Japan’s scientists: just 14% female

Lowest rate among developed nations is a loss for the economy


Just one-seventh of scientists in Japan are female — the lowest rate of any developed nation — despite being a record high for the country, government figures show.

The survey comes amid a high-profile case that has pitted Haruko Obokata, a young female researcher, against the scientific establishment and repeated calls to boost female participation in the workforce to help plug a skills gap in the economy.

A nationwide study by the internal affairs ministry found that in March last year there were a record 127,800 female scientists in Japan, accounting for 14.4 percent of the total and up 0.4 percentage point from a year earlier.

“Compared with 10 years ago in 2003, the pace of increase in the number of female scientists surpasses that of males in all organizations,” the ministry said.

Despite being a personal best for the country, the percentage is the lowest among countries with comparable data in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to focus on boosting female participation in the labor force, which lags well behind that of many other developed economies.

In Russia it was 41.2 percent in 2012; 37.7 percent in Britain in 2011; 34.9 percent in Italy in 2011; and 33.6 percent in the United States in 2010.

The figure, released Monday, is also lower than Germany’s 26.7 percent; France’s 25.6 percent; and South Korea’s 17.3 percent, all in 2011.

The findings come as a scandal plays out involving one of the nation’s premier research bodies and Obokata, a 30-year-old scientist who claimed to have made a groundbreaking discovery in stem cell research.

Obokata, whose work was published in the British journal Nature, outlined a way to change adult cells into the basic material for any body tissue, potentially offering a ready supply of transplant organs.

Obokata’s research was hailed as revolutionary, but much of the popular media coverage focused on the fact that she is a young woman in a world dominated by middle-aged men, with newspapers and television offering profiles that concentrated on her supposed feminine charms.

When questions were raised about the science, with claims that data had been manipulated, many in the media turned on the young researcher.

Obokata insisted her findings were valid, but her acknowledgement that she had been sloppy with the evidence was covered by one newspaper publishing a huge front-page picture of her tear-stained face, setting off a social media debate about sexism in Japan.

Economists and commentators around the world agree that Japan’s well-educated women are underutilized, with many dropping out of the workforce when they have children and few returning to pursue their careers.

Studies have shown that Japan’s economy could benefit substantially from boosting the number of working women, perhaps helping to compensate for years of tepid growth.