Two women leaders in aerospace and defense
In the Air Force and at the Aerospace Corporation, they bring brains and unique decision-making skills to the table.
Lt Gen Ellen M. Pawlikowski and Dr Wanda M. Austin are two of today's true movers and shakers in our nation's space program: Pawlikowski in the Air Force Space Command (Peterson AFB, CO) and Austin with the Aerospace Corp (El Segundo, CA), a federally-funded R&D; center for the U.S. Air Force and national-security space programs.
The highly important positions Pawlikowski and Austin hold would have been unthinkable for women just a few years ago. And, as both women point out, they bring to their influential jobs the ability to work in reasonable comfort with the so-often-present element of uncertainty. This, they think, may be the major factor that distinguishes them from many male contemporaries.
This June, Lt Gen Ellen M. Pawlikowski became commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center of the Air Force Space Command (Los Angeles AFB, CA). She's responsible for more than 5,000 employees nationwide and an annual budget of $10 billion. As the Air Force program executive officer for space, she manages research, design, development, acquisition and sustainment of satellites and associated command and control systems.
She's worked on a number of joint assignments with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office and more. Her previous assignment was as commander of the Air Force Research Lab. She was in that position, and not yet a Lieutenant General, when Diversity/Careers' Kate Colborn interviewed her.
Kate Colborn: How is it to be such a highly visible female Air Force officer?
Lt Gen Pawlikowski: To be honest with you, most of the time I hardly notice, I'm so focused on getting the job done. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it, although until fairly recently I have typically been the only woman in the room in many of the meetings I go to.
The interesting part for me is probably how successful I've been in the Air Force as a technical officer as opposed to an operations officer. I feel that I have succeeded as a scientist. And when I look at where my challenges have been, never in the Air Force have I felt that being a woman slowed me down or was a detriment to me.
Colborn: Do you think your success has influenced other women in the Air Force?
Pawlikowski: It's true that as you go about your business people may be watching you, particularly the junior officers. I was at a conference where a young second lieutenant came up to me and said she wanted me to know how much of a role model I was for her and the rest of the young women officers. I'd never met her before in my life!
So there are a lot of people watching you and you have no idea they're doing that. I've probably been a role model to people without realizing it.
Colborn: Do you do any formal mentoring?
Pawlikowski: I've been doing a lot lately. I do a lot of talks to students about STEM, from grammar school kids up to grad school. I don't just focus on the women in the audience; I'm focusing on all the students and trying to encourage them in science and engineering because we need it as a nation. And if the audience is women I try to point out that the science and engineering world is an area where your gender doesn't really matter. It's your technical competence that's your strength when it comes to being able to perform.
Colborn: Did you yourself run into any of the "traditional" forces that keep females out of the talent pool?
Pawlikowski: Both my parents were extremely supportive of what I wanted to do and how I did it. In fact my dad, a social studies teacher, was the one who really pushed me into engineering when I was thinking about majoring in journalism. As a consequence, I can now write about the things I do as opposed to writing about things that others are doing. And I do a lot of writing in my job, so I'm fortunate that my interest in journalism gave me communication skills a lot of engineers don't ever get.
Colborn: That whole-hearted parental support may not always be common even now.
Pawlikowski: Yes. At one point in mid-career I was stationed in an area where I'd go around to middle schools to try to get young women to take the math and science classes they needed for college. I cannot tell you the number of times a parent came up to me and said, "My daughter is going to get a good job at the mall and find a good husband. She doesn't need to waste her time taking those classes!"
Our two daughters were young then, and I remember telling my husband, "We need to get out of this environment before the girls get much older!"
Colborn: Did your girls take the math classes?
Pawlikowski: They certainly did! My older daughter works for a food company doing pricing and inventory analysis. My younger one just finished her masters in biomedical engineering at the University of New Mexico.
Colborn: Do you feel your perspective as a technical woman is any different from a man's?
Pawlikowski: Well, we're all "victims" of where we've been in our lives and how we've been brought up, so it's really hard for me to judge whether something that happened in my life was because I'm a woman or just because of what I was brought up to be. But I do find that in many cases I'm able to better understand and blend the softer side, the less clear side of things than some of my male contemporaries.
There are lots of laws in engineering, and you can trudge your way through most things by making decisions based on what the math says is the right way to go. But most truly difficult decisions have an element of uncertainty in them, and sometimes it's the non-technical arguments that win the support.
I've found that I'm a little better with that than some of my male contemporaries. The problem-solving that girls learn babysitting may give them more flexibility than boys get delivering newspapers!
