Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic cover story has sparked a lot of discussion about gender issues and ‘work-life balance.’ Her piece was important not only for starting conversations but because she used it to point out some of the structural issues preventing women from achieving workplace equality, something that is particularly salient in Slaughter’s field – foreign policy – and its frequent partner national security, both still overwhelmingly dominated by men.

In such fields, it is understandable that women would try to be more like men in order to get ahead, or just get a foot in the door. Juliette Kayyem had a column in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago that offered advice to women who want to write on security and foreign policy. Most of what she wrote seemed like quite good advice for anyone, but one suggestion struck me as the sort of thing that looks like a solution but is really part of the problem: “it’s sometimes useful to throw out words that sound manly.” That’s ‘throw out’ as in ‘use,’ not ‘throw out’ as in ‘get rid of.’

That is at best a short term, limited effect solution. It might be helpful to certain individuals who pursue it, but it does nothing to address the deeper issues that have created the imbalance in the first place, and if we don’t address those, women will always be on the outside trying to punch their way in. It’s not about making women more like men; it’s about building a society where both are valued equally. As Slaughter so eloquently put it, “If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal.” In order to do so, we need to reject the system altogether, actively working against damaging perceptions about women, calling out inequalities when we see them, and getting women’s views into the public sphere as much as possible. These requirements are deceptively simple, and devilishly hard to implement.

We need to reject the gendering of strength and courage. Gender-based perceptions of strength are harmful and inaccurate. Everyday language is full of idioms that equate strength and competence with men, and weakness with women. If someone is brave, we might say – pardon the vernacular – that they ‘have balls.’ If someone is fearful, we might tell them to ‘man up,’ or ‘sack up,’ or ‘be a man.’ All of these terms ascribe strength and courage to the male and by implication, weakness to the female. Conversely, a boy who complains or shows emotion might be told he’s acting ‘like a girl.’ A boy who can’t throw a baseball well might be mocked for ‘throwing like a girl.’ It’s insidious, and while it might seem harmless, such language can contribute to building unconscious attitudes. Women are not necessarily physically weaker than men, and courage is not a male trait. More importantly, strength is more than just physical, and a robust national security requires all kinds of strength, for example intellectual, creative, strategic, and moral strength, just to name a few.

We need to speak up. Many people have said that women are underrepresented in public discourse – including the kind of public commentary that sets social and political agendas – because we don’t speak up, because we lack self-confidence, because we are socialized as children to please people while boys are socialized to demand attention. In a recent column for the Guardian on why women write such a low percentage of op-eds, Maura Kelly concluded that one reason behind the disparity was that “Women will write in when they feel certain they have specialized knowledge of a subject, whereas men don’t feel they need much more than a strong opinion or an interesting idea.” Whether one of these reasons is to blame, or an ‘old boys’ network,’ or some combination of all of the above, women need to speak up more, and we need to raise our daughters to speak up. Speak in your company’s meetings. Ask questions at public lectures. Pitch an op-ed. Start a blog. Tweet. There are more ways than ever for a dedicated person to share his or her views in a public forum.

We need to mentor each other. Several of the women Micah Zenko reached out to for his column “Where are the Women in Foreign Policy?” mentioned a mentorship gap as one of the primary issues hurting women’s advancement. As Diana Wueger pointed out in her essay, “mentors are vital for opening doors and offering suggestions and feedback about career choices.” Women need mentors who are men and women – especially now while so few women hold high positions in the national security establishment – but it’s important for women who do achieve success in the field to reach out to and support talented and hard-working young women trying to break in.

These are just a few examples. To make the changes in our very base thinking that will be required in order to give women a more equal role in national security requires mindfulness about the way we use language, and the often unconscious messages we receive from society, and give to those we meet. It requires us to speak up for ourselves and for others, and to enlist the support of men as well as other women. In essence, it requires us to be a little bit annoying – polite, firm, but annoying. That can be uncomfortable, but this is too important, not just for ourselves or our daughters, but because the status quo – in which our national security sphere lacks the input, ideas, and talents of nearly half the population, and so many practitioners share similar profiles – risks letting us get hopelessly stuck in limited ways of thinking, and that’s a problem for our nation as a whole.

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