Elizabeth Hogden

Elizabeth Hogben

Head of Science and Innovation (Japan), British Embassy Tokyo

Part of Global Science and Innovation Network UK in Japan

19th June 2017 Tokyo

Women in STEM: what’s changing in Japan?

Promoting gender equality, Japanese style (Japan Welding Engineering Society campaign)

Last week, I had the privilege to attend the annual Japan Academy Prize. The Prize recognize outstanding achievements in Japanese research excellence and previous winners include Nobel Laureates such as Professor Isamu Akasaki who led development of blue LEDs. This year’s winners included a pioneer of pediatric cardiac surgery, researchers who identified the genetic pathways behind muscular dystrophy, a leader in ‘quantum dot’ photonics and one of the world’s leading researchers on the causes of earthquakes. What struck me this year was that this was one of the rare occasions that there was a woman on the front row among the prize winners, the archaeologist, Yumi Narasawa.

Japan has an outstanding academic research base but why are so few women visible at the top?

A report by Elsevier highlights some particular challenges in Japan. Japan has a relatively low proportion of female researchers: 33% of graduate researchers are women, shrinking to 15% overall. Women appear to be more productive than male researchers in Japan but are less frequently the lead author. Even in fields like nursing where women outnumber men, it seems to be the male researchers who take top billing. A scene from recent film Hidden Figures springs to mind, where the brilliant NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen typing the male character’s name on the top of her report. Elsevier’s analysis also suggests a female brain drain, with more female researchers are now leaving Japan than arriving.

Promoting gender equity in research at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation [photo copyright SPF]
The Sasakawa Peace Foundation hosted an event in Tokyo last month to explore how to promote gender equality in academia. University leaders highlighted the range of schemes used by different Japanese universities to try to promote gender equality and measure their success.

• Ochanomizu University has developed the COSMOS set of indicators for Japanese institutions to evaluate their education and research environment. Results from 41 institutions are compiled in the Ochadai index but currently all the data is anonymous (Japan rarely goes for the ‘name and shame’ approach).

• Kyushu University has established quotas to drive change, through a scheme of open international recruitment of female researchers while at the same time making faculties compete to be able to offer a post in their field for one of these outstanding candidates. Since 2009, the ratio of female faculty members has steadily increased from 177 women (8%) to 320 (13%), not just due to the 40 women recruited through the quota system but also changing attitudes and approaches across the university.

• Nagoya University sits alongside University of Leicester and University of Oxford as one of the UN’s ‘HeForShe’ university impact champions. It has committed to increase representation of women in university leadership positions to 20% by 2020 and is developing a points systems to reward departments that are reaching targets on female faculty. The university has also established a centre for research and education on gender equality and is working with government and the private sector to champion gender equality across Japan. Nagoya is at the heart of Japan’s manufacturing belt and the university is building links with the Aichi prefectural government, Nagoya Chamber of Commerce as well as national government and the Japan Business Federation.

Sarah Dickinson Hyams (UK Higher Education Equality Challenge Unit) discussed the impact of the Athena SWAN charter in advancing gender equality in the UK. The scheme has expanded beyond STEM subjects and been embraced by research funders, many of whom now make participation in Athena SWAN a basic prerequisite for research funding applications. The Equality Challenge Unit is a partner in the GENDER-NET project aiming to drive change across Europe and is working with Australia to share good practice.

Sarah Dickinson-Hyams explains the impact of Athena SWAN [photo copyright SPF]
A lively discussion highlighted that some of the structural elements that support or frustrate women’s participation and advancement can be relatively simple to change, such as keeping meeting times to within normal working hours, training for line managers, and mixed boards for recruitment.

The cultural issues are more difficult. Organisations that take the time to identify where the female ‘drop off point’ is, and what are the causes, are most successful in driving change. Tackling bullying, presentee-ism and long-hours culture doesn’t just help women, it makes the working environment better for everyone.

It was noted that a high enough female representation at all levels in the organization is important for a change in culture. It is harder to push for change if you don’t have tenure. Even at Board level it can be hard to be heard if you are the lone voice in a room full of men.

‘Womenomics’ has been made a central part of Prime Minister Abe’s economic reform plan.
Japan has a target for women to occupy 30% of leadership positions by 2030. The government’s current five year strategy for science and technology (5th basic plan) emphasizes promoting diversity and career mobility, including career advancement for women. This is now seen as one of the fundamentals of science, technology and innovation in Japan.

Over the last four years working in Japan, I have seen some inspiring women who are leaders in their field. There are senior officials who are accomplished and highly influential across government, outstanding researchers and (more rarely) institute leaders, innovative business women and (occasionally) industry leaders. From astronauts and archaeologists to entrepreneurs, there is plenty of inspiring female talent in Japan. Let’s hope the support will be there to help the next generation of talented Japanese women to rise to the top and become global leaders.

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