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3 Ways to Close the Gender Gap in Higher Education Leadership

The gender gap in higher education leadership roles persists despite gains in women’s educational achievements. Learn the key challenges female leaders face, and how to address these challenges in your organization.

Although significant progress has been made toward gender equality in higher education, women hold a diminishing share of positions as they ascend the college and university ranks, representing 57 percent of instructors yet only 32 percent of professors. There’s also a disparity in average salaries and tenured positions between male and female professors.

There are many factors likely contributing to this gap—including pervasive negative views of assertive female leaders and other unconscious biases that can hinder the promotion of women—but the pipeline isn’t one of them. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest there are more than enough qualified women for leadership positions, with women now earning the majority of doctoral and master’s degrees.

However, other life priorities—for example, caring for children or elderly parents—constantly evolve for these highly qualified women over the course of their careers. Therefore, it’s important they feel empowered to pursue leadership roles while maintaining a flexible work-life balance.

Beyond higher education, a gender leadership gap persists in the private sector. One recent study suggests that while 45 percent of S&P 500 employees are women, a mere 5 percent of those companies’ CEOs are.

At JPMorgan Chase, half of our Operating Committee and many of our senior leaders are female. But there’s still work to be done—and many of the tactics we’ve found to be effective can be applied across industries and sectors.

How Leaders Can Address the Gender Gap

Organizations making visible strides toward gender equity often focus on two areas: dedicating resources to companywide diversity programs and establishing more immediate, actionable initiatives in which every employee can participate.

With those goals in mind, here are three ways leaders can work to close the gap in higher education institutions:

1. Communicate the Value of Diversity

Achieving a gender-balanced workforce isn’t just about social responsibility—there’s a strong business case for it. Studies show better financial performance and stock market valuations among companies with gender-balanced boards.

There is a plethora of research that proves having more women in the workforce at senior levels…does improve the bottom line of companies.

Marianne Lake, CEO, Commercial Lending, JPMorgan Chase

By communicating the value of diversity and how to measure its success, leaders within colleges and universities can gain more buy-in from their peers of all genders. And the growing focus among larger institutions on environmental, social and governance investing—which judges using metrics that include the ratio of men to women on corporate boards—provides another measurable reason to work toward gender balance.

2. Address Unconscious Bias

All people—including women—are subject to unconscious bias, or implicit stereotypes about certain groups of people. Women are often seen as more caring and collaborative. So when they communicate in a direct way or stand firm for their ideas, they may be considered aggressive or seen in a negative light. Conversely, men with the same characteristics are frequently seen as strong or confident.

As an example, professors at Columbia Business School gave students a case study about a successful venture capitalist. Half the students knew the subject as Heidi and half believed they were reading about Howard. Heidi was rated just as competent and effective as Howard, but was more harshly criticized for her aggressive personality—students responded that they wouldn’t hire her or want to work with her.

We are strengthening our organization by providing women with more tools and information, but also training managers on unconscious biases. By tackling gender issues together, especially around talent development and promotions, we give women more opportunities.

Samantha Saperstein, Head of Women on the Move, JPMorgan Chase

When evaluating female leaders, managers must continually question whether there’s unconscious bias at play. For example, if someone refers to a woman as bossy, shrill or aggressive, ask: “Would you have the same reaction if a man said or did this?” Consistently raising awareness of unconscious bias helps leaders recognize when it’s happening so they can take action to correct it.

3. Empower Men to Be Allies

More organizations are recognizing that women shouldn’t bear the full responsibility of achieving gender equality in the workplace, which often leads to burnout and can actually contribute to the leadership gap. That’s why it’s important to have male allies who advocate for the promotion and advancement of their female colleagues.

Achieving true gender equality is only possible with the buy-in and support of everyone. Leading by example is the best way for leaders to motivate their male colleagues to join the effort.

Melissa Smith, Head of J.P. Morgan Specialized Industries, Middle Market Banking & Specialized Industries

When it comes to being allies, men may hold back because they don’t feel they have a voice in the conversation or fear saying the wrong thing. Creating a culture of open dialogue that encourages men and women to have difficult or uncomfortable conversations can open the door to meaningful change. And including men in the work of achieving gender balance can help everyone feel invested in the diversity initiative.

At J.P. Morgan, we’re invested in the advancement of women both inside and outside of the firm via Women on the Move, a global initiative that empowers female employees, clients and consumers to build their careers, grow their businesses and improve their financial health. Learn what we’re doing to help address the gender gap and create a more equitable world.

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