High-ranking women in contracting see changes in industry

September 23, 2012

The rise of top female executives at defense contracting giants such as General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin has attracted attention, given the industry’s long tradition of male leadership.

But at some local defense and government contractors, women have already been running the show. These executives say the increasing prominence of female leaders at contractors of all sizes is leading to more flexibility in the workplace and a greater diversity of perspectives.

Still, it hasn’t always been easy for these women to advance. Lynette Spano, who founded McLean-based technology contractor SCI Consulting Services nearly three decades ago, said she encountered some bias when starting her business, which works with the Department of Homeland Security and the Energy Department, among other agencies.

“I made it my business to know my business really well, so when they did attempt to challenge me, they recognized very quickly that I knew my game,” said Spano, who said men sometimes called her “dearie” in meetings. “I was armed and ready and prepared. I’d go to a meeting and know the guy was a golfer.”

The company, which at one point held 8(a) small-business status, now has 385 employees.

As women take on more senior roles within the industry, they’re finding ways to change it.

Marybeth Wootton, president of Arlington-based technology company Berico Technologies, which specializes in national defense and intelligence work, said that she has seen — and promoted — increased flexibility in the workplace over the last decade.

The defense and aerospace industry has become more “results-focused,” she said, meaning that what’s valued is getting things done, rather than simply being in the office.

“The advent of different types of work-life balance ... has allowed women to have a lot more opportunity,” said the mother of three. Additionally, “technology has enabled more of an even playing field for someone who is trying to balance home responsibilities with work responsibilities.”

Jodi Johnson co-founded defense and intelligence contractor Oberon Associates in 2002, which was sold to Stanley in 2008 (Stanley was later sold to CGI). Earlier this year, she and three others founded Manassas-based Titania Solutions, which works in areas such as cybersecurity and intelligence.

An Army veteran who worked in military intelligence, Johnson said increased diversity in the field yields more and better ideas.

“The more that the limitations are removed, the more we’ll just reach a lot of different people,” she said. “It adds perspective and different skills and talents.”

Still, the ways that women will affect the industry are something of a “guessing game,” said Jolynn Shoemaker, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ women in international security program. “This is quite revolutionary in certain ways [so] we can’t predict what the impact’s going to be.”

However, she said it’s already evident these female leaders become role models for younger women.

Johnson has sought to mentor young women and encourage them to pursue work in areas like defense and contracting.

“It can be very powerful for especially [college students] to see women who have been successful,” she said. “They realize, ‘She’s just like me.’”

And several female contracting executives agree that an influx of women has made for more open events for both networking and for bonding with co-workers.

In the past, “the men would kind of go one way and if they were smoking cigars, you wouldn’t be invited,” Wootton said. “There’s a little bit less cigar-smoking around deals and celebrations of wins.”

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