Two veterans have launched an effort to combat what they call gender bias and inaccurate portrayals of women in the media, as well as cyber harassment.

One is Paula Broadwell, an Army intelligence officer who has served 20 years on active and reserve duty and rose to national prominence when her relationship with Army Gen. David Petraeus became public. The resulting fallout led to his 2012 resignation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And for Broadwell, it drew intense media scrutiny of a woman with a track record of high achievement and educational and professional success.Two veterans have launched an effort to combat what they call gender bias and inaccurate portrayals of women in the media, as well as cyber harassment.

She has teamed with Kyleanne Hunter, who was a Marine Corps officer for more than a decade, serving as an AH-1W Super Cobra attack pilot and liaison officer, to form Think Broader. The organization is designed to "promote the accurate and dignified representation of women so that in the public and private sector we can achieve equality and organizations can achieve diversity," Broadwell said.

They're looking at bias in a broad range of media — print, broadcast, films and social media. "If you look at what is the biggest influencer of how people think and how people act and how people relate to one another, it comes from the media," Hunter said.

As part of their nonprofit work, Broadwell and Hunter recently met with Military Times reporters and editors to discuss their initiative. It was one of a number of behind-the-scenes media visits to encourage journalists to guard against biases in their work. Think Broader also operates a for-profit business consulting service.

As one example of gender bias in the media, Hunter notes that she has been referred to in articles as a "female Cobra pilot," while others were referred to simply as "Cobra pilots," not "male Cobra pilots."

Chilean Hunter, co-founder of Think Broader, during an editorial board at Military Times. (Mike Morones/staff)
Chilean Hunter, co-founder of Think Broader, during an editorial board at Military Times. (Mike Morones/staff)

Kyleanne Hunter, co-founder of Think Broader, was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot and liaison officer.

Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff

Hunter said she felt as if her gender somehow was a hindrance, or at least a qualifier, to that accomplishment.

The ultimate hope, she said, is "that it becomes just another pilot doing it, just another professional or another intel officer, just another nuclear physics specialist."

Hunter said she and Broadwell have been encouraging media outlets to avoid using words like mistress, to stop using female qualifiers and to avoid using one gender exclusively in military descriptions.

They also suggest seeking out more experts who are women to discuss military issues, to remind the public that women serve, too.

"A lot of women out there ... have done really great things in the military and work right alongside our men and are just as qualified, and some even very much more so," Hunter said. "The more you really put these women forward as experts, the more it's going to start changing this whole perception about what women are doing."

The two also are working behind the scenes to stem the tide of cyber harassment and cyber bullying, asking media outlets and others to monitor their websites and social media communities to stop it.

Broadwell declined to speak publicly about her relationship with Petraeus, its fallout, and how it has affected her personally and professionally. She cited concerns about effects that such talk would have on her family, as well as ongoing legal issues related to that scandal.

But she acknowledged learning a lot from the experience, and it has played a part in leading her to this current path. She and Hunter say their positive and negative experiences inform their approach to advocacy for change in the media's portrayal of military women.

Broadwell declined to answer questions about whether her past relationship with Petraeus could detract from her credibility as an advocate for these issues.

But some think those questions are moot. "Her personal life is not relevant to her knowledge and talent. Paula Broadwell is a distinguished West Point grad and former intelligence officer, MPA from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and tireless advocate for veterans locally and nationally," said Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate and advocate for gender equality and fairness. "Of course, she has standing to advocate for military women — she's brilliant, talented and dedicated to service. She understands the issues as well as any of us, perhaps even better."

Fulton noted that after public exposure of affairs, only women tend to be stripped of previous accomplishments. "It's the woman who's supposed to disappear from public life. It's the woman who must endure rape threats and worse online, even years after the affair, when she dares to write a blog advocating for wounded warriors."

Hunter says as an "unconscious media bias" has had an impact on her entire career, whether fighting for recognition within the military, or, after she left the Marine Corps in 2012, fighting for recognition as an expert in a university setting.

There's a perception that women are weaker, and women are less capable, or more emotional, and not rational when it comes to making decisions, Hunter said.

"I think it's just because it's so unconscious that women are [supposed] to be hysterical and weaker and not rational," she said. "... '[If you] don't fit our concept of what you should be, go back there, be slower, be more hysterical, then we can know how to deal with you.' That's how the media influences larger society in that way, [and] the military is one reflection of that."

Being a woman who was physically capable, exceeding standards, made it worse for her, Hunter said. "I was told to run slower, to do less PT, show up to less meetings," she said, because it made her male peers look bad. She held herself to the same standards that she expected of her male Marines. "I'm not going to tell them to gun an 18-minute three mile and do 20 pull-ups and not do it myself, because that's just bad leadership in my mind," she said.

"If I'm expecting this of them, I'm going to do the exact same thing."

She also saw misperceptions about women in her academic world. When she and other veterans met with one of their senior professors at the University of Denver shortly after she arrived, "the first question he asked me was, 'So, were you raped?' "

But she heard him ask a male veteran where he was deployed, how many deployments he did, and whether he fought.

Hunter said she did a small study of stories about military women and found there were six times more stories about rape than there were about anything else in the top 100 news results.

"There is this perception that as a woman it's a very real problem, but it creates this perception that if you were a woman in the military, you were clearly raped," she said.

She sees a shift in attitude of younger women coming into the military, she said. "They want to be held to the same standard. They want to push themselves to the higher kind of points. They want to be judged on the same playing field as their male counterparts."

Broadwell also is seeing a similar shift; she's observed a recent phenomenon after two West Point women graduated from the Army's fabled Ranger School in August.

That milestone "has brought the community of 40 years of female graduates of West Point together. We've never had solidarity," Broadwell said, noting women have fought similar battles, but individually.

"Women have come together and shared their stories," she said. "I'm so amazed and impressed by my sisters in arms, and I don't think the American public realizes how much sheer talent there is out there."