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Female scientists push for breakthrough in equality

Chunichi Shimbun

Recent news that Haruko Obokata of Riken’s Center for Developmental Biology found a new way to generate pluripotent cells cast a spotlight on women in the male-dominant field of science.

While figures show they are still a minority, Nagoya University is actively hiring women with hidden talents, and its efforts are bearing fruit.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry conducted a survey in 2012 and found that women constitute a mere 14 percent of all researchers in Japan. By comparison, more than 30 percent of the researchers in the United States and United Kingdom are women. In Japan, women’s numbers are particularly low in the physical sciences, engineering and agriculture.

Nagoya University, which has gained a reputation for scientific research, is no exception. These fields are largely dominated by men at the university, which has only 45 female professors, excluding contract faculty. This translates into a ratio of around 4.8 percent.

“You aren’t actually thinking of becoming a professor, are you?’ That’s what some of us have been asked just because we are women,” said Ikue Mori, who was promoted to professor in the biological science division at Nagoya University in 2004.

“I hope that Haruko Obokata and her research work can improve the tough situation for women here,” she said.

The general lack of understanding of what a woman goes through during pregnancy or when giving birth is another reason women tend to avoid careers in research.

One female researcher had to be hospitalized suddenly because she was at risk of premature delivery. When she came back to the laboratory, she allegedly found all her research equipment left outside in the corridor and her desk gone.

To help change attitudes in this male-dominant workplace, Nagoya University launched a program in 2010 to train female researchers in the sciences. It also set a quota for female researchers and publicly advertised for them.

It also started to offer support for female professors and associate professors, such as research grants and personnel expenses to hire assistants for those who are pregnant or have children.

As a result, as of July 2012, the number of female researchers in the science, technology and agriculture fields has climbed to 6.2 percent, and two women in their 30s were promoted to professors.

One of them is Azusa Kamikochi, a researcher from Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences who gained attention for her work in brain research. She is also the mother of a 3-year-old daughter.

“Obokata’s research has produced brilliant results. I hope the time will come when she will be recognized for her astounding work and not because she is a young female researcher,” said Kamikochi.

The program was originally scheduled to end in 2015, but Nagoya University has decided to continue it.

“Female researches have great potential for growth. Their talents have remained overshadowed by male researchers, but I think it’s their time to shine now,” said President Michinari Hamaguchi.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Feb. 2.