Action, not words

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    Japan is beginning to recognize that the status and treatment of women researchers must change — but it has yet to take decisive action to address the problem.

    The under-representation of women in Japanese science, particularly at its higher levels, is not exactly news. The latest figures on the problem are nonetheless sobering. According to an annual government report on gender equality published in May, fewer than 12% of working scientists in Japan are women — the lowest proportion of any leading industrial nation. Even more strikingly, fewer than 4% of full university science professors are female.

    There are some signs, however, that the issue is at last gaining the recognition it deserves. For example, the dismal statistics in the report provoked a barrage of critical coverage in the Japanese press, which might once have been inclined to ignore the issue.

    Japanese institutions have started to publicly acknowledge the problem and set targets to redress it. Back in 2000, the Science Council of Japan, which is the interface between Japan's academic societies and the government, said it would raise the number of women on its 210-strong central committee to 10% by 2010. The number, which had hovered around 1% before the announcement, crept past 3% during 2000 and to 6% in 2003.

    A cabinet committee on gender equality, meanwhile, set the target of having 30% of all ‘leading positions’ in society — which should include senior researchers — occupied by women by 2020. A national five-year plan on gender equality, when it is renewed next year, will add the question of women in science to its list of a dozen ‘priority objectives’. The Council for Science and Technology Policy, the top science policy body in the government, has also pledged action. According to one official working on the gender issue, “the little voice of women researchers is starting to be heard”.

    “Laboratories make little provision for nursery care. They also lack an effective body to investigate allegations of discrimination.”

    All of this official activity may start to pull more women into science. But even if that happens, too little is being done to address the set of circumstances that keeps them on the lower rungs of the research ladder, and prevents them from building productive and independent careers.

    Junior scientists, for example, are usually dependent on fixed-term grants from research agencies that do not take account of maternity leave. Laboratories in universities and elsewhere make little provision for nursery care. They also lack an accessible and effective body to investigate allegations of discrimination.

    The time is now ripe for the science and education ministry, the universities and the research agencies to put all their fine words into action as they prepare their annual budget requests for submission next month. The Council for Science and Technology Policy will review these requests in the autumn. When it does so, it should consider carefully whether institutions are acting quickly enough to implement Japan's gender-equality objectives. Agencies and institutions that aren't doing so, and prefer to pay lip-service to the issue, need to be made aware that their failure will carry a cost.

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    Action, not words. Nature 436, 151 (2005) doi:10.1038/436151a

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