By Mariko Katsumura
TOKYO (Reuters) – Yuna Kato, a third-year student at one of Japan’s top technical universities, has set her sights on a career in research but fears it will be short-lived when she has children.
Kato says family members have tried to keep her away from science, technology, engineering and math, assuming women in the STEM field are too busy at work to juggle dating or families, so it’s hard to find husbands to find.
“My grandmother and mother often tell me that there are non-STEM jobs if I want to raise children,” she said.
Kato has made it this far, but many aspiring female engineers are choosing a different path because of the social stigma, causing huge headaches for Japan. In IT alone, the country faces a shortage of 790,000 workers by 2030, largely due to a severe under-representation of women.
The result, experts warn, is a decline in innovation, productivity and competitiveness for a country that grew on those strengths to become the world’s third-largest economy in the past century.
“It’s very wasteful and a loss to the nation,” said Yinuo Li, a Chinese teacher with a PhD in molecular biology whose image has been used for a Barbie doll as a female role model in STEM.
“If you don’t have a gender balance, your technology will have a significant blind spot and shortcomings,” said the mother of three who is in Japan on a cultural exchange program.
Japan ranks last among rich countries with only 16% female university students majoring in engineering, manufacturing and construction, and with only one female scientist in seven. That’s despite the fact that Japanese girls score second highest in the world in math and third in science, according to the OECD.
For overall gender equality, Japan’s ranking fell to a record low this year.
The country is on a mission to close the gap.
For the academic year starting in 2024, about a dozen universities – including Kato’s Tokyo Institute of Technology – will heed the government’s call to introduce a quota for female STEM students, among several others that will be introduced this year are started.
It’s a major turnaround for a country where a 2018 investigation found that a medical school in Tokyo had deliberately lowered women’s admission test scores to admit men. School officials believed that women were more likely to leave work after having children and that they would waste their education.
Aiming to change attitudes, the government released a 9.5 minute video a few months ago to show educators and other adults how “unconscious bias” is keeping girls from pursuing STEM studies.
In one scenario, an actor playing a school teacher compliments a student for being “good at math even if you’re a girl”, making her feel that being a female math noob is abnormal. In another example, a mother discourages her daughter from pursuing engineering since “the field is dominated by men”.
In partnership with the private sector, the government’s Gender Equality Bureau will host more than 100 STEM workshops and events this summer aimed primarily at female students, such as classes from Mazda’s sports car engineers.
NO DIVERSITY, NO INNOVATION
More schools and companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Toyota, are offering scholarships to female STEM students to attract talent.
“The scarcity of female engineers is absolutely unnatural when you consider that women make up half of society,” said Minoru Taniura, Mitsubishi Heavy’s human resources officer.
“If the composition of engineers is not the same as the population, we would fall behind in being able to provide what customers are looking for.”
Panasonic also sees benefits from a female perspective, saying senior engineer Kyoko Ida can identify with women surveyed for the development of the company’s bread machine, whose users were mostly women.
Jun-ichi Imura, the deputy principal of Kato’s school, said the lack of diversity has already taken its toll.
“Diversity is the source of innovation, and when we think about whether we’ve seen real innovation in our school or in Japan over the past few decades, it doesn’t look good,” he said.
“Looking ahead to 2050, we all need to think about what needs to be done now.”
(Reporting by Mariko Katsumura, additional reporting by Mayu Sakoda and Rocky Swift; editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Sonali Paul)