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Still less equal

Japan’s government must stick by its promise to help women’s careers to prosper.

In 2010, there were 1,552 children waiting to get places in childcare centres in Yokohama, by far the highest number of any city in Japan. Over the next three years, the city’s (female) mayor, Fumiko Hayashi, spent 37 billion yen (US$362 million) on building new infrastructure, including 144 childcare centres. Now the waiting list is zero.

Many female scientists, as well as women working in other sectors, celebrated the news. They know that help with child-rearing responsibilities is essential for a mother to have a successful career. But even better were the reverberations, which reached all the way up to the prime minister, with an indication that change might become more widespread.

On 20 May, after touring one of the childcare centres with Hayashi, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the “Yokohama model” should be applied across the country. In fact, an economic growth strategy report released in April called for childcare capacity to be increased by 400,000 nationwide.

Why the sudden focus on such a progressive issue from a man who refuses even to consider a popular amendment to Japanese law that would allow the imperial line to pass through female members of the family? The momentum for change seems to be coming largely from a recognition of economic and demographic realities. Japan’s population, and its labour force, are shrinking, and its economic competitiveness is faltering. The country has been frittering away a resource that could help to meet these challenges. And the call is getting louder.

In 2010, for example, the investment bank Goldman Sachs, headquartered in New York, released a widely cited report on ‘Womenomics’ in Japan stating that closing the country’s gender gap — bringing the employment rate of women up to that of men — would increase the workforce by 8.2 million and boost gross domestic product by 15%.

Such figures have grabbed the attention of business leaders. Companies are more likely to allow flexible working hours for mothers, for example; government officials are making women’s issues part of their political platforms; and ‘Abenomics’, as the prime minister’s aggressive financial and economic plans are called, seems to be endorsing Women­omics (see page 548). But will the right improvements be made?

The problem facing women in Japan has nowhere been as glaring as in science and engineering. The country has taken steps to remedy the situation, but there is much more to be done. In 2006, for example, the science and education ministry brought in a programme to improve support systems for female scientists. Renewed in 2011, the programme has so far supported projects at 88 universities and research institutions.

These projects led to increased on-campus childcare facilities and practical support for scientists with children. Most universities now have at least one childcare centre. Another programme, launched by the science ministry in 2009, and called Supporting Positive Activities for Female Researchers, has funded 5-year programmes at 12 universities to increase the number and promotion rate of female faculty members. These ‘affirmative action’ programmes have ramped up the number of female scientists, especially at higher-level positions.

“ The Japanese government seems to be waking up to women’s potential importance to the economy. ”

And such policies have created momentum. At institutions that implemented the plans, the proportion of women among the research staff grew from 12.5% in 2005 to 15.4% in 2011. Nationwide figures have risen from 11.9% to 13.8% over the same period. But this increase is too slow. Japan still has the lowest number of females as a percentage of total science researchers in developed countries, according to figures collected by the science ministry. A new innovation policy from the Council for Science and Technology Policy, currently in draft form, calls for the percentage of female new hirings at universities and research institutes to reach 30% by 2016. It is an ambitious goal, considering that this figure now is just over 20%.

Ensuring equal opportunities for women scientists is a global problem. But Hisako Ohtsubo, a molecular biologist at Nihon University near Funabashi, says that Japan is more than 25 years behind some countries, noting that the US National Science Foundation brought in such policies in the 1980s. To catch up, the government should expand its programmes, which have so far been short-term and on too limited a scale, and ensure that they encourage women not only to engage in science but also to fight for leadership positions in the scientific community.

With competition growing, especially from China and South Korea, Japan’s position as a scientific power is no more secure than its status as an economic power. The Japanese government seems to be waking up to women’s potential importance to the economy. Making the most of their talent could be just as potentially transforming for Japanese science. The Abe government needs to stick by his promises and take the targets seriously.

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Research policy: Only wholesale reform will bring equality 2013-Mar-06

Research management: Quotas are questionable 2013-Mar-06

German university head lauds progress of women scientists 2011-Apr-10

Science gender gap probed 2011-Feb-07

The female underclass 2009-May-20

Marie Curie doesn't live here, Japanese women say 2002-Oct-24

'One woman is enough...' 2001-Mar-22

Nature special: Women in science

Related external links

Women Researchers Promotion Program

US National Science Foundation ADVANCE programme

Japanese National Institute of Science and Technology Policy

NISTEP Science of Science, Technology and Innovation Policy division

Japanese Council for Science and Technology Policy

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Still less equal. Nature 497, 535–536 (2013).

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