Military Embedded Systems

2014 Influential Women in Defense Electronics: Nan Mattai, Senior VP, Engineering & Technology for Rockwell Collins


March 06, 2014

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

2014 Influential Women in Defense Electronics: Nan Mattai, Senior VP, Engineering & Technology for Rockwell Collins

Nan Mattai is Senior VP, Engineering & Technology for Rockwell Collins where she's responsible for the Engineering & Technology organization, including the Advanced Technology Center. Mattai holds a M.S. degree in Nuclear Physics from the University of Windsor, Canada and has completed all graduate courses for a Doctorate in Physics.


Q: What are the biggest challenges you face every day as a woman in the defense industry?

Being the only woman in the room. I am often the only female in my peer group at work and in industry forums. This creates a high degree of visibility and exposure, a feeling of constantly being in a fishbowl. At times, it can be downright scary; it’s hard to speak up but it also provides unique opportunities for networking and knowledge expansion. Another challenge is the limited access and availability of female role models. I’m fortunate to have had excellent male mentors who have helped to guide and steer my career development and advancement – supporting, encouraging, and believing in me. However, there are times when it would be really helpful to have some guidance and support from women who have successfully navigated the field, learned the hard way of what works and what doesn’t, to speed up the learning process and have a shoulder to lean on. Work/life balance on a daily basis is a third challenge and requires special attention. The challenges have changed since my children were at home and today it is more about ensuring some “me” time for rest, relaxation, and family time.

Q: How do you overcome those challenges? What or who is your inspiration?

You must believe in yourself, believe that you are capable, find your own inner strength, and always be prepared. You have to build and display confidence because those who show confidence typically get noticed more, regardless of gender. I’ve never paid any attention to those people who say that you have to change to fit into a pre-formed mold. I learned to embrace my unique value and perspectives while embracing my shortcomings, as well as the need for collaboration with those whose strengths compliment my own. I work hard to develop trusting relationships and partnerships with my peer groups inside the company and the industry, reaching out for advice and guidance whenever needed. It’s also a must to build a strong support structure at home with those who are there for you unconditionally. My immediate family are my biggest cheerleaders and support group. We must always take things in stride, recognizing that balance doesn’t mean 50/50. There are times when work will require 100 percent and what’s most important is being there 100 percent at that time, placing other busy thoughts aside for later.

My personal inspiration is my mom. Growing up, she instilled the importance of learning and a strong work ethic. She taught me that to succeed in life you need to study, work hard, set goals for yourself and don’t stop until you reach them. She often said “you can do anything and don’t accept that it can’t be done.” In moments of uncertainty, these words ring true and I know that I have the will and capability to succeed. The values she taught me remain with me to this day. Professionally, it’s inspiring to see women increasingly filling prominent defense positions. Hopefully this encourages more women to enter the field. Seeing Phebe Novakovic and Marilyn Hewson rise to the top of General Dynamics & Lockheed Martin respectively signals strongly that female influence in this male-dominated industry is growing.

Q: How can more women be prepared to enter the male-dominated defense industry and, for that matter, traditionally male fields such as the engineering profession?

All industries need a balance of women and men working alongside each other, as both genders bring different viewpoints and opinions to the table. In a male-dominated industry or company, as in any, you have to be flexible, willing to learn, deliver results, and be a team player. Ways to prepare women for these challenges include:

• Early intervention efforts – as early as middle school – that focus on increasing participation in science and math for female students. Programs such as “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” exposes more young women to an engineer’s job environment and to successful women engineers who can serve as mentors and role models.

• Share stories of successful women who have stayed in the defense industry and the engineering profession to address perceptions that there are no advancement opportunities in male-dominated fields or that the engineering culture is male-centric with high expectations for travel and little personal time. Showcasing these visible role models combats professional and work culture stereotypes. Real-life examples of women crushing the glass ceiling while managing work/life balance and gaining peer respect are inspiring.

Q: During your career in the defense electronics industry what were the most significant events and disruptive technologies?

Significant events would be: 9/11, post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Budget Control Act/sequestration. Disruptive technologies I’ve seen include the miniaturization of electronics that resulted in significant size, weight, and power reductions; Global Positioning Systems (GPS)/satellite navigation; digital glass cockpits; networked communications; and unmanned platforms.

Q: The defense market’s budget-constrained environment makes forecasting tough. Given that fact, what segments of the military market will have the most growth potential over the next five years for producers of defense electronics?

There are exciting prospects for unmanned aerial systems, cybersecurity, adaptive communications, and international market expansion.


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