Colborn: I've noticed a lot of joint assignments in your biography. Have you done an unusual number of those?
Pawlikowski: I've probably done a lot more joint assignments than most people. I am a child of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, a law in the early 90s that said you had to have joint experience to progress to higher ranks in the military. All the services were struggling to supply this to their good people.
I distinctly remember the call I got from the personnel office before I went to the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 1994 on my first joint assignment. They said, "This will be good for your record," and I guess it was.
Being in technology I often found myself in programs that started as Air Force programs and then became joint programs, like the airborne laser program, for example, that was adopted by the Missile Defense Agency.
I believe the insights I've gotten on joint assignments have made me a better officer and given me a different perspective on warfighting for the U.S. At the Research Lab we're looking at unmanned vehicles and I think, "The Army would really be able to use this," or, "The Navy could use this." I have that perspective because I've had so many joint assignments. They've really been a huge advantage to me.
Colborn: Are you likely to be the only woman on these projects?
Pawlikowski: Oh yes, it's not unusual for me to be the only woman in the room. Nowadays there are often some female junior officers there too, but they're usually a few ranks below me.
Colborn: So there really has been a major change in the composition of the force?
Pawlikowski: Just look at the history of women in the officer corps. Until 1969 women could only come into jobs through officer training school where women were considered a nine-day wonder. It wasn't until 1969 that women were even allowed into ROTC and it wasn't until 1976 that women could go to the Air Force Academy. The first women graduated in 1980. That was when the flying opportunities and other jobs that women could do first opened up significantly.
I got my BS in ChE from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, Newark, NJ) in 1978 so I've been just a little ahead of the curve through my whole career. Typically when I entered a new rank – lieutenant colonel, then colonel, then brigadier general – usually less than 5 percent of people in that rank were women. But by the time I left the rank women were between 10 and 15 percent.
Colborn: You were there while it was happening!
Pawlikowski: Right after me was when the surge happened. I was the first woman that ever graduated from ROTC as a captain. When I was a first lieutenant at McClellan AFB in California a female one-star general came out to visit us. She invited all the women officers on base to come and talk with her, and there were just three of us on the entire base. I was a first lieutenant and there was a second lieutenant and one captain and that was all. Today 19.1 percent of the active duty force is women, and 18.7 percent of officers. Even at the two-star level we're over 10 percent, but when I first became a two-star I was one of just three female two-stars in the whole Air Force. Today there are at least ten of us.
Colborn: Quite a contribution!
Pawlikowski: I don't know that I was necessarily a pioneer, because I didn't have much to do with the laws changing. My contribution, I think, was to deliver. If we women had failed to perform in those first few years, we probably wouldn't have the numbers we have now.
Colborn: Is your husband Air Force, too?
Pawlikowski: He was, but he died earlier this year. He was on active duty for fifteen years, and for about ten years he and I were what we call "joint spouses" on active duty. If it wasn't for him, I don't know that I could have accomplished what I have; it would have been very difficult for me to raise two kids and have the kind of career that I've had. He was willing to take on some nontraditional male roles in order to help me.
He left the military in 1993. I had done very well, and he had always thought he'd like to teach math. So we decided it was better for him to get out and I would be in for twenty. I've now been in for twenty-nine, so I guess I just don't know when to quit!
Colborn: How did you get to NJIT?
Pawlikowski: My parents didn't have a lot of money. They told me the only thing they could contribute to college was room and board, which meant I would live at home. That narrowed down my search to what was a short commute from Bloomfield, NJ. NJIT was closest, and that's where I completed my BSChE.
Colborn: Did ROTC help with tuition?
Pawlikowski: Not initially. My first few years in school I worked as a cashier in a supermarket. At that point the only way you could get a four-year scholarship from the military was to be a pilot or a navigator, and as a woman I could not be either in those days.
It was ROTC, however, that got me into the Air Force. I was always fascinated by the military, and I signed up for Air Force ROTC because it was the only one on campus. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and I found a sense of purpose and duty and it was a way to serve my country, so I stuck it out.
Colborn: You've been to many colleges since.
Pawlikowski: Yes, a PhD in ChE from Berkeley, Squadron Officer School and then the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, a program managers course at Defense Systems Management College in Ft Belvoir, VA and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair in Washington, DC.
Colborn: What comes next?
Pawlikowski: Hard to know. But whatever it is, it will be a new opportunity to contribute to my country. That's how I look at it.
