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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2023

Defense Industry Is Not the Battlefield It Once Was for Women


In the Sept. 19 edition of the San Diego Business Journal, a company’s name was misspelled. The correct spelling is GeomorphIS, a San Diego-based defense contractor. The Business Journal regrets the error.

National defense and women haven’t always been words that could easily be paired, but as more females assume leadership roles in the military and in the defense contracting industry, it’s apparent a shift is occurring in the boardroom as well as the battlefield.

San Diego recently became home to the latest chapter of Women in Defense, an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association. The new chapter, which was founded in April, boasts 47 members; 125 women also are signed up on an “interested” mailing list. The women mostly work in defense contracting, but active-duty military personnel or women who hold civilian Department of Defense jobs are also eligible for membership.

“Of course, (defense) is an industry that has been dominated by men, so we like to get the women together to offer mentorships, networking opportunities, information about the industry, things like that,” said chapter President Eileen Goff.

In addition to running the new club chapter, Goff is the president of GeomorphIS, a San Diego-based defense contracting company specializing in global geographic systems.

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Goff, who left civilian DOD work to work in defense contracting five years ago, believes men still dominate the industry, but the numbers are changing in women’s favor.

“For us, we tend to have just slightly more of a challenge getting in there,” Goff said. “But once you’re in, it gets easier.”

Unique Traits

While on the surface the increasing amount of women involved with national defense may appear to be about equal rights among the genders, a less obvious theory points to companies starting to realize that women have certain innate personality traits that can be advantageous in business.

David Leighton, the president of Women in Technology International, a global advocacy group supporting women in professional technology sectors that counts more than 100,000 members, believes the latter is true.

“I think there are a lot of companies trying to do better, but I think it all gets caught up in these diversity initiatives that aren’t necessarily the best way to look at it,” Leighton said. “I really have not seen too many (companies) make that official shift yet, but I think they’re starting to figure it out and it’s coming.”

Leighton pointed to Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems as an example of a company already realizing the benefits of having women in leadership roles. At the Raytheon San Diego Expeditionary Warfare Center, about 20 percent of the program managers are women working on multimillion-dollar defense contracts, overseeing up to 100 employees for a single project’s duration.

Their jobs place them in the midst of the thriving defense industry , the second-leading economic generator in San Diego County behind manufacturing and ahead of tourism.

Not So Obvious

It’s all in a day’s work for program manager Lisa Foltz, an electrical engineer who joined the Expeditionary Warfare Center only 18 months ago after spending most of her career outside the defense industry working for companies such as Motorola.

“I never think I’m far up the chain and I’m a woman,” Foltz said. “I think I’m doing what I do and enjoying it; but I have had others ask me how I got to a high position even though I can’t answer that because I don’t see it that way.”

Leighton said among the traits that women typically have more than men are the ability to multitask, the ability to think broadly, the ability to work on a team and the ability to better handle the politics of business in terms of interacting with people outside the company.

Leighton’s mother, Carolyn, founded WITI (Women in Technology International, a global organization that supports women in business) in 1989.

Anita Frost, Judy Nishiguchi and Selma “Sam” Castanedo, some of the Expeditionary Warfare Center’s other female program managers, all have 20-plus years of experience in the defense contracting industry. Each broke into the field when it and its military clients were still heavily dominated by men who were not always happy to see a woman in the conference room.

“As I was growing up through the years, the first inclination that I had that, ‘Uh-oh, there’s going to be a challenge,’ was when I went into a meeting and I was the only woman in the room,” said Frost, 49, referring to her early days at Hughes Aircraft before it was acquired by Massachusetts-based Raytheon in 1997.

Frost began working in the defense industry 23 years ago as an entry-level line worker in a pinch because another job she planned to take fell through. When an administrative job opened just three weeks into her new job on the line, she jumped at the opportunity and took that post.

From there, Frost said she was determined to learn everything she could about the company and the industry to help build a solid career.

“From that point on, it was my goal to work from within the Hughes Aircraft company to figure out what it was I wanted to be when I grew up,” said Frost, who didn’t have a college degree when she started her career but is now enrolled in a degree program at National University. “Anything that has a huge challenge to it attracts me and that certainly was a challenge.

“You had to adapt very quickly and if you didn’t adapt to that, you weren’t going to be able to stick around and do your job,” Frost said, referring to the attitudes of her male co-workers.

For Nishiguchi, 46, her landing in the defense contracting industry was much more deliberate. Nishiguchi had just graduated from college with a mechanical engineering degree when a former professor working for General Dynamics told her he needed an intern. That was 26 years ago.

General Dynamics was eventually acquired by Hughes, which ultimately was acquired by Raytheon.

Nishiguchi said the consolidation and cutbacks in defense spending of the late 1980s and early 1990s were tough, but that the challenges only motivated her to work harder and be more creative.

Castanedo’s story is quite different than her counterparts at the Expeditionary Warfare Center. Castanedo, 52, grew up knowing her work would relate to aerospace and defense. Her father worked on the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government-sanctioned race to develop an atomic bomb during World War II.

“As we grew up, we watched him and just knew we were going to be a part of that world someday,” Castanedo said, referring to her two sisters who also have defense-related careers.

She started at General Dynamics and landed at Raytheon through the same acquisition path that Nishiguchi’s career followed.

“I had a mother who taught us you can be whatever you want to be and I had a father who said if you want to go fishing or hunting, let’s go,” Castanedo said. “I really didn’t learn anything about gender differences until after college. It just wasn’t an issue in my life and I credit that to upbringing.”


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