Surprisingly few women students attend Japan’s top university. At the University of Tokyo (often referred to in Japan as Todai for short) only 1 in 5 students are women. This gender imbalance represents a real national problem, and potentially a serious impediment both to the Japanese government’s recent efforts to increase the share of women in leadership/executive positions and to broader efforts aimed at addressing long-standing gender inequities throughout the country.

Even though this is a serious problem, there is little research on why Todai has so few women students. Anecdotally, it seems that families often steer their daughters away from prestigious schools, claiming that it’s a waste of time for women to work so hard or that the professional world is the province of men. Arguments like this probably deter some women from applying.

A recent survey that we conducted, though, suggests an additional reason for the low women attendance rates at Todai. We fielded a survey with a national sample of 2,389 Japanese residents in February. In one part of the survey, we asked men and women to tell us how much they agreed with a set of statements on gender issues. Respondents could indicate that they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed with each claim.

The data from these statements indicate that Japanese women are likely worried that pursuing an education would undermine their dating prospects. When asked what they thought about the general idea that “Women should limit their education attainment to find a good mate,” 25 percent of the respondents indicated agreement or strong agreement. Interestingly, there’s wide support for this statement among both women and men, though the probability of a man agreeing with it is about 4 percentage points higher (this difference is statistically significant). This suggests that a substantial share of men and women in Japan think that success in school prevents success in the marriage market.

An even larger share of our respondents think that women attending Todai is potentially problematic to their prospects for love. Thirty-four percent of survey participants agree or strongly agree with the statement that “women shouldn’t go to the University of Tokyo because they will have a hard time finding a future husband.” Here again we see that both women and men agree with this statement — though the probability of a man agreeing with it is greater by 10 percentage points (this difference is statistically significant).

So while the Japanese public seems to generally think that women who pursue more education endanger their potential for finding a long-term partner, they think that those who attend the University of Tokyo might have a particularly tough time finding a lasting relationship.

Taken together, these findings suggest that Japanese women who wish to attend Todai, and potentially other top universities, must overcome not only the hurdles created by family members but also their own concerns about the potential personal costs of professional success. This is a serious problem for Japan, as global competition and domestic demographic changes continue to increase the country’s need for a well-educated workforce. Unfortunately, it will be hard for the government to change marriage market preferences (or public perceptions of them) in the short or medium term. Social norms such as these typically only change over generations.

We think, though, that there are two low-cost policy solutions that the government could adopt to create immediate change. One is to offer increased subsidies to women who attend Todai and other top universities where extreme gender imbalances exists. The University of Tokyo currently offers a small monthly payment to women students for a period of their attendance. The national government could increase these payments and guarantee them until degree completion. In defraying some of the monetary costs that women face in attending, the government might be able to offset the perceived social costs.

Another possibility is to actively celebrate and promote women graduates of leading universities. Economics research shows us that women are more likely to enter fields (and likely universities), when they know that other women have done so and succeeded. By increasing some of the perceived future benefits of completing a degree at institutions like Todai, the government might be able to mitigate other concerns by women applicants.

Kiho Muroga is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Economics at Kyushu University. Charles Crabtree is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and a senior data scientist at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

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