The election of Yuriko Koike as the first female governor of Tokyo is an encouraging sign in Japan’s male-dominated society. She counters tradition in joining Yuko Tanaka, the first woman to be named president of a major Japanese university in November 2013. Despite these breakthroughs, however, women continue to be grossly underrepresented in positions of influence in Japan.

This situation is particularly apparent in higher education. Although women constitute 43 percent of all university students in Japan, females comprise only 8.7 percent of the leaders of the country’s 746 universities, according to the education ministry. Those female heads were mostly found at women’s colleges and vocational schools.

Things are not much better in the United States. Only 26 percent of college presidents there are women, even though more than 57 percent of students in colleges and universities are female. In fact, women have been in the majority among undergraduates since 1980. Yet female presidencies have increased by only 1 percentage point every two years. At that rate, it will take about 48 years for women to represent half of presidencies in higher education.

What is increasingly evident in both Japan and the U.S. are the formidable barriers that militate against upward mobility in academe. Although Japanese university presidents are elected by all faculty members while their U.S. counterparts are selected by boards of trustees, women in both countries have to overcome deeply rooted attitudes.

Recognizing these obstacles, the Shinagawa Proposal in July 2014 aimed to increase the proportion of women in faculty research and executive positions through recruitment, retention and promotion. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone a step further by pledging to increase the number of women in leadership positions to 30 percent by 2020 across the public and private sectors, including higher education and research.

Yet men still outnumber women in earning a Ph.D., which is a prerequisite for landing a university presidency. According to the education ministry, there are about 10,608 men compared with 4,800 women in doctoral programs. Women who eventually earn the degree tend to opt for a career in research rather than in administration. That’s understandable in light of the feedback they get regarding often hostile attitudes toward women on university campuses.

In contrast, the U.S. has seen a significant jump in the number of women college and university presidents. Once considered unthinkable, there are now some 23 female presidents, several of whom at marquee-name universities. Search committees are increasingly open to women candidates, despite occasional opposition.

To accelerate the trend in both Japan and the U.S. will require greater emphasis on providing women with early leadership experiences and ongoing support. Mentoring prospective candidates can help women overcome the initial isolation they invariably feel. Successful female university presidents can serve as role models.

Yet despite the progress made in both countries, tradition dies hard. Stereotypes remain about the ability of women to stand up to the pressures confronting presidents. In this regard, they reflect those about the ability of women to serve in combat units in the military. Only recently have women been given the right to do so in the U.S.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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