Commentary / Japan

Japan's systemic barriers to gender equality

by Maki Hayashikawa and Mark Manns

Contributing Writers

The recent news that the pass ratio for female students applying to the Tokyo Medical University slightly exceeded that of their male peers should come as no surprise — education experts have no reason to doubt girls and women’s ability to excel in such merit-based exams. Yet given the recent scandal showing the institute and at least eight other medical universities were rigging results against female applicants, the most recent exams are another reminder of persistent gender discrimination and inequality in action within Japanese society. The universities may have reformed their unfair admissions, but systemic biases persist to the detriment of all.

When the exam-rigging came to light last year, it highlighted Japan’s deep-rooted, gender-based biases, whereby many believe that women will leave the medical profession once they get married or have children. University professors have presumed female applicants will leave the profession in the future, which supposedly justifies precluding them from opportunities. This deprived young women of life-changing, career-advancing opportunities, but was also a fundamental betrayal of the education system.

Japanese women are still expected to conform to traditional societal roles. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2018, Japan ranked 110th out 149 countries, with low ratings in economic participation and political empowerment for women. Traditional gender roles remain entrenched in Japanese society. For example, women do five times more unpaid tasks such as housework, household care and other activities than men. Traditional gender roles extend to the labor market, where women often find themselves limited to lower level jobs, irregular employment and specific industries. In addition, they experience inequality of pay and less job security.

And, unfortunately, it’s not only men who hold these traditional beliefs. A recent survey on the recruitment of female doctors found that over 65 percent of the respondents, mostly female doctors, were sympathetic to universities’ practice of gender discrimination in entrance exams — perhaps because they understood the harsh realities faced by women who work in the medical profession.

All this takes place despite relative equality in educational outcomes and health measures, and recent progress in women’s overall participation in the workforce. Recent data suggest 70 percent of Japanese women are now employed — the highest rate on record. So why is this gender discrimination still prevalent? Are the cases involving Tokyo Medical University and other institutes outliers?

Nearly 35 years have passed since the Law on Equal Opportunities for Employment of Women and Men was enacted in 1985. Some important changes have been achieved since, but sociocultural norms and beliefs in gender roles are still deeply rooted, affecting education and the job market alike.

While gender parity exists across educational attainment, the specific case of the medical schools indicates that gender discrimination and biases in education operate not only in higher education but are clearly linked to the professional job sector that it’s intended to serve.

For instance, there are still significant gender disparities in the types of programs young women choose to study at university. Women are likely to stick with social sciences, education and health (66 percent, 66 percent and 61 percent female representation, respectively),and they are likely to avoid fields such as engineering and natural sciences.

The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines show similar disparities in other Asian countries, which is very discouraging for girls who aspire to enter STEM professions. Girls who are encouraged to study hard — sometimes harder than boys — in STEM subjects while in high school are bound to be discouraged from higher education as their chances of continuing in their chosen areas of study dwindle. Many of them will be kicked out of the “race” before being given the chance to compete and prove themselves.

Even today, it is not surprising to find educated parents who do not necessarily understand or appreciate the value of higher education for their daughters, especially in light of the increasing financial burden of tuition. And the medical field is still one of the few STEM-based areas that competent women aspire to as a profession, with less resistance today from family and teachers.

Yet, if higher education institutions want to reinforce gender-power games in the STEM professions, we won’t be able to talk about empowering girls through STEM education or see young women become the agents of change. Families and society will continue to reinforce traditional gender roles. The vicious cycle will continue.

Japanese people take the equal opportunity to education for granted. Most would never think that opportunities to education would be blocked by entrance exams or requirements. This scandal was shocking for many members of the general public, who believed that university entrance exams are conducted with the utmost objectivity, fairness and equity, and that if students studied hard and performed well, they would be rewarded.

As recent results indicate, girls and boys pass entrance exams at similar rates when the exams are applied objectively. Medical schools denied the right to equal opportunity to education based on merit to women, who were discriminated against based on their gender and not their performance. It is a basic rights violation. How do we overcome these issues, including addressing fear of exams, teachers’ competence and gender awareness, the lack of role models, parents’ perceptions and beliefs, and societal expectations in terms of the job market?

How do we move away from socially reinforced traditional roles? Education has serious responsibilities here, and it can either reinforce gender stereotypes, biases and discrimination, or change and transform society to realize gender equality.

In fact, the education sector should be challenging gender discrimination, not only in the classroom but in the job market as well. The education sector cannot work in isolation from the labor sector and should not be contributing and reinforcing gender discrimination in the job market. It must work closely with the labor sector. Moreover, the labor sector and employers should not be determining what the education sector should produce.

This is a caution for Japan’s education sector, which is increasingly trying to meet the demands of the job market by overemphasizing the need for and importance of skills and technical training for youths, yet neglecting the ultimate goal of education and learning. Rather than playing along with the traditional labor market beliefs, education institutes need to encourage and create change.

UNESCO has a responsibility to work not only with governments but also with stakeholders such as teachers, students and parents not only to empower girls and women but to change perceptions. Parents and families have strong influence over what their children will study and aspire to become, what role they are expected to play, and how motivated children are to learn.

The medical school scandal, among others, serves as a warning for many countries in the region as well as the Japanese government. They need to recognize that gender discrimination exists in practice, and that beliefs based on discriminatory practices and historical biases need to be addressed. Japan’s education development policy and economic development are very closely associated. Economic development historically has been led by a very patriarchal values under which men work and earn, and women stay home and take care of their children.

Today, however, Abenomics is the main economic development policy of Japan — where women’s participation in the labor force is encouraged, especially by producing more rikejo (science girls), as STEM education and industries are seen as key drivers of national development. But a political manifesto does not by itself address deep-rooted discriminatory practices. Unless systemic barriers are removed at the same time, it will only amount to more lip service to gender equality.

Maki Hayashikawa is the chief of section and Mark Manns is a program officer for inclusive quality education at the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.