(Reuters) – Linda Hudson, the first woman to head a big U.S. arms company, is heartened that other women are finally rising to top jobs in the traditionally male-dominated weapons business, but she is disappointed that minorities have not yet made similar inroads.
Hudson, dubbed “first lady of defense” by Washingtonian magazine, instituted new measures this year aimed at boosting minority hiring at BAE Systems Inc (BAES.L), the U.S. unit of Europe’s largest defense contractor. The measures include requiring interview panels to have a diverse makeup and that slates of candidates also include minorities.
Hudson, who was named chief executive of the BAE unit in 2009, said she was pleasantly surprised about the growing number of women moving into top jobs in the industry. Recent promotions include Phebe Novakovic, named as the next chief executive of General Dynamics Corp (GD.N), and Marillyn Hewson, who will become the No. 2 official at Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N).
“It’s hard to ignore at this point,” said Hudson, who has been frank about the difficulties she faced and the sacrifices she made on her way up the corporate ladder. “I don’t know statistically if I could call it a trend, but it’s … a phenomenon of some sort worth paying attention to.”
Hudson has blazed a trail of firsts. She was the first female in her Florida high school to take its engineering drawing course. She was also the first woman manager at Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp; the first female vice president of an operating company at Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed Martin; and the first female corporate officer and company president in the history of General Dynamics.
She says the industry still has fewer women in the pipeline than she would like, but was pleased about a recent BAE hire that put a woman in charge of the company’s key intelligence and security sector.
A new study completed by Aviation Week in August in association with three industry trade groups cited “notable and enduring concerns” about the low number of women and non-white males in the aerospace industry.
The study showed that women account for just under 24 percent of the aerospace and defense workforce, although they make up just under half of the overall U.S. workforce. And only 14 percent of those seeking engineering degrees are women, the study showed.
A separate U.S. Commerce Department study completed last year cited many possible factors contributing to the under representation, including a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping and less family-friendly flexibility.
Hudson, who took flying lessons at age 16 and once dreamed of becoming an astronaut, remembers the flack she got every time she was promoted to a senior job.
“Every senior level job I got, people presumed I was incompetent. Only after I managed to perform did I get the point across,” she said.
Women may be making gains, but Hudson says the industry’s track record in hiring and promoting minorities remains “disappointing,” especially since they have achieved greater gains in the U.S. military, the industry’s main customer.
Minorities account for just under 24 percent of the overall aerospace industry workforce, according to the study, but comprise about 30 percent of the total U.S. workforce.
No detailed reports are available about the number of women and minorities in upper management across the industry, but defense industry executives say it is very low.
“We’re working very hard on our diversity initiatives and trying to change the way we look for talent,” Hudson said in a telephone interview last week from her home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
She hopes BAE’s new diversity initiative will improve the representation of minorities in the company, but says it is too soon to make any predictions since the changes only went into effect this year.
“People tend to hire people who are like them so if you widen the people doing the interviews and widen the pool of people being interviewed, I’m hopeful that will begin to change some historical practices on our business,” she said.
Hudson, a Democrat, helped support the nonpartisan committee that organized this week’s Democratic National Convention. She is not hosting any parties or fundraisers during the convention, but does plan to stop by the hall.
“I’ve never been to a political convention and given that I was involved with the organizing committee, I thought I’d come down and see a little bit of what goes on and how it happens.”
Although a registered Democrat, Hudson says she and her company make political donations to candidates from both parties who are seen as “pro-defense.”
Hudson, 62, has hard work ahead when she returns to Washington, where industry executives are scrambling to shore up revenues and earnings as military spending declines after the build up for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
BAE is also smarting after losing its spot as one of three companies developing a replacement for the U.S. Army’s workhorse Humvee vehicle, although it still has a spot on the Lockheed team.
Hudson told Reuters that uncertainty about $500 billion in additional U.S. defense budget cuts due to start in January is “wreaking havoc” on weapons makers, threatening jobs, jeopardizing suppliers and depressing mergers and acquisitions.
She is also starting to think about what lies ahead when she retires from BAE.
She recently accepted a post on the board of directors of Bank of America Corp (BAC.N), also based in Charlotte, after being approached for years about similar spots on other boards. The timing was right this time because she had been a CEO for a while. She also feels the experience will help her become a better member of the board of the BAE parent.
“It will help me to begin to transition to the next phase of my career life once I retire,” Hudson said, adding that she looked forward to helping oversee the management of another complex organization in a highly regulated industry.
“That is where I thought I could add some value,” she added.
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
September 6, 2012