Ministry ramps up bid to close gender gap among academics

Government-led measures to reverse Japan’s stubbornly low ratio of females in academia are leading to a flurry of activity among universities aimed at bridging a gender parity gap that is wider than the country’s international counterparts.

The ministry of education’s diversity promotion fund – Initiative for Realising Diversity in the Research Environment – reached JPY1.037 billion (US$8 million) in 2022. The figure is at its highest – up by around 1% from the year before – and is expected to increase steadily.

The diversity fund is targeting support schemes in universities that promote women into senior positions, as well as measures to support the continuity of their research. Additionally, the fund is now armed with official gender equality targets that are set by universities before they are able to access the fund.

Starting in April 2022, the fund requires universities to pledge to raise female staff numbers to between 20% and 23% of total staff by 2025 – a major step up from 17% in 2020. In addition, new measures will be introduced, including independent evaluations to be carried out when subsidising private universities in order to gauge whether they have achieved a higher level of female representation on their staff.

Mariko Sasakura, deputy head of the Faculty and Staff Union of Japanese Universities, known as Zendaikyou, said the new official goals were welcome. “While gender equality is an official policy, the more stringent recent steps, such as setting target figures, finally signal a serious attempt to usher in changes to male-dominated academia,” she said.

However, the assistant professor, who has a 27 year long career teaching information technology studies at Okayama University, contends that it is not easy to change ingrown cultural and other barriers that have long sidelined female academics in management and in respect of research support.

“Women academics are bogged down with childcare, long working hours and inflexible timetables in universities,” she told University World News, adding that in her class only 10% were females, which she attributed to a lack of support for women due to rigorous competition in a male-dominated field.

According to Sasakura, the union is constantly fielding enquiries from female academics about how to deal with issues such as low funding for their projects or being passed over by their male bosses for higher positions without much explanation.

“Many of them are dejected and have lost their motivation to keep working,” she said.

Women comprise only 30% of professors in higher education in Japan, far lower than the international average of 45% in 2020 as revealed in the latest gender initiative report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published in October last year.

Figures were even lower – 16% – at the University of Tokyo, or Todai, Japan’s top university. In 2022 the university pledged to raise this to 25% by 2027, an increase of around 300 professors and associates. In October 2021, the university announced a new JPY100 billion (US$768 million) fund which includes additional support to increase the proportion of female students to 30%.

University of Tokyo initiatives

In 2021, Todai, regarded as a bastion of male-dominated high achievers, appointed its first female vice-president, Kaori Hayashi, to promote international diversity. The university reported its highest undergraduate female intake in 2021, reaching 21% for the first time before falling slightly to 20% in 2022. In 2020 the intake was 19%.

Hayashi, a professor of media and journalism studies at the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at the University of Tokyo, was among Japan’s 14.8% of female presidents and vice-presidents in 2021. Only 13.2% of Japan’s university heads are women.

She explained in an interview that an increase in the number of female students will spill over to an increase in women academics. Currently, only 20% of Japanese researchers are female, compared to between 30% and 49% in Western countries.

“It is important to nurture leadership roles for women to decrease the gender gap,” she told Japanese media.

In other proactive moves, in 2020 Todai started to crack down on a common practice of student committees – official campus clubs – refusing entry to women and also launched a rent subsidy scheme for female students to encourage applicants from outside Tokyo.

Other initiatives

New moves are also being initiated at Tohoku University, a leading national institution in the north of Japan.

Professor Hiroo Yugami, director of the mechanical systems engineering department at Tohoku’s graduate school of engineering, said the university had special measures targeting women academics, who currently comprise only 8% of researchers in the department.

For example, in April 2022 the school of engineering announced it would accept five female professors in the division. Another incentive allows those accepted to recruit assistant professors in their laboratories to ease demanding work schedules, he told University World News. In addition, the qualified partners of the female professors can also be employed by the university’s engineering research department.

Yugami pointed out that new measures were imperative in Japan, which is facing a rapidly ageing population, which is impacting on university research in terms of human resources and creativity.

“Universities need to usher in a strong dose of creativity, which can be achieved through more female academic participation. We must also be sensitive to the fact that male researchers will not be excluded in the process,” he explained.

Overall, diversity promotion sections in universities are focusing heavily on supporting childcare and implementing flexible schedules to encourage female academics to continue to work and take on more demanding positions.

Yuri Yoshida, associate professor at the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Nagasaki University, said organising seminars and studies on the issue of gender parity would help to facilitate learning that “will raise awareness and understanding among academia in Japan that still finds this subject a new challenge”.