Changing the Culture of Science in Japan

What happens when you speak up about gender inequity in Japan's science culture? Why, you can expect to be accused of "tarnishing the reputation" of the university, that's what. That's what happened to biophysicist Mitiko Go when she spoke out about an instance of egregious sex discrimination. One Woman Is Not Enough, an editorial just published in Nature, recounts the tale. It's no wonder Go had to be essentially at retirement before she felt she could risk speaking up. Instead of retiring, however, she's now president of a university and a member of the Council for Science and Technology Policy. She's in a position to push for serious change.

Women make up only 12.4% of scientists in Japan, and the editorial notes:

Japan needs its women like never before. There are fewer students than available university seats and a trend away from mathematics and science among students. The society is greying, and there remains an unwillingness to open the borders to foreigners on a large scale.

There is government support in the form of money for programs to encourage young girls to enter science, but all the encouragement in the world isn't going to help if the culture of science remains untouched. That's why Go's actions as university president are so critical:

As part of her model programme, Go encourages all researchers at Ochanomizu to work 9 to 5. To do so, she has changed rules and faculty meeting schedules. This is by no means a revolution. But it may be a step in undoing a culture that has handicapped Japan by keeping roughly half its creativity under wraps. Too bad it can't happen faster.

Notice the key bit of leadership here: she has changed rules and schedules. It's not just rhetoric about diversity being good and we need more women in the workforce to stay competitive, blah blah. She's taken specific actions to disrupt the prevalent culture that excludes women. Real institutional change requires just that: changing policies and procedures, not just figuring out how to shovel more women into a hostile system and help them cope.

It may be a small step forward but it's a significant one. Three cheers for Mitiko Go!!!!

Hat tip to reader Beth Montelone on this story.

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Quite interesting how the past of Japan is affecting women in the present. The previously male dominated society is throwing a massive shadow over Japan.

I wonder how many decades they need, before women are accepted equal in Japan.

"I wonder how many decades they need, before women are accepted equal in Japan."

Are women accepted equal anywhere in the world? I'm curious. Obviously better some places than others, but hey, I'm in the USA and I still have trouble getting my @#$@#$ car problem taken seriously, let alone working as a scientist.

Anyways, Dr. Go is TEH AWESOME and it's good to note that both genders probably benefited immensely in her institute from initiatives like schedule alterations, meanwhile, everyone got to blame any 'trouble' on the bitch. Convenient how that works.

Back around 2000 I was in correspondence with a female biochemistry postgrad researcher in Japan. In almost every email she told me how much she wanted to get out of Japan and work somewhere good like the US or the UK. She talked about how the men she worked with would ignore her having scheduled time on certain pieces of equipment, and would simply walk up and remove her experiment so that they could use it; after all, she was only a girl, so what she was working on couldn't possibly be that important. And this apparently didn't happen occasionally -- it happened pretty much every day, and she had a number of plates ruined by simply being dumped, as well. But, you know, they were in the way....

When she complained at one point to the lab manager, she was told that she needed to be more of a team player and not get in the way of the men. However, when it came time for her evaluation at 6 months, the fact that she had failed to successfully complete a single experiment was used as definitive evidence that women just shouldn't be trusted to do important work, because obviously she was useless.

Does rather put problems over here into perspective.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 21 Feb 2008 #permalink

@Luna: I agree that's worse since that's closer to an 'average' experience, and the situation in Japan is legendary on a number of levels when it comes to women. But I'm uncomfortable with this "putting it in perspective" comment... meaning we have it good here overall? so I shouldn't comment on it? I hate to say but I have seen situations just as ridiculous in the US as well, just perhaps with lesser frequency. I was also personally involved in a situation (and in the US no less!) where I was consistently blocked by a group of men from working in a number of very subtle and insidious ways, then criticized behind my back to superiors for being 'lazy'. Yay workplaces.

"But it may be a step in undoing a culture that has handicapped Japan by keeping roughly half its creativity under wraps."

It is hinted at in the Nature editorial, "Many problems affect Japanese women and men alike. Original ideas from women are less likely to be taken seriously - but junior laboratory members in general are not encouraged to risk being wrong, to offer outlandish (aka creative) ideas." but the truth is (at least in climate science, where I work) that Japan keeps 99% of its scientific creativity under wraps. The Nature article says junior scientists are not encouraged to risk being wrong, but in reality when you do encourage them they have no idea where to start, and actually are much happier being told exactly what to do. The school and university system teaches them not to think up solutions to problems but to look up answers in books and memorise them. I do realise that Japanese living outside Japan have been able to become truly creative scientists, so the ability must still be in their souls somewhere, but attempting to tap that resource while the individual lives within Japanese culture is hard going.

I know quite a lot of Japanese scientists. I would say I have met approximately one who is reliably creative, in the way considered normal for a good scientist in the West. As it happens that one is a woman (significantly she did her PhD in the West). But it makes me wonder if there were more Japanese women in science if there would be more creativity since in general in Japan, since the women (generally SAHMs) are very creative in many and varied ways, whereas the men are truly hammered down into an incredibly monotonous conformity.


I know of precisely one Japanese female chemistry professor working in Japan- Kyoko Nozaki- who is very much a respected leader in polymer chemistry. Unfortunately, she's the only one. I think knowing of only one who is quite successful is even more disheartening than not knowing of any- in this pool of immense talent that comes out of Japan, women (like in pretty much every other aspect of Japanese life) get the short end of the stick in terms of faculty appointments. Depressing.