Ambitious female scientists leave Japan to escape ‘male domination’

Women find cultural attitudes impede their career advancement, says university leader

October 9, 2014

Too many female scientists are leaving Japan because they do not feel they can get ahead in its “male-dominated” society, a senior university leader has said.

Michinari Hamaguchi, president of Nagoya University, one of Japan’s leading universities, said that he was deeply concerned by the exodus of talented female researchers to overseas institutions.

Professor Hamaguchi, who is vice-president of the Japan Association of National Universities, said that he was shocked to learn that 60 per cent of the 24,000 Japanese researchers working overseas are women.

“In our own country, only 10 per cent of researchers are women,” he told an audience at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London last month.

The low proportion of female scientists may be explained by Japan’s “male-dominated, aggressive” society, which did not encourage women to play a full role in research or academia, said Professor Hamaguchi.

Some women had a “minority complex” thanks to their cultural background and felt able to push on only when working overseas, he claimed. “Even if a Japanese lady has the same ability as a male researcher, they will sit back and stay quiet when the male is in the same room.”

Nagoya University, which has an annual turnover of about £670 million, wanted female researchers to use their time abroad to become more self-confident and then to play a further role in research on their return to Japan, Professor Hamaguchi said.

The loss of female scientists was one of the reasons for Japan’s current economic malaise, he said. Another key reason for the relative decline of Japanese university research was the inability of institutions to pay more to top researchers – professorial salaries are strictly controlled by the state.

That made it hard to lure foreign researchers on to Japanese research teams, he said.

It also meant that there was no financial incentive for staff to work with industry as their salaries would remain largely unchanged even if a product was hugely successful, said Professor Hamaguchi, a cancer research expert. “Their salaries are the same if they have delivered a drug or not,” he said.

Japan’s falling share of the global pharmaceutical industry illustrated some of the “systemic problems” with Japanese business and research, he said. In the 1980s, the country produced 30 per cent of the world’s drugs, roughly the same proportion as the US. Nowadays, it produces just 8 per cent, whereas the US makes about 50 per cent, he explained.

“We are studying too much pure science,” said Professor Hamaguchi. “Our professors have no idea about promoting relations with industry and are interested only in scientific findings – that is enough for them.”

He said that he hoped to address the issue of flexible pay when he headed his country’s university association next year, although he admitted that money was tight as “almost all universities are suffering” from budget cuts of about £500 million in total since 2007.

Professor Hamaguchi said that he had overseen a plan for greater collaboration with industry at Nagoya, which had established a research centre dedicated to improving life in Japan’s ageing society, producing, among other things, a cheap smart car for the elderly.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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