Hedden said the departures often reflect frustration among women about the challenges of a male-dominated culture where they feel they must prove their competence over and over again.
“They get tired of fighting all the time,” Hedden said.
Hudson logged many firsts in her ascent: first female to take engineering drawing at her Florida high school; first woman manager at Ford Aerospace and Communications Corp; first female vice president of an operating company at Martin Marietta; and first female corporate officer and company president at General Dynamics.
“Every senior level job I got, people presumed I was incompetent,” she said in an earlier interview. “Only after I managed to perform did I get the point across.”
Women have made bigger gains in professions such as finance and information technology, where they account for 41 percent to 55 percent of the workforce, according to a U.S. Commerce Department study. But in the manufacturing, transportation and mining and gas industries, the female workforce remains relatively small.
Big defense companies are spending to attract young women. Northrop Grumman Corp(NOC.N), for example, invests millions of dollars a year to encourage female high school and college students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math careers, said Linda Mills, who heads the company’s $8.4 billion Information Systems unit.
Such investments have helped big companies like Lockheed and Northrop hire a greater proportion of women than smaller firms, according to Aviation Week’s study.
“Without that investment, declining enrollment in these fields by young women will deprive us of the very resource we are looking to access,” said Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association and former head of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Mills, 62, is herself a role model: In January she will move to a newly created job overseeing Northrop’s overall operations as corporate vice president of operations. In her view, the industry must do better at pitching women on exciting prospects in robotics, unmanned vehicles and cyberspace - areas where hiring is likely to continue even as the overall U.S. defense budget declines.