Women in defense represented by a headshot of SDi's Alison Johnson

Women in Defense: Spotlight on Sentient Digital’s Alison Johnson

News, Industry Expertise
IT careers for veterans, hiring, women in tech, women military

Women have been underrepresented in the defense industry, meaning that many employers are missing out on a large pool of highly capable potential employees. Sentient Digital, Inc., and its subsidiary, RDA, Inc.,  are proud to employ many talented women in defense, such as U.S. Navy veteran Alison Johnson, our Director of Program and Portfolio Management. In this blog post we will look at the experience of women in the defense industry while providing Johnson’s insights and advice for women currently working or aspiring to work in this field. 

Background on Women in the Defense Industry

The defense industry has historically had a predominantly male workforce and, while women have made inroads over the years, that remains true to this day. The U.S. Department of Defense’s demographics report noted that in 2021, 17.3% of active-duty military members were women, as well as 21.4% of the National Guard and reserves, while also finding that the percentage of women on active duty and in the reserves was increasing. A 2015 ClearanceJobs article noted that in one survey, among 1200 professionals with security clearance, over half of those surveyed stated that their offices were less than 30% female, while 83% of the women surveyed had observed or experienced discrimination. When it comes to military contractors, a 2023 article in the foreign policy site Inkstick reported that not a single one of the top five defense contractors had a workforce that was more than 25% women. The industry is missing out on the contributions of a large segment of the potential workforce, which could prove vital to national defense. 

Recruiting more women and helping them to build strong careers in the defense industry will bring a diversity of perspectives that enhance strategic planning and operations. Active duty, veteran, and civilian women can provide valuable insights from their own experiences to better inform critical defense decisions. Promoting women in this sector also fosters an inclusive, representative culture where all employees feel valued and empowered to contribute their best work.

The best way to understand the experience of women who work in any industry is to talk to them. For this reason, we want to provide insights from one of the many women who are critical to Sentient Digital’s success. We interviewed Alison Johnson, Director of Program and Portfolio Management, to find out what drew her to the defense industry, how she has built her career to this point, and the insights she has gained that may help other women in the industry.

Insights on Women in Defense from Our Interview with Alison Johnson

Getting Started in The Industry and Building a Career

Johnson explained that coming from a military family, the defense industry was a natural fit for her. After studying science as an undergraduate, she served active duty in the United States Navy. She then went on to work as a Warranty Engineer in a naval shipyard. As she continued her work as a civilian in the industry, she realized that an MBA would be advantageous as it provided needed skills. Obtaining an MBA allowed her to pursue her interest in project management and program management and continue to grow her career. 

The Benefits of Working in Defense

When discussing the benefits of this career path, Johnson first mentioned that she enjoys supporting the warfighter and U.S. Military objectives, now in a civilian capacity. Additionally, as a military spouse, working in defense means that when the family moves to a new location, she has a greater chance of finding another position in her field. In particular, her ability to work in project and program management, since obtaining her MBA, gives her the flexibility to work across a variety of specialties, including shipbuilding, construction, IT, and heavy equipment/industrial.

The Keys to Success for Women in Defense

Johnson stressed the importance of three major avenues for women working in defense or STEM to build success: skill building, networking, and mentoring. 

Skill building is critical in technology careers, because staying up to date with technological changes and how to leverage them for clients’ benefit requires constant learning. Johnson encourages other professionals to think outside of their current roles and explore other aspects of the defense industry, while building the skills to excel in their areas of interest. She stated, “Make sure you actively try to learn new skills in your career; you might find you enjoy and are good at other aspects of the defense industry than your current role.“ In addition to developing subject matter expertise, Johnson emphasized the critical importance of interpersonal skills such as team building, which helps you to motivate your team and the organizational teams of your clients.

Women networking

Networking matters because having the right connections makes a big difference for career growth. Establishing connections through networking provides access to information, opportunities, and resources of which professionals otherwise might not even be aware. Meeting new people and reconnecting with existing contacts facilitates the exchange of ideas, exposure to various perspectives, and the cultivation of meaningful relationships. Especially early on in a career, building and leveraging one’s network is key to exploring potential career paths, finding new positions, and advancing in your career. Continuously expanding and nurturing a strong network will have long-term career value. Getting out into the community and networking is important for all professionals, but it holds particular importance for women in the defense industry and in STEM, where there may be fewer women in your own workplace to get to know.

Networking also provides the opportunity to connect with other women in defense and in STEM, another area in which women continue to be underrepresented. Johnson suggested volunteering or joining an organization for women in these fields as ways to make a difference, as well as mentoring.

Whether as mentor or mentee, getting involved in mentoring can help women to build defense careers. Shared experiences, candid advice and role modeling from more senior professionals can help women earlier in their careers to find their trajectories. Mentorship can offer encouragement, accountability, and confidence to meet your goals, and to reach for new opportunities when they become available. Investing your time to lift up women starting out in your field allows women professionals to be a part of making change in their fields. Whether you are just starting out or looking to advance in your career, mentors can help you to take the steps needed to become the best candidate for promotion, drawing on the invaluable resource of their own experience. Once you have grown to become an experienced professional, you can become a mentor to give back to the community and help other defense and STEM professionals to succeed.

Resources for Women in Defense and STEM

As Johnson noted, participating in organizations for women in STEM fields and in the defense industry can provide support and guidance, as well as the opportunity to make connections and encourage other women in their careers. Joining professional associations relevant to your field provides a wide variety of benefits for career development and industry impact. These organizations facilitate networking with like-minded professionals at varying career stages, allowing you to gain advice from experienced members while potentially mentoring those at earlier career stages. Events and conferences organized by these associations can serve as opportunities to gain industry knowledge and skills. Volunteering and taking on leadership roles can offer visibility and let you showcase your strengths. You may have the opportunity to write for industry publications and become recognized as a thought leader. You may also receive access to job boards listing exciting openings first. Having a seat at the table with fellow professionals may even grant you a voice to weigh in on issues impacting your field, such as ethics codes, certification requirements, and more. Participating in the present and future of your industry instills pride and purpose that will help you to continue on your career path even if you encounter setbacks.

Relevant organizations include the advisory council of Women in STEM (WISTEM). WISTEM is an organization of high school girls interested in STEM fields, but its advisory council consists of professors and professionals who can help to guide these future professionals. Women can participate in networking and mentor the students, helping them to get started on their career path. WISTEM provides an excellent opportunity to have a direct impact on the future of women in STEM fields.

Another organization of note is Women in Defense (WID), an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association. WID is a professional association for women in the defense industry that offers networking and educational opportunities. The organization hosts three national events per year, while its many chapters host additional events, providing many opportunities to get involved. 

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is a nonprofit organization with an over seventy-year history of women empowering women for career success. Through scholarships, conferences, training, and more, SWE works to achieve its vision of, “A world with gender parity and equality in engineering and technology.”

These are just a few examples of the many organizations that women can join to network with others, receive and give mentoring, and gain useful career skills. Ultimately, making the choice to build a career in the defense industry and in STEM will involve both individual effort and working together with others in your field, so professional associations provide an excellent starting point.

Learn More About Careers in Defense with Sentient Digital

Sentient Digital and its subsidiary RDA employ a talented team of individuals who excel in their fields to provide custom technology solutions to government, military, and private sector clients.Without the contributions of women, our organization would not be what it is today.  If you are interested in working with the women subject matter experts who bring value to our organization and clients every day, go to our current job postings to find the right fit for you.