When Kayoko Sugahara started working as a systems engineer 25 years ago, she sometimes stayed in her office late into the night running performance tests on computers, and often went there on weekends to use the computers there.

But now, thanks to technological developments, Sugahara, a distinguished software engineer with IBM Japan who specializes in database design, can do much of her work from home — though that means she has to be online virtually 24 hours a day.

Compared with such changes in the computer industry’s working environment, though, Sugahara says she has not seen much change in terms of the number of female engineers in her field.

Why is it, she wonders, that there are not more in the industry despite the abundant job opportunities?

That issue has led Sugahara, 51, to become deeply involved in activities in the past 10 years both inside IBM and beyond to encourage more women to pursue careers as engineers. Now she is one of only 500 “distinguished engineers” (executive engineers) on IBM’s payroll of about 200,000 engineers worldwide. And of those 500, she says, women account for about 20 percent — with a mere three who are Japanese.

“Recently, female engineers have not been leaving the company when they get married as they used to. They say there are no discriminatory practices against women in IBM,” Sugahara says. “But still, the proportion of female workers in IBM remained at around 13 percent 10 years ago — and that was the worst figure among IBM operations in 170 countries around the world.”

Encouraging diversity

Along with promoting the company’s policy to encourage diversity in its approach to human resources, Sugahara has been involved in projects to increase the number of women in IBM Japan — and the number of its female executives. One of these projects is a “mentor system” that encourages young female engineers to discuss and resolve career problems through talking to senior staff.

“As we have a small number of engineers in my generation and older generations, young women cannot easily find role models for their future careers. The mentor system should help to solve this, and I, too, have several mentors — both men and women — whom I can consult on particular issues.”

In the last 10 years, Sugahara is pleased to report that the proportion of women in her company has gradually crept up to 17 percent. Now one third of new employees of IBM Japan are women, she says.

Nationwide, though, she believes that if Japan wants to have more female engineers, it needs to raise the total number of female science students. To that end, outside of the company, Sugahara chairs the Japan Women Engineers Forum (JWEF), a group of female engineers from different companies and institutions that was founded in 1992. To foster more female engineers in society, the forum holds numerous events for female high-school students and teachers.

“If there were no biased ideas in society, the interests of students both male and female should divide equally between natural science, social science and humanities. But in reality, only 10 percent of university science students are women. The forum members try to tell female high-school students and teachers that science students have a wide variety of job opportunities. In the future, we want to organize job fairs to make this even clearer.”

When she was a student, Sugahara says that people often asked her why a woman was studying physics. For her, though, it was no big deal — she chose science simply because she liked it, she says, and before she joined IBM Japan, she thought she might be a science teacher.

“I am an engineer and I have a skill, and I don’t encounter obvious discrimination because I am a woman when I work with customers,” she says. “I am also lucky that my company gives women and men equal opportunities — though I know not all companies are like that.

“But I have often found myself as the only woman in meetings and seminars, and when I look back I think that is why I needed a network such as JWEF.”

Nowadays, people may tend to regard her as a successful and talented woman blessed with opportunities.

“But I don’t think I could have got here only by myself,” she says. “There were always people who supported me and gave me chances. Now I think I should be one of those who support young people.”

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