Reposted with permission from Science News, 22 April 2005

TOKYO--A government advisory committee has suggested that Japan's publicly supported universities and labs set targets for hiring more women and that the government monitor their progress and publicize the results.

The idea is to encourage--and perhaps even embarrass--authorities into lifting Japan from last place among industrialized nations in the employment of women scientists. "We need something to encourage more progress in this area," says Yasuharu Suematsu, former director general of the National Institute of Informatics and head of the panel, which reported this month to the Ministry of Education.


Little women. Japan ranks last in the OECD on women in its scientific workforce.

CREDIT: OECD

Current figures from Japan's Statistics Bureau show that women make up just 11.6%of the country's R&D workforce. That percentage is the lowest among the 30 industrialized countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in which Portugal leads the way with more than 40%. The U.S. figure is 26%.

Mariko Kato, an astronomer at Keio University in Tokyo, worries, however, that the targets will lead administrators to boost numbers by hiring "nonassertive women" for low-ranking positions instead of tackling more fundamental problems. "There is still sexual harassment, and you still hear comments about women being unsuitable for science," Kato says. "If you don't change the consciousness of men, the environment for women won't change." Chikako Shingyoji, a female cell biologist at the University of Tokyo who serves on Suematsu's committee, doesn't believe targets are the entire answer. But "setting targets is better than not doing anything," she says.

Suematsu agrees that male attitudes are a big obstacle. "Striving to meet targets will mean addressing the question of how to change this consciousness," he says.