Women are underrepresented in the defense industry. Whether it’s discrimination holding them back or preference, fewer women pursue defense careers. A recent survey of 1200 cleared professionals found that more than 50 percent of respondents say the percentage of females in their offices is less than 30 percent. Just three percent of respondents say females made up greater than 50 percent of their offices.

The same ClearanceJobs survey found that eighty three percent of female respondents experienced discrimination or witnessed it first hand.

Women in defense – a quiet voice

“I have never overtly felt bias,” said Ellen McCarthy, Director of Plans and Programs at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, speaking to ClearanceJobs during a recent Intelligence and National Security Alliance event. “But I will tell you, that there’s very rarely a day that goes by when I don’t feel like I’m not being heard all the time.”

McCarthy went on to cite a recent Op-Ed entitled ‘Speaking While Female.’ In it, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant cite a problem many women face in the boardroom – speak too much, and your colleagues will find you too aggressive, or talk over you. The op-ed highlighted a study by a Yale psychologist that found that men who talked more often than their peers were rewarded with ten percent higher ratings of competence. Women who spoke more had 14 percent lower rankings.

In the defense industry, where a woman may be the only female in the room, not wanting to offend may mean her voice remains silent, even if it shouldn’t.

“I think we all have to admit that there are times when we don’t feel like we’re heard,” said McCarthy.  “And I think we need to learn what it takes to be heard.  Because I don’t think it’s that men view us as not particularly competent.  I think it’s more of how you’re communicating it.  I don’t believe it’s this overt disregard for women.  So we need to learn how to project our opinion, how to be a presence, how to lean in and take on leadership positions.  And men need to understand that this is how women communicate.  It’s a two-way road, by the way.”

How to be heard?

A 2010 Women in International Security Careers report made several key findings, including:

  • Women remain underrepresented in government
  • Women often don’t get the support they need (mentorship, work-life balance)
  • Committed and creative leadership at the top makes a big difference

These findings echo the results of the ClearanceJobs.com survey, where both men and women acknowledged that women remain underrepresented within the defense industry and government jobs. And a key factor preventing women from pursuing jobs is a perception that they can’t be committed at home, and to their work.

“Even when women get the positions, they seem to leave quickly,” said one female respondent. “Lack of support and opportunity, lack of progression opportunities; bias, pay inequality, and a perception by others that this isn’t a ‘career’ for them [compel women to leave].”

The issue of attracting women into defense industry positions has been described by human capital managers as a ‘leaky pipeline’ problem. Attracting women into defense careers can be an issue, but keeping them can be an even greater challenge.

How can women position themselves for success, and a career in the defense industry or government space that will last? Mentorship may be one of the best – and easiest- ways for women to advance. When women struggle to find their voice, the assistance of a more senior female can help. Having a trusted advisor to discuss ideas, issues and career progression with may help women find their confidence, and their voice, in the boardroom.

The defense industry is frequently described as a boys’ club. Two key factors drive that perception. First, it is, and will likely to be male-dominated when it comes to the percentage of men versus women in the workforce. Second, advancement often comes down to networking – who you know. McCarthy noted that throughout her career there were times she ‘threw her hat into the ring’ for a position and wasn’t selected.

“It was almost always because I didn’t have those relationships to be selected,” said McCarthy. “And so, I would always advise women, and men, for that matter, to be thinking about – not your next position – but the one after that to succeed: what do you need to know, who do you need to know, what does it take?”


Women in Defense: How to Advance

Women aren’t expecting opportunities to fall into their laps, but they may also not be taking the steps it takes to get noticed. For women seeking to ‘lean-into’ a defense industry career, keep these tips in mind:

1. Be a risk taker.

The defense industry is an aggressive industry. If you’re sitting on the sidelines and letting your male counterparts talk over you in meetings, you may be able to sustain a career, but you won’t do it happily. McCarthy advises women to ‘be brave’ in how they communicate with male counterparts. Being willing to make a decision is a critical way to achieve success in a male-driven defense industry and government office.

2. Network

Networking is one of the best – and easiest- ways to advance your career. If you’re juggling personal and workplace responsibilities, don’t fall into the trap that you need to attend every happy hour and networking event. But pick one professional organization to be a part of, and commit to getting out in your industry – even if it’s just a breakfast or lunch with a new colleague every month.

3. Have a career vision

You don’t have to be like a man to succeed in the defense industry, but you may have to think like one on occasion. If you’re a female in the defense industry today, there is a common misconception that you’ll fall by the wayside once you have kids. You can put your kids first and still have a successful career in the defense industry. Push for the gender neutral benefits that are important to you – whether it’s telework or professional development. Also, remember your value. Men often do better than women in salary negotiations. Why? Because they’re more likely to overestimate their worth. Don’t underestimate yours. If you’re talented, your employer will want to keep you. Whether it’s a sabbatical, telework, or a promotion you’re aiming for, communicate those desires to your employer before you decide to quit.

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Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves the NISPPAC, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.