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More women filling top jobs at big defense contractors

WASHINGTON - More female executives are rising to the top levels of the largest defense companies, setting a standard that industry officials say may help encourage more women to enter the field.

This week, Phebe Novakovic is set to become president and chief operating officer at Virginia-based General Dynamics after serving as executive vice president of the company’s marine systems group.

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The move puts Novakovic in line to replace Jay Johnson, chairman and chief executive, though the company has not made any formal decision.

“That’s the start of a very disciplined succession rhythm here,’’ Johnson said of Novakovic’s new role during a call with investors last week. “We’ll continue to work very closely together.’’

Novakovic’s ascension comes as Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, named Marillyn Hewson its new president and chief operating officer, beginning Jan. 1. Hewson heads the company’s electronic systems business.

Linda Hudson, president and chief executive of BAE Systems’ Virginia-based US business, said the rise of female executives could influence young women interested in aerospace and defense, potentially broadening the hiring pool.

“With Marillyn’s promotion at Lockheed Martin following on the heels of Phebe’s promotion at GD, I think it’s harder and harder to say these are just individual events,’’ Hudson said. “Trend might be too strong a word, but [we have] certainly a pattern of women moving up at aerospace and defense companies.’’

The arrival of female executives at some of the most prominent contractors may also influence smaller companies, said Marion Blakey, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association.

“Is it a tidal wave? No, but it is a surge,’’ Blakey said. “I really do feel these [promotions] are an important bellwether for tapping the best talent in our industry.’’

[On its website, Waltham-based Raytheon Co. has three women on its 20-person list of executive profiles: Lynn A. Dugle, president of Intelligence and Information Systems; Rebecca R. Rhoads, chief information officer; and Pamela A. Wickham, vice president, corporate affairs and communications.]

Hewson downplayed the role gender played in her success. She has worked in three of the company’s four business units, held 18 different leadership roles, and moved to eight Lockheed locations.

In 2007, Hewson helped establish a new business for Lockheed called Logistics Services, and she was head of Lockheed Martin’s business in Owego, N.Y., when the unit’s flagship program, the presidential helicopter, was canceled in 2009.

“I know that a lot of women look for role models in different areas, so I certainly want to continue to be a role model,’’ she said in an interview. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily about being a female in our business. I think it’s about . . . my track record, my results.’’

Jolynn Shoemaker, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ women in international security program, said the industry still fails to retain enough of its female employees. “We still do have a problem with a leaky pipeline,’’ Shoemaker said.

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