Women in National Security: Top Leaders, Resources, and More

Whether in combat zones or as CEOS of defense companies, these 7 powerful women know how to fight.

Nadja West

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Taylor Tobin1.84k
July 18, 2024 at 5:18PM UTC

When it comes to military service and the business landscape surrounding national security, many prominent voices in the field unfortunately continue to take a chauvinistic view on the place of women in this industry. Even major leaders like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis have made public claims to that effect, with Mattis once stating that “the jury is still out” on the ability of women to serve in active roles during combat. 

In spite of these dissenting (and deeply sexist) opinions, women continue to grow their presence in the U.S. military and in the private companies invested in national security. As of 2018, 16% of enlisted forces and 18% of officers identified as female, and 4 of the nation’s 5 largest private defense firms claimed female CEOs. 

Interested in pursuing a career in national security? We’ve rounded up 7 important women currently working in the field who are worth researching, along with a list of resources to help you embark on this challenging, rewarding, and potentially lucrative field of work. 

Top Women in National Defense

In no particular order:

1. Marillyn Hewson

Named “the most powerful woman in the world” by Fortune Magazine, Marillyn Hewson, the president and CEO of Lockheed Martin (a company that Fortune calls “the Pentagon’s top weapons supplier), earns upwards of $22.87 million annually. Hewson started with Lockheed Martin in 1983 and worked her way through numerous executive positions (including Chief Operating Officer, Executive Vice President of Electronic Systems, and President of Integration) before ascending to CEO in 2013. As a result of her leadership, Lockheed Martin doubled its market cap and reached a valuation of almost $100 billion.

2. Phebe Novakovic

Easily one of the most influential women in national security, General Dynamics chairwoman and CEO Phebe Novakovic helms a multinational corporation dedicated to defense and aerospace that’s ranked as the 5th-largest defense contractor in the world. After graduating from Smith College and earning her MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Novakovic worked for both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense under then-Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In 2001, she departed her government job to start work at General Dynamics, and in 2012, she rose to the top as the company’s CEO. She oversaw General Dynamics’ biggest deal ever (a 2018 agreement to acquire IT firm CSRA for $9.6 billion), and she currently earns an annual salary of roughly $21.4 million.

3. Leanne Caret

As the executive vice president of The Boeing Company, Leanne Caret has a hand in multiple factions of the massive multinational corporation’s aircraft operations. However, her most significant influence happens in the Defense, Space, and Security sector, of which she serves as CEO. This role requires Caret to lead the company’s choices and actions in relation to contracts surrounding government, defense, space, intelligence, and security. Like Hewson, she holds a position on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women of 2018 list, and her efforts outside of work includes serving on the board of governors of the USO.

4. Kathy Warden

Another female national security figure to make the Fortune Most Powerful Women list last year, Kathy Warden holds the distinction of becoming the first CEO to lead premier defense contractor Northrop Grumman, accepting her new role on January 1, 2019. Warden counts IT and cybersecurity among her specialities, and because she served as Northrup’s COO prior to her promotion, she has significant first-hand knowledge of the company’s new acquisitions and how to incorporate them into Northrup’s tech-centric missions. 

5. Robin L. Fontes

Among the highest-ranking women in active duty in the U.S. military, Major General Robin L. Fontes entered the armed forces after graduating from West Point in 1986. After several tours of duty in Europe and the Middle East, Fontes received Senate approval for her promotion to brigadier general in 2014 and, in 2017, took charge of the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan. 

6. Nadja West

Lieutenant General Nadja West of the U.S. Army counts numerous firsts in her career record. She was the first black woman to ever attain the title of Lieutenant General, and when she became Army Surgeon General in 2015, she also was the first black woman to hold that distinction. To add to her accolades, she’s currently the highest-ranked woman in the Army to graduate from the United States Military Academy. In a recent interview with Army Times, she cites her father, who served 33 years in the Army, and her 9 military-affiliated siblings as her greatest sources of inspiration. 

7. Gwen Bingham

A woman with a keen knowledge of ground vehicle tech, care, and weaponization, Major General Gwen Bingham became the first female commander of the US Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command. After honing her expertise with this leadership position, she took another step forward in 2016, earning the role of Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management. Her numerous military accolades include a Distinguished Service Medal, a Defense Superior Service Medal, and a Defense Meritorious Service Medal. 

Resources and Groups for Women in National Defense

Because women still represent a minority in the sphere of national defense, plenty of advocacy groups and organizations exist to support female-identifying professionals seeking careers in this field. A couple of examples to explore if you’re looking to develop a network of women in national security:

Women In Defense

An organization first developed in the 1980s with the aim of “cultivating and supporting advancement and recognition of women in all aspects of national security”. Both female and male members are accepted, and membership includes access to seminars, leadership workshops, and academic scholarships.

Women In National Security

A podcast centered around women working in military and defense-related positions, through which they can discuss their experiences in active duty and the need for more female representation in leadership roles in the industry.  

Women and the Future of National Defense

While the private defense sector does feature women in 4 of the 5 top CEO positions, the defense industry as a whole still suffers from misogynistic attitudes and practices. Women in National Security recently surveyed 100 women working in the field, who offered the following recommendations for any female-identifying professionals considering careers in national security:

“I didn’t really notice being a ‘woman in national security’ until I progressed further in my career.  Bottom line:  you just see fewer women in senior national security positions.  Then you start to think about it more, which makes you self conscious about it.  And then the vicious rot of self-doubt and imposter syndrome begins to set in.  “Do I belong here?  Will anyone take me seriously?”   This is when we start to get in our own way.”

“When I started out, I often felt that I had to prove myself. I thought a lot about what I wore, how I sounded, whether I seemed “serious” enough. I no longer feel that way. I expect to be treated like anyone else and I project that. What it’s like, however, is that women’s expertise is still valued and requested less; women are still treated differently in meetings; women’s assertiveness is often viewed less positively.  I spend too much time and emotional energy deciding when to call these things out, and when to just put my head down and power through.”

“Be brave, be strong, be funny, be brilliant, be a good person, and never, never be afraid.”

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