The defense industry has other forces working against it. Panetta, the Tufts professor, said such fields as biomedical engineering appeal to women who want to work on societal issues. In contrast, women often don’t see options in aerospace and defense beyond “making bombs,” she said.
Some universities are now linking engineering programs to music and other creative fields to increase appeal to women and other groups, Panetta said.
Role models are key to combating stereotypes of scientists and engineers as geeky or weird, Mills said, noting that such images have persisted since she entered the field decades ago.
Hewson said television shows like “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” often portray female analysts as brilliant but quirky and odd, while female investigators are shown as beautiful and sexy.
Attracting girls to science and technology while they are still in middle school is especially important, Panetta said.
“Image is everything,” she said. “The media play a huge role.”
The image, and recruitment, should improve with three women heading defense businesses, said Ana Dutra, chief executive for leadership and talent consulting at Korn/Ferry International.
“It’s going to be a total game-changer,” Dutra said. “There is an inspiration factor. I bet that we’re going to see many more women graduates reaching out to those companies and wanting to be part of them,” Dutra said.
But today’s younger women likely won’t have the patience to slowly work their way up and wait until they are in their late 40s, 50s or 60s to hold powerful jobs, Dutra said.