Career expectations & the career gender gap in Japan

The Time magazine posted below examines the prejudice against females in the professional world and the gender gap that exists viz. career expectations of Japanese men and women.

 JAPAN LAGS BEHIND: Fighting for Space TIME magazine.
As a high school student in the 1970s, Mariko Kato was fascinated by physics. At an after-hours physics club at her school, she was so busy devouring Richard Feynman’s lectures on quantum mechanics that she barely noticed she was the only girl in the room. “The complexity of nature was refined into these simple, beautiful theories,” says Kato. “I only wanted to learn more.”

Her parents, however, had other dreams for their daughter–they saw her as a piano teacher for young children. When Kato announced she intended to study physics at college, Kato’s mother burst into tears. “‘Physics is for men,’ she said. ‘It’s not ladylike.'”

Kato’s experience has been replayed in countless households and classrooms across Japan. Social-science and humanities courses remain popular choices for freshman women, while sciences such as physics and chemistry and engineering are still seen as disciplines for men. In a 2002 study of Japanese middle school students, the number of girls who said their teacher would be pleased if they scored well on a science test was half that of middle school boys.

Kato, 51, persevered and is now an astronomy professor at Keio University, outside Tokyo. She was and continues to be an exception. In 2004, 9.5% of Japanese graduate students in engineering were women. Though the situation is steadily improving (the number of female engineering students has grown by 30% in the past decade), such ratios resemble the ones witnessed in the U.S. three decades ago.

Without a strong support network of female peers, women in the sciences can struggle. Though some have found mentors, the hierarchical structure of Japanese academic-research teams often denies women precious tenure-track positions. A 2002 survey at the University of Tokyo, Japan’s Harvard, revealed that only 4.7% of its teaching staff were female. Gender discrimination is prohibited under Japanese law. But prominent female scientists say there is a tacit prejudice against women. A bioinformatics professor, Mitiko Go says that many professors will choose a man over an equally qualified woman, believing that a woman will quit as soon as she marries or has children. After graduate school, Fumiko Yonezawa, a professor of theoretical physics and the first woman to lead the Physical Society of Japan in its more than 100-year history, was not hired as a full-time faculty member until she had proved that she could raise her three daughters while continuing with her research. “I had fun keeping up both aspects of my life, but I slept only four hours at night,” she says. “I didn’t see a movie or go to the ballet until my first child was 10 years old.” And at least she was not expected to spend long nights in a lab, but could work at the kitchen table while her girls played in the next room.

Some baby steps to help women have been taken. The Astronomy Society of Japan, for example, has provided day-care at its biannual meetings since 1997. Pressure from business and the Japanese Ministry of Education has nudged things along. Last month, the Chemical Society of Japan, which has had just two female board members since its founding in 1878, decided to reserve one of its 26 board seats for a woman. But Japan has a long way to go before it fully utilizes the female half of its national brainpower. “I joke that women scientists have the advantage of a woman’s intuition and patience,” says Yonezawa. “But, really, being a scientist has nothing to do with being a man or a woman. Women simply haven’t been given the chance.”

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