Amid new lawsuit, can the tide turn for women in science?
Now, in a press conference on 25 March, lawyers representing a group of 33 women have announced that they have filed a combined JPY130 million (US$1.2 million) lawsuit in the Tokyo District Court against Tokyo Medical University over examination discrimination.
The university has so far declined to comment on the lawsuit filed but last year admitted to deducting points from women candidates, apologised to victims and promised amends including revisiting exam results for some. But the group of 33 women who took the entrance exams between 2006 and 2018 point to debilitating pain and suffering as a result of the discrimination.
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Lawyer Yukiko Tsunoda explained that some JPY7.5 million had been raised from crowd funding for the legal action, much higher than the initial target of JPY2.5 million.
“This is just one fact that shows the public is shocked and disgusted with Japan’s blatant gender discrimination. More people are aware and want change,” she said, adding that the lawsuit –which is unprecedented against a university in Japan – is “a step in this long-awaited direction”.
The government has already announced it will suspend subsidies to Tokyo Medical University for this year and next year – the university received JPY2.3 billion (US$20.8 million) from the government in fiscal 2017 – and reduced government subsidies to seven other universities found to have manipulated entrance exams to the disadvantage of women applicants, Education Minister Masahiko Shibayama announced in January.
Nihon University, which received JPY9.1 billion (US$82.3 million) in 2017, faces a 35% cut in government funding this year, while Fukuoka University, Iwate Medical University, Juntendo University, Kanazawa Medical University, Kitasato University and Showa University will see their government funding cut by 25%.
Need to do more
However, the spotlight is on the government to do more to assist women to follow science careers. Long-awaited, changes in Japan’s male-dominated science research base has now become a government priority as Japan grapples with a sharp fall in student enrolment in universities linked to demographic decline, together with increasingly vocal opposition to continued discrimination against women in academia and the scientific workforce.
More than a decade ago Japan set up a new category of public grants, with the target ratio of 20% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) researchers being women. Currently, across all STEM fields just under 16% of Japanese researchers are women, according to a 2017 Cabinet Office White Paper on Gender Equality. This is about half the average among OECD countries.
The Cabinet Office reports a 14% average ratio for women in science and 10.6% in engineering fields in 2017. The share of Nobel Prizes for women in comparison to men is less than 3% and there are few Japanese female researchers working as supervisors in laboratory teams.
At Kyoto University, which boasts Japan’s highest number of Nobel Prizes in science and medicine, female researchers comprise only 11% of them in both humanities and science fields.
Dr Kayo Inaba, head of the Gender Equality Promotion Center at Kyoto University, says funding and social taboos remain major obstacles. And other women scientists echo the view that without societal changes, government initiatives will not work.
Despite the demographic downturn, “overall government subsidies for national universities are being reduced, making it difficult to offer full-time positions for researchers, a situation that affects women in particular. Financial insecurity is a key issue,” said Inaba, a former director of the Center for Women Researchers, established in 2006, and well known for her own research on the role of dendritic cells in the initiation and regulation of immune responses.
Echoing female researchers who made it to the top, Inaba says she is lucky to have extended family support.
There is now a concentrated effort to convey a positive image of women holding top positions in research. For example, the L’Oreal-UNESCO award for female scientists in 2018, included Dr Yukiko Ogawa, 29. She succeeded in controlling the microstructure and mechanical properties of magnesium by heat treatment at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, one of Japan’s largest scientific research centres.
Ogawa’s speech pointed out that the UNESCO award has really encouraged her by having a big impact on her career but also credited in her acceptance speech the support extended by her family and supervisors in her success.
“In our society, the stereotype where women have a responsibility for housework and child care is still sadly very much alive. Many young women have to give up their careers due to marriage and child rearing,” she said.
The ministry of education grants come under three main categories for expanding gender equality in universities with a total budget of JPY989 million (US$9 million) in 2018, to be increased to JPY1.08 billion (US$9.8 million) this fiscal year.
The funds stretch over three-year periods to support projects that promise diversity in research, projects to increase support for women researchers aiming to return to their careers after maternity breaks, and to encourage female high school students to enter science.
They include providing child care support, gender awareness-raising campaigns aimed especially at parents of students in high schools, and mentoring programmes for female researchers to continue their careers.
Keidanren, Japan’s largest business federation, is also taking a lead to increase female scientists, with a special focus on public events in high schools to encourage female students to enter science and technology fields.
Pubic funds now support a spate of gender equality centres in universities that are headed by female scientists. Nonetheless, it is still rare to find women researchers as supervisors or heads of research teams.
Government targets for women
In 2016, universities in Japan set targets for raising the percentage of female researchers by 2021. Tohoku University, for example, plans to increase female researchers from 13% to 19%, and has begun introducing female-only faculty positions.
Dr Yuko Harayama, former executive member of the Cabinet Office’s Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, links the dismal figures to poor public awareness about the importance of increasing the number of women in science.
“The glass ceiling is a primary cause for less women being promoted into top positions in STEM fields. Deep-rooted social models where women are viewed as more valuable in the family, makes it very difficult for female researchers to juggle household demands with the responsibility of a busy career. Men, on the other hand, can concentrate on work, giving them an advantage,” she explained.
Nagoya University currently has an 18% ratio of female scientists – the figure is the highest among Japan’s seven leading national universities and a landmark in the country that has the lowest gender balance in STEM fields among members of the OECD.
Hiroko Tsukamura, head of the Nagoya University Center for Gender Equality, established in 2000, links this to increasing support measures for women.
Tsukamura is a researcher on the brain mechanism regulating reproductive function and the mechanism mediating sexual differentiation of the brain in mammals, mainly using experimental animal models, such as rodents.
“Increasing the number of female researchers paves the way for diverse opinions in science studies and strengthens the quality of higher education. I tell my male colleagues the gender equality centre has raised the reputation of Nagoya University by attracting more female researchers,” she said.
Professor Yukiko Kunugi, president of the Society of Japanese Women Scientists told University World News: “At universities, gender equality has improved considerably. However, it is only in the life sciences, biological and medical fields. The effect cannot be seen in the engineering field.”
She adds that the number of women engineers in companies has not increased much. “The [government-set] target cannot be achieved by the recent government measures [on gender support] alone.”
She says even stronger support is needed from government to create a working environment for women. “We also need a sense of social expectations for the success of women. I think that without a change in Japanese society, government policy and measures to improve gender equality will not work.”