwell Collins, said in her profile this is one of her greatest challenges – “being the only woman in the room.”

In her book Sandberg shares a wonderful Warren Buffet line on this subject: that he was so successful because he only had to compete against half of the population. She says women leave or don’t enter the workforce for various reasons such as a desire to raise a family or fear of not being good enough to succeed. Sandberg writes that women – as a gender – suffer from low self esteem, often thinking they don’t deserve to “sit at the table” with the men, so they don’t. She suggests women frequently believe the negative stereotypes about themselves.

While it’s not a 1950s atmosphere, gender stereotypes and overall insensitivity still exist. I’ve seen it first-hand multiple times. One instance was at a press briefing I attended about 15 years ago with a female reporter from another publication. Every time she asked the male briefer a question he would direct his answer to me. It caught me off guard and I asked her after if that was typical and she said, “unfortunately yes.”

I witnessed more blatant insensitivity a few years ago on a military trade show floor. While speaking with a woman, who was VP of marketing and also an engineer for an embedded computing company, I overheard a sales rep for her company tell a visitor at their booth that the VP was “one of the girls from back at the office.” My jaw dropped. She leaned toward me and said, “you see what I have to put up with?” I asked what she intended to do. She replied: “I will wait till you and his friend leave, then I will handle it.” I found out later when confronted with his comment, the sales rep in question was shocked at what he said and made an immediate mea culpa. Unfortunately the stereotyping still persists and not everyone is embarrassed by that behavior.

In her book Sandberg writes that “we evaluate people based on stereotypes. Our stereotype of men holds that they are providers, decisive, and driven. Our stereotype of women holds that they are caregivers, sensitive, and communal.” She says that when women take roles that stray from these stereotypes they are viewed negatively, such as being bossy or selfish when being decisive and showing leadership in the workplace.

Sandberg says women shouldn’t accept these as valid reasons for holding themselves back. So she challenges women to lean-in and “end the self-fulfilling belief that ‘women can’t do this, women can’t do that’… saying ‘it can’t be done’ ensures it won’t be done.”

Not all advocates of women’s rights agree with her philosophy. Suggesting that women need to lean-in and take more responsibility for their success doesn’t always sit well with those who think industry and the government should step in and force more equality in the workplace. I don’t get the impression that Sandberg thinks these policies and programs are bad in and of themselves, but she feels that women shouldn’t wait for them. They should act now.

I noticed similar sentiments from all our profiles this month: Sondra Barbour, Executive VP of the Information Systems & Global Solutions group at Lockheed Martin; Lynn Bamford, Senior VP & General Manager of Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions; Jane Donaldson, President and co-founder of Annapolis Micro Systems; and Mattai, who says that while being the only woman in a room can be scary “it also provides unique opportunities for networking and knowledge expansion.”

They don’t think of themselves necessarily as successful women, but rather as successful leaders, business owners, engineers, etc. “I have never found any challenges caused by just being a woman. My main challenges are as a businessperson in the high-tech community,” Donaldson says.

Mattai says that showcasing these visible role models helps battle “professional and work culture stereotypes. Real-life examples of women crushing the glass ceiling while managing work/life balance and gaining peer respect are inspiring.”

I think she along with Barbour, Bamford, and Donaldson are a good place to start. Learn their stories starting on page 14 of the magazine.

View the webpages here:

Sondra Barbour: http://mil-embedded.com/articles/2014-systems-global-solutions/

Lynn Bamford: http://mil-embedded.com/articles/2014-manager-curtiss-wright-defense-solutions/

Nan Mattai: http://mil-embedded.com/articles/2014-engineering-technology-rockwell-collins/

Jane Donaldson: http://mil-embedded.com/articles/2014-micro-systems-inc/

John McHale jmchale@opensystemsmedia.com