Women in the Defense Sector Impressed By How Far They’ve Come

By Sandra I. Erwin
Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth (left) and Lisa Atherton, executive vice president of military business at Bell Helicopter, received a “Service to the Flag” award from Women In Defense.

A woman is now closer to the presidency than any other before. And there has been speculation for years that a Hillary Clinton administration also could make history if she selects a woman to run the Pentagon.

“It’s good to open our aperture to what possibilities there are,” said Lisa Atherton, executive vice president of military business at Bell Helicopter.

Atherton spoke June 15 at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

She and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth received a “Service to the Flag” award from Women In Defense. The association makes this award annually to leaders in the national security arena.  

Many women hold high posts in government and run the defense industry’s top corporations, Atherton said, so there is ample reason to believe that the Pentagon could be next.

One of Wormuth’s predecessors as undersecretary of defense for policy, Michele Flournoy, has often been mentioned on the short list of candidates for secretary of defense.

Wormuth just stepped down from the undersecretary job last week. She said whoever takes over next year will face a “challenging set of national security challenges.” The Pentagon not only is engaged in the conflict against the Islamic State but also trying to “rebalance” forces in the Pacific Rim, helping allies in the Middle East and Africa, and bolstering European NATO countries to help deter Russia.

“We really do have our hands full in the national security community.”

Over nearly two decades working in defense posts, Wormuth said she has seen women progress into leadership positions at a remarkably fast face. “When I started 20 years ago there were relatively few women in the office of the secretary of defense,” she said. Many of the women she started with eventually left government because they struggled with the work-family balance.

“A lot has changed, especially during the Obama administration,” she said. “We see women at the highest levels.” The top two civilians running the U.S. Air Force are women, Navy Adm. Michelle Howard became the top naval officer at NATO, and Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson became the first woman to run a major combatant command when she took over U.S. Northern Command.

“Those are tremendous steps forward and tremendous milestones,” she said. “It is great to see those changes frankly not because I believe the character of our national security policy is fundamentally different because of the fact that there are women working in it. It’s more that, over time, we brought more expertise and more diversity of perspectives. That’s good for developing our foreign policy.”

Wormuth credited Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for pushing ahead with so-called “force of the future” personnel reforms, intended to attract new talent to the military and civilian workforce to help solve emerging problems. “There is still a lot more we need to do to help talented professionals, men and women,” she said. “I’m a big fan of the force of the future initiative.” Worth supports efforts to increase parental leave, allow skilled experts to “lateral” into the military and provide more affordable childcare.

Photo: WID

Topics: Defense Department

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