Breakthrough highlights lack of women in science

National euphoria over a young female scientist who led a groundbreaking stem cell research project has quickly turned into anguished soul-searching in Japan, where similar success stories remain woefully inadequate.

“Japan has highly talented female scientists reflecting quality education in the country. Yet the harsh reality is researchers usually end [up] as assistants to male heads in their departments, a critical reason for the low rate of women entering this profession,” said Dr Mariko Ogawa of Mie National University in western Japan.

Ogawa was one of Japan’s only three female science graduate students in her class of 1972 at the University of Tokyo, the country’s top higher education institution. She now heads a department in Mie National University that is dedicated to promoting female majors in science fields.

Indeed, the recent international respect earned by Haruko Obokata, a beaming 30-year-old who tenaciously plugged away in a biology research laboratory, is viewed as a much-awaited breakthrough.

She was hailed in early February for a paper that discovered a new method, called STAP, for creating pluripotent stem cells in mice – an idea she had explored while working hard to convince others to believe in her goal.

Female researchers rare

But such cases are rare.

Ogawa, who is conducting a comparative study on female researchers between countries in East Asia, has found that Japan, with just 14% of researchers being women, is even behind South Korea, now at 16%.

“It's not for the lack of support programmes by the government targeting women. Rather, I would point a finger at the rigid Japanese research system that mirrors the gender bias in the country. Male science researchers have an edge over women in terms of promotion and financial incentives,” she said.

There is no doubt that the picture is bleak. Only 11% of women who have a major in a science discipline become researchers and less than 20% of females are enrolling in the first year in science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments compared to 66.6% in the humanities.

The situation is pathetic, analysts have opined, pointing to the fact that more women have been entering higher education during the past decade and they now comprise 43% of all new university students.

And when it comes to salaries the gender gap tells it all. The average annual income for a female researcher at an institution is less than Yen4 million (US$39,200) a year – Yen600,000 less than their male counterparts.

“It is difficult to encourage my 15-year old daughter to take up a long and tedious career in science even though she is quite interested in her chemistry studies,” said Mineko Sato.

She pointed out that any decision to enter research would need to be heavily based on weighing up the pros and cons. “In Japan, the chances are girls would be happier in a stable job in a big company rather than stuck in a laboratory dominated by male researchers and with little chance of making their own success.”

Government target

Faced with this dire situation, the Japanese government has set a target of raising female doctoral numbers to 30% by 2020.

Aimed at reducing ingrained obstacles, the Basic Plan for Science and Technology has implemented provisions that will reward positive action taken by organisations to appoint female researchers to leading positions, and grants will be provided to support women who take leave for family or child care reasons.

Public funds will also support Japanese universities that have started to develop new research in fields such as astronomy or medicine to create flexible working environments that will particularly attract female students and researchers.

Still Dr Yasuko Yamamura, who heads a section to promote science education reform at the leading Japan Science and Technology Agency, explained that the key to successfully increasing females in science would be programmes to raise awareness among young women and persuade them to commit to the challenges of research.

“In Japan there is a growing tendency among both male and female university students to prioritise secure jobs. This does not synchronise with the demands of scientific research, which is all about taking risk and being able to pursue your dreams,” she said.

For Yamamura, one way that the situation could be changed would be to encourage young Japanese students to study abroad, where they would learn to survive in unfamiliar environments.

Japan traditionally restricts immigration and takes pride in its homogenous society. But the downside is lack of diversity in ideas and nurturing a competitive spirit among the younger generation.

With only 2% of the 1.25 million university students in Japan opting to study abroad, Yamamura acknowledged that the obstacles to change are high.

But she hopes that with smaller families – the birth rate is currently 1.2 per woman – and an increase in double-income families, more women will get to view science as a lucrative option in future.

“Even today we see more women entering computer technology fields which is a growing industry. These changes are encouraging as we work hard to promote more women into science,” Yamamura said.