BAE Systems did something on Monday that no major defense contractor has ever done before. It picked a woman to be its Chief Operating Officer. It also named that woman, Linda Hudson, Chief Executive Officer of its $20 billion U.S. unit, which generates about 57% of the parent company’s revenues. Hudson thus becomes not only the most powerful female executive in the U.S. defense industry, but in the entire history of that industry.
Hudson is not an overnight success. She has been toiling in the defense sector for nearly 40 years, since she first joined Harris Corporation as a junior engineer in 1972. She’s been at it for so long that two of the companies where she worked during her career — Ford Aerospace and Martin Marietta — don’t even exist anymore. So while it is unprecedented for a woman to rise as high in the defense sector as Hudson has, she has definitely paid her dues. Indeed, it is the consistency of her performance across four decades and a dozen major jobs that made BAE’s board so confident she was the right choice for leader of its sprawling U.S. business.
That business is engaged in a vast array of sensitive activities, from equipping warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan to supporting intelligence missions that the government doesn’t even admit exist. Although the parent company is headquartered in the United Kingdom, it enjoys greater access and trust in Washington than the vast majority of U.S. defense companies. To some degree its special relationship reflects the unique ties between America and Britain, but the more compelling factor is that there simply aren’t many companies that can do the kinds of things BAE does in areas such as electronic warfare, signals intelligence and cyber security.
Fortunately for Linda Hudson, she won’t have to bear the burden of always being the only girl in the room. In recent years, the demographic makeup of the defense industry has begun shifting as competitive pressures led companies to elevate the best performers rather than the most familiar ones. Two of Lockheed Martin’s four major business units are headed by women, as are Northrop Grumman’s vast information sector and Boeing’s C-17 program. So while Ms. Hudson can’t avoid being a symbol in her new position, she will not be alone. And as people at her own company have already learned, when you don’t make your numbers for the quarter, there isn’t much difference between reporting to a hard-charging man and a hard-charging woman.
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