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July 12, 2013The contributions of non-staff guest bloggers to Catalyzing represent the views of the author and not necessarily those of Catalyst Inc. Queries about this post should be left in the Comments section below and/or addressed directly to Cindy Skrzycki at GlobalPost.

Workplace sexism takes many forms. Some women are paid less than their male counterparts. Others are consistently passed over for promotions. And some are sexually assaulted on the job.

A recent Defense Department report claims that in the American military—one of our nation’s largest workplaces—26,000 men and women (mostly women) were sexually assaulted last year.

Reporting these incidents can destroy a victim’s career, and the numbers show it: only 3,374 of these assaults were reported to commanders. And just about 300 of the 2,558 incidents victims wanted to pursue were ultimately prosecuted.

Cindy SkrzyckiWhy does this matter?

Because the military is the only career path for some women and a career dead-end for many—even those in our nation's elite military academies.

Our military could be a training ground for some of the country's bravest and brightest women. Instead, many never advance inside the military—or, when they get out of it, in the corporate world, which could use a few more talented women in its ranks and on its boards.

There are two ways to solve the escalating problem of sexual assault in the military: legally require its current leaders to do the right thing, or make sure more women assume leadership positions in the services.

At a recent hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a tough group of women senators pushed for legislation holding the commanders who were supposed to be preventing sexual abuse accountable for their failure to do so. There are currently seven bills pending that would address this issue, the most potent of which would, for the first time, completely alter how the crimes of sexual harassment, assault, and rape in the military are prosecuted.

Most critically, this legislation would allow independent military prosecutors, rather than victims’ commanders, to decide which cases go forward. Makes sense, given how many of those who have reported incidents to their commanders have suffered retribution, isolation, ruined careers, and even additional assaults.

The Committee chairman is pushing to ramp up the consequences for retaliation against victims and make it harder for commanders to overturn the recommendations of military lawyers—but also to keep the status quo on the prosecutorial front. This will come up again when the provision goes to the full Senate and has to be reconciled with a House bill; if accepted, it will considerably weaken the proposed legislation.

But the panel’s women senators are not going to allow this crisis to be swept under the rug.

“You have lost the trust of the men and women who report to you,” said Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY). Gillibrand wants to take discipline decisions out of the chain of command because “not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape.” She also expressed concern that commanding officers might refuse to court-martial a sexual predator if he were a good pilot or had some other professional asset.

Much as these derelict military commanders have done, too many companies rely on damage control when crimes against women employees are made public, rather than striving to create workplaces in which such behavior is unthinkable.

Anyone can be in charge. But only a leader can reshape an institution as multifaceted and powerful as the military or the corporate world. And working women deserve real leadership, whether their workplace is an office or a battlefield.