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Gender discrimination: Nation’s dignity is being questioned

by Yumiko Murakami

As outrageous as the Tokyo Medical University scandal may be, it is hardly an isolated incident in Japan — a country plagued by misconduct related to gender discrimination. The university’s systematic manipulation to reduce entrance test scores of female students, in order to marginalize women, is unforgivable. The fact this scandal has taken place at a prestigious university that was selected by the education ministry to receive special government funds to increase the number of female students is even more mind-boggling.

The Abe administration has implemented a number of initiatives in the past several years to promote “a society where all women shine,” which has become a familiar government slogan that is heralded at numerous gender-promotion events. Yet Japan’s rankings in international gender indices, including the well-known World Gender Gap Index conducted by the World Economic Forum, have been slipping and are now hitting all time low levels. Clearly, there is something very wrong in this country.

Evidence suggests that female talent is grossly underutilized in Japan. The numerical and literacy skills of the nation’s adult female population are at top levels globally, according to a survey conducted by the OECD. Yet, female representation in occupations requiring high levels of expertise and specialization, including medical doctors, is abnormally low.

The Japanese female ratio of physicians is the lowest among the OECD countries, at around 21 percent compared with the OECD average of 47 percent. The gap can be explained by the smaller percentage of Japanese women receiving education in the medical field relative to other industrialized countries. Given that little or no gender-based difference in academic performance has been observed, one has to wonder why the passing rate of female students was so much lower than that of male students at a number of Japanese medical universities. This in turn begs an unfortunate question: Are the rigged entrance exams at Tokyo Medical University merely the tip of the iceberg?

Even though scandalous gender discrimination against women of this scale may not make media headlines every day, more subtle tactics to keep women out of various roles take place routinely in Japanese society. It is no secret that many companies favor male candidates over female candidates in their recruiting process. Some companies openly comment on how female candidates tend to score higher than male counterparts in screening tests and therefore they need to lower the bar for men in order to keep “an ideal gender ratio.”

Whether it is an academic institution or a private-sector company, anyone trying to develop and lead a competitive entity should understand that securing the best and brightest talent is a critical component of success. Why is it different in Japan?

As the probe into Tokyo Medical University’s case has revealed, the root cause of gender discrimination is an antiquated work culture in which only one-dimensional male workers can sufficiently operate. With brutally long working hours and demanding schedules at the university’s affiliated hospitals, these institutions want to predominantly hire male physicians as it is believed they are less likely to leave the medical profession compared to women.

Instead of improving work conditions to accommodate female physicians who may inevitably face life events such as pregnancy and childbirth, both the hospitals and Tokyo Medical University have resigned themselves to outdated methods and solutions. However unethical and egregious their conduct might have been, choosing less qualified men over more competent women has been seen as an easy short-term solution since these men are evidently willing to slave away more than their female counterparts. The long-term impact, however, is devastating. Not only does it deprive women of deserved and well-earned opportunities, it also lowers the quality of health care in Japan.

In many ways, the Tokyo Medical University scandal has embodied the widespread gender discrimination that is deeply rooted in Japanese society and culture. An improvement in Japan’s legal framework or administrative policies to promote gender equality will not be effective without an accompanying change in the broader work environment and culture for both men and women.

More flexible work structures, merit-based promotion and compensation, and labor market mobility are just a few examples of how labor reforms should be implemented. These structural reforms will come with pain. Some men may even consider the changes an infringement on their vested rights. The truth is, no one should have vested rights based on gender.

By preventing half of Japan’s much needed working population, namely women, from making meaningful economic and societal contributions, we are allowing Japan’s economic growth engine to stall and permitting the slow decay of society.

Gender discrimination is much more than just unfair treatment for women. It is an embarrassing blight on this country. The dignity of the nation is being questioned. Men and women, young and old, political leaders and business executives all have to unite and stamp out this avoidable injustice.

Yumiko Murakami is head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, where she engages in policy discussions between the OECD and governments, businesses and academia in Japan and Asia, covering a wide range of economic policy issues.