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, 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.
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