That an unspecified number of universities were suspected of discriminating against female applicants and those taking the entrance exam multiple times for their medical schools — in an education ministry probe triggered by malpractice revealed earlier this year at Tokyo Medical University — points to the depth and breadth of a problem that not only undermines equality in education opportunities but highlights the workplace woes that women face as doctors. The ministry should get to the bottom of the problem through further probes, and operators of the universities need to reflect on whether they engaged in such improper conduct.

The manipulation of entrance exam scores at Tokyo Medical University, which was reportedly going on for years, came to light in a probe triggered by the arrest of a former senior education ministry official in a suspected bribery involving the university. The official allegedly provided favors to the university in relation to the government’s research subsidy program, and in return his son’s scores in last spring’s entrance exam for the university’s medical school were padded to enable his admission. In the in-house probe by lawyers, it was found out that the university systematically deducted points from the exam scores of female applicants for years to restrict their numbers in its medical school.

The reported logic behind the malpractice — that the university wanted to avoid a future shortage of doctors at its affiliated hospitals because female doctors tend to quit early or take extended leaves after having children — was unacceptable but shed light on what had been widely rumored: that other universities with medical schools have similarly discriminated against female applicants in their entrance exams for the same reason.

The education ministry’s probe of 81 universities with medical schools across the country found that in 78 percent of the institutions surveyed, the success rate of female applicants was lower than that of their male counterparts in the annual entrance exams over the past six years. The national average was 11.25 percent for men versus 9.55 percent for women, but the gap was the widest at one university in Tokyo — where the rate among female applicants was a mere 5.5 percent versus 9.16 percent among men. The success rate was higher among men than women at 63 universities, while women’s success rate was higher at 17 universities. In some schools, men had a higher success rate than women in some years but not in others.

All of the universities surveyed denied that they manipulated test scores to discriminate against female applicants. However, a subsequent education ministry probe of about 30 universities where the gap between male and female applicants was deemed to be wide showed that discriminatory practices against female applicants as well as applicants who were taking the entrance exam multiple times were “strongly suspected” at a number of universities, said education minister Masahiko Shibayama.

The minister did not disclose the names of the universities or their numbers since it is not yet clear if they had legitimate reasons for treating male and female applicants differently. While the ministry will make further probes to compile a final report by the year’s end, Shibayama urged the universities suspected of the malpractice to “voluntarily” announce what practices they had engaged in and why.

The discrimination against female applicants in entrance exams at Tokyo Medical University was unacceptable in that education opportunities were improperly denied to some women who were aspiring to become doctors. Suspicions that similar malpractice may have taken place at other universities with medical schools are even more troubling and must be thoroughly investigated. The universities should also scrutinize their own practices to see if they have treated all applicants fairly.

The medical profession in Japan remains a male-centric community. Women accounted for 21 percent of all doctors at the end of 2016. The ratio is the lowest among OECD members and just about half the OECD average. Behind the slow increase in the number of female doctors in Japan is said to be the environment in hospitals and other medical institutions in which doctors are forced to work excessively long hours, making it difficult for them to adequately balance the demands of their work with the needs of their families. Instead of using discriminatory practices to limit opportunities for women to become doctors, the work environment at medical institutions should be changed in ways that enable more women to continue to work as doctors once they marry and have children.

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