Quotas for women in universities: One step towards equity

While the Japanese government’s introduction of quotas to increase the number of women in leadership positions in the higher education sector is welcomed, experts say there is also a need for longer-term strategies to change institutional culture, and for mentorship programmes targeting female academics.

With an awareness that Japan is well behind other advanced countries in the proportion of women it has in leadership roles in higher education, the government is setting new targets to close the gender gap in universities.

The government’s Fifth Basic Plan for Gender Equality announced in April 2022 and aimed at expanding women’s participation in the policy decision making process in all areas calls for 23% of university presidents, vice-presidents and professors to be women by 2025.

In 2019, women only made up 17% of higher education leaders. The figure was over 38% in the United Kingdom, 33% in the United States and over 27% in France and Germany.

A number of major universities have also announced new targets. The University of Tokyo, Japan’s top national university, has set a goal of 27% female permanent faculty by 2027. Currently, women make up only 16% of the 5,000 strong faculty, including associate professors and lecturers.

Yet experts say setting numerical targets is not enough. Longer term strategies aimed at changing Japan’s deeply-entrenched male dominated society are needed, including strategies to empower women and promote diversity and inclusion in higher education.

“Numbers cannot be the sole means to narrow the gender gap in academia. Empowering female professors through support programmes that boost networking is vital in nurturing their careers,” said Akiyo Okuda, the only female vice-president at Keio University, a leading private university.

There has been particular concern about Japan’s low proportion (16.6%) of female researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the lowest among countries in the Organisation Economic Co-operation and Development group of advanced countries.

In addition, a Japan Association of National Universities survey report in 2022 showed that only 25% of female faculty in the humanities gained full-time professor status in 2021. In engineering the number was lower, at 6.6%.

Several major Japanese universities have already announced they are adopting new quotas for women students in STEM subjects.

Diversity at Keio University

As head of Keio’s equity, diversity and inclusion department, Okuda, a professor of American literature, has worked steadily but quietly, hoping to bring reforms to the working environment for women. Her appointment in 2021 turned a page.

While diversity and inclusion programmes include opportunities for people with disability, LGBT sectors and foreign faculty, Okuda points out the gender disparity situation remains dire.

Female students at Keio University comprise 37% of the 33,000-strong student body. Yet female faculty make up just 28.7%, with only about 20% in managerial positions.

The diversity programme is small “but can have a large impact to increase women leaders and support diverse perspectives at the university. It is causing a buzz in paternalistic Japan”, Okuda told University World News.

“I needed to change a situation where women had plodded along alone without much support or many expectations. So, I chose to be more conspicuous and needed to take decisions. To increase the number of female scholars in top positions we needed to provide an environment to help them realise their capabilities and ambitions,” Okuda said.

In 2022, Okuda launched the university’s first mentorship programme solely for female faculty. It brings together women professors across multiple disciplines in partnerships to discuss gender-based challenges to their careers, and to set personal goals for change.

Recruiting participants was not easy, said Okada, as female academics were in a minority. Okuda faced the daunting task of persuading them to spend their limited free time to volunteer for the programme.

“Women scholars are brilliant academics and committed to a life of busy schedules to maintain their careers. I explained it to them and they understood the merit of expanding [the number of] aspiring female scholars, to establish change,” she said.

Based on guidelines adapted from the ApWiL, or Asia Pacific Rim University Leadership, mentorship programme, Keio University’s pioneer diversity, equality and inclusion initiative involves 19 pairs of faculty members in fields ranging from medicine to humanities. They are paired to inspire each other to gain more personal opportunities.

Against the odds, the mentorship programme blossomed, with some registering for a second time this year. Now an annual programme, it focuses on setting career goals that are developed during partners’ online meetings, and supported in workshops that tackle challenges particular to women. A certificate is awarded to participants on completion.

According to Okuda, the topics covered range from finding ways to better juggle career and family demands, and guidance to encourage women to apply for and secure grants under the difficult-to-navigate research grant system – an area dominated by male colleagues. It even includes taking time off to unwind and relax, she said.

Slow statistical progress

Hisayo Ogushi, a professor in the department of humanities and social sciences, is one of the Keio programme’s mentors. A major concern for her mentees is how to make plans to reduce her mentally-draining heavy workload, which includes teaching, research and family duties, Ogushi told University World News.

“While progress can be slow in terms of statistics such as promotions resulting from the mentorship, my goal this time is to make my partner more aware she is a top academic. In Japan this is not an easy feat for women who have few role models.”

Ogushi said she wants to pass on what she learned as a former mentee in the ApWil programme.

“Although Japan is an advanced country, social norms prioritise men. The pressure on women to be secondary discourages them [from] taking on leadership roles,” she said.

Academic promotions in universities are dominated by a male majority that also develops the evaluation criteria which rarely take women’s differing circumstances into account.

Ogushi said that relying narrowly on meritocratic measures ignores gender perspectives.

“There is a critical need to foster an environment for women to speak up for gender-based criteria. And that can only be achieved by increasing the number of women scholars in powerful positions,” she said.

The Japanese media has also highlighted cases of increasing poverty among part-time female researchers as a result of not gaining permanent jobs, an achievement that is dependent on recommendations from their male supervisors.

Work-life balance

By 2015, the Education Ministry reported that most universities in Japan had established gender equality offices with the aim of increasing female faculty and also improving the research environment for them.

A major finding by the Japan Inter-Society Liaison Association Committee for Promoting Equal Participation of Men and Women in Science and Engineering, established by the government in 2002 to promote gender equality, was that women view work-life balance as a priority in their career development.

The same poll published in 2017 showed around 80% of women researchers have one or no children, which is attributed to a strongly-held conscious or unconscious norm that it is mothers who take care of children. In addition, 80% of male researchers responded that the person responsible for childcare was the mother.

There is still some way to go. For example, data indicates that Japan does not offer the dual career opportunities that are prevalent in universities in many advanced countries. In addition, Japanese universities’ hiring practices do not include measures that keep families together.

This is the second in a series of articles on the Sustainable Development Goals in partnership with Japan’s Keio University. The first in this series is here. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.