Dr Wanda M. Austin is president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, an independent nonprofit organization that is a leading architect of the nation's national security space programs, with nearly 4,000 employees and annual revenues topping $850 million.
Austin moved into the CEO job in 2008. Before that she was SVP of the company's national systems group, and before that of its engineering and technology group. Before Aerospace she was a member of tech staff at Rockwell International. She has a BS in math from Franklin & Marshall College. Her PhD, from the University of Southern California, is in systems engineering.
Kate Colborn: We would like to acquaint our readers with the very positive message of your success in one of the newest fields of opportunity for women. Please begin by talking about your management style, how it might be different from that of your male counterparts.
Dr Wanda M. Austin: I think women executives bring some different tools to the job. Women in technical fields seem to be more comfortable with uncertainty, and I think that's because women traditionally have adapted to multitasking. I think your ability to succeed has to depend on the ability to be agile and quickly shift from one thing to another, because things rarely move in a linear fashion!
A Harvard Business Review study has found that having even a few women on a board of directors changes the tone of the board so it becomes okay to have a little more discussion and to explore things you don't necessarily have a pat answer to.
Colborn: Does your style fit this perception?
Austin: My style is trying to elicit the best that everyone around the table has to offer. Of course I recognize that at the end of the day I'm accountable for the decision, but it's important to me to make sure that if there is a difference of opinion or perspective, it's heard and considered. If you don't provide an opportunity for people to share those different approaches, you may miss an opportunity to find a more optimum solution.
In the real world there's rarely a closed-form solution. I tell people you make the best decision you can given the information you have. But you always have the option to update that decision based on information that becomes available later on.
Colborn: You started out teaching math, but once you got to Rockwell you moved up pretty steadily.
Austin: Exactly. I was on tech staff at Rockwell International, and at Aerospace I was general manager of the MILSATCOM division before I became SVP and now CEO.
I believe that on every job or activity you undertake you should give absolutely your best effort and deliver all you have to deliver. But you have the option of assessing what you learned from that, and looking for different opportunities in the future where you might have something different to contribute.
I think in today's environment we recognize that most issues are very complex and many times the answer is, "It depends:" on initial conditions, on constraints, on the risk. There are no black and white answers to those constraints. It's a continuum, and if we're outside one of those constraints that may completely change the solution for us as well.
Colborn: Do you think the workplace has adjusted better because there are more technical women in it?
Austin: I think it's adjusted because the technology has driven us to be more agile, to respond to change, to have more info at our fingertips than we can possibly process.
Certainly the space world is a very dynamic environment. I think that with today's technology we have to learn to be comfortable with being a little uncomfortable. Everything can't fit into a closed-form solution.
Colborn: Is that your approach to the dynamic business environment you're responsible for?
Austin: Absolutely. And I must add that our business, and indeed most major businesses, really rely on ethics. That means you have to make sure you're doing the right things, even when nobody is watching.
My approach is to have a process that has been well vetted and reviewed and then follow that process, and get comfortable with the fact that people are going to come back and challenge you and say, "Why did you do this?" I think that more transparency in business is good.
Colborn: Transparency can be pretty public.
Austin: As a business leader today you have to realize that people will have more insight into what you're doing than they would have twenty years ago. It's very easy to connect the dots between what you do in the office, what you do in volunteering and what you're doing in the community, because today anyone who's interested can get digital access to all of that.
I think as you move up in leadership you have to recognize that yes, you are in a fishbowl. People are looking at you to think, "Do I want to emulate that? Is this someone who looks like she has a good decision-making process?" I think that comes as an additional responsibility of leadership.
Colborn: Do you think that as an African American woman you're particularly visible?
Austin: I am visible, certainly, although it still surprises me sometimes when I go somewhere where I think I'm anonymous and someone says, "I know who you are! You're the black CEO over at Aerospace!"
There aren't very many black females at this level, and in fact not very many African Americans at all in senior leadership in aerospace. So it makes you stand out among the crowd, but I look at it as an opportunity to provide mentorship in a way that may let me be a good example for young people.
Colborn: I know you're deeply involved in diversity with the "Change the Equation" initiative to promote literacy in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math.
Austin: Yes. Former astronaut Sally Ride, who is an Aerospace trustee, is one of the founders of the program, and I was one of the first CEOs to commit to it.
I think it's a tremendous opportunity because it provides an avenue through which you can speak to people. We have to make sure our young folks are getting the math and science education they need to be successful in the future!
Back to Top