Alexandra Erwin
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Student-led effort aims to close gender leadership gap via training of STEM undergraduates

Thu, 02/23/2017

LAWRENCE — A $4,800 Campus Action Project (CAP) grant from the American Association of University Women, which this year focuses on the gender leadership gap, will help empower undergraduate women in STEM at the University of Kansas. A group of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows authored the grant — one of 10 awarded national grants funded by the AAUW.

The student-led effort to write the CAP grant partially stemmed from graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in STEM at KU, who recognize the effect of early professional development on their careers.

“Several of us have never had a professional female mentor, and others of us would have never taken on leadership positions or even pursued science if we didn’t have professional mentors encouraging us early on in our careers,” said Alexandra Erwin, CAP grant writer and doctoral student in ecology & evolutionary biology.

The grant's authors initiated efforts last fall semester to organize Jayhawks Breaking Barriers, a spring 2017 project that aims to increase awareness of the gender leadership gap in STEM fields.

The selected JBB participants will explore the local gender leadership gap in STEM and develop leadership skills through four core components:

  • Data collection on the local gender distribution in STEM leadership professions
  • Leadership training for women empowerment
  • Building  a network of professional mentors
  • A final event that will foster discussion about the gender leadership gap among university women and the community.

The data collection effort is an opportunity for students to engage in a topic of the gender leadership gap relevant to them. A study by Donna Ginther, KU professor of economics, revealed that local management positions across all fields fall in the top three occupations for men but not in the top five for women ( JBB organizers hope that the students' research will shed more light on such local gender gap issues.  

"By encouraging JBB participants to research the status of women in leadership in the Kansas/Missouri area, we hope to generate concrete information that will be useful to bring awareness of gender leadership gap issues to our community and advocate for change," said Jessica Torres, JBB organizer and postdoctoral fellow in chemistry.

A five-workshop series, primarily geared to undergraduates in STEM, is ongoing and open to all KU students. The workshops provide leadership training to encourage KU STEM undergraduates to take on leadership opportunities that will make them more competitive for future roles. Information about the workshops can be found at

The JBB project also aims to expose the participants to mentorship relationships. JBB incorporates a layered mentorship structure in which graduate students and postdoctoral fellows provide mentorship from an advanced trainee perspective, local women leaders provide an established professional network, and JBB undergraduates themselves are paired by asymmetrical leadership experiences to provide near-peer mentoring.

The project will conclude at the end of the spring semester, marked by a culminating event April 28. JBB students will share their local gender leadership gap findings with the community and advocate for change. A keynote speaker with expertise in scientific workforce issues, Donna Dean from Tulane University, will also facilitate a discussion on how all sides can work together to close the gender leadership gap.

The selected JBB undergraduate participants:

  • Chantelle Davis, junior in  geology, Lawrence
  • Anushka Bhattacharya, freshman in electrical engineering, Mumbai, India
  • Emilia Paz Ojeda, freshman in computer science, Arequipa, Peru
  • Claire Byers, sophomore in environmental studies, Wichita
  • Emma Murrugarra, junior in human biology and behavioral neuroscience, Kansas City, Kansas
  • Beverly Umeh, senior in ecology & evolutionary biology
  • Emily Smith, freshman in biochemistry, Gardner
  • Ashleigh Pulaski, freshman in chemistry, Newton
  • Jacquelyn Rech, freshman in aerospace engineering, Wichita
  • Helen Bontrager, senior in ecology & evolutionary biology, Overland Park
  • Ana Huerta, senior in human biology, Kansas City, Kansas
  • Marissa Duckett, freshman in microbiology, Oklahoma City
  • Tanya Sanchez, freshman in human biology, Great Bend
  • Olivia O'Quinn, freshman in architectural engineering, Nixa, Missouri
  • Aleah Estes, junior in biology, Kansas City, Kansas
  • Savannah Herring, junior in mechanical engineering, Wakefield
  • Elizabeth Hazelwood, senior in microbiology, Wamego
  • Sandra Rech, freshman in interdisciplinary computing and biology, Wichita.

Photo: CAP grant writers and JBB organizers. Back row (left to right): Aleah Henderson, graduate student in EEB; Jessica Torres, postdoctoral researcher in chemistry; Hannah Kinmonth-Schultz, postdoctoral researcher in EEB. Middle row (left to right): Alexandra Erwin, graduate student in EEB; Karen Olson, graduate student in EEB; Bailey Spickler, graduate student in mechanical engineering. Front row (left to right): Rachel Lietz, graduate student in bioengineering; Haifa Alhadyian, graduate student in molecular biosciences; Lynn Villafuerte, JBB advsier, Office for Diversity & Science Training; Sofia de la O, junior in chemical engineering. Not pictured: Marilyn Barragan, junior in molecular, cellular & developmental biology. Photo by Matt Jones, graduate student in EEB.

KU in the news
The Wall Street JournalSat, 10/23/2021
Researchers at @JuniperGrdensKU & @KUMedCenter have a received a new $345K grant to further study “Stay, Play, Talk…

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
5th nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets: Colleges," Military Times
KU Today