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Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally on Why Courage Is Just as Important Off the Battlefield

October 22, 2019, 5:57 PM UTC

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.): senator, retired Air Force colonel, first woman to fly in combat, one of the highest-ranking female pilots in the history of the Air Force. McSally is no stranger to mustering up courage where it may be hard to come by. 

She also made one momentous act of courage off the battlefield. In March, at a Senate hearing on preventing sexual assault in the military, McSally said she was raped by a superior officer during her time in the Air Force. At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Tuesday, she described what led her to come forward.

“In that moment in time, because of the position I’m in, because of the importance of the issue, I had a unique perspective not just as someone who had been a commander, but as a survivor,” she said. “I felt I just needed to share this.” 

McSally highlighted that a significant percentage of women and men are survivors of sexual assault—and “some people take it to their grave,” she said. “I felt like, if there was somebody that this happened to yesterday or 30 years ago, maybe seeing me share my own story helps them get out of bed today.”

It’s not the topic she was planning to lead on. But there she was, in that moment in time, facing an urgent issue. “In the military, this is a cancer to our good order and mission,” McSally said. 

During her time in the military, McSally said, there was “a hostile environment” against women. She recounted how the chief of staff of the Air Force testified to Congress that he would rather choose a less qualified man than a woman to be a fighter pilot.

“This was the culture at the top,” McSally said. “We had to change people’s minds one at a time. People realize when they’re going in harm’s way, they need to put things aside … our lives are in each other’s hands.”

She found, however, that it got harder as she moved through the ranks.

“It’s one thing to be a wingman,” she said. “But then when you become flight lead, instructor, commander … it surprisingly gets a little more hostile as you move up.”

She’s referring to a phenomenon experienced by many women who gain leadership in their career.

Women at the top face more discrimination from both women and men, and research has shown they’re viewed as less qualified for leadership positions by all. But women in leadership, like McSally, don’t back away from a firefight.

More must-read stories from Fortune’s MPW Summit:

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—Female directors agree a “blunt instrument is necessary” to get women on boards
—How to avoid the biggest ‘decision trap’ in business
—Peloton’s CFO has “so much sympathy” for WeWork
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