Photo/Illutration Children take a push-button quiz at the Poppins After-School care center of Nagoya University. (Provided by Poppins After-School)

In Japan, a wide gender gap exists in the world of academia. But some of the nation’s top universities are taking positive steps to tackle this inequality and attract more female scholars.

Nagoya University, regarded as one of the top such institutions in Japan, for years has been at the forefront of efforts to help female researchers avoid having to give up their careers due to pregnancy, child-rearing responsibilities and other gender-related “obstacles.”

It is now taking its long-term commitments to a whole new level by introducing hiring targets and enhancing child care services to further narrow its gender gap.

Not only do fewer women than men work in academia in Japan today, but even fewer hold senior positions. One of the reasons is that young female researchers are often hired on contracts with a limited duration, giving them less time to produce the same results as their male counterparts to secure contract renewal or a staff position.

In 2009, the university, located in the city of Nagoya, the fourth largest in Japan, became the first in the country to set up an after-school child care center within its campus after female academics with children of elementary school age complained about the “first-grader barrier.”

Parents can send younger children to daytime nurseries, but facilities that care for elementary school pupils have shorter operating hours, making it difficult for working parents to adjust their schedules. Seventy-seven elementary school pupils of all ages are currently registered at the campus daycare center, which operates until 9 p.m.


Women accounted for around 17.5 percent of the university’s teachers over the last few years, but now the institution is set to raise that ratio to 20 percent during the 2021 fiscal year.

It has also imposed employment targets for each course and department, as well as economic incentives. Sections that hire more female employees on a permanent basis than the number who leave will be eligible for bigger budgets from the school operator, whereas departments that do not achieve the university’s goals will have their budgets reduced.

Narie Sasaki, an associate professor of biology at Nagoya University who helped establish the after-school care center as part of her efforts to allow women to continue working, stressed the significance of these hiring targets.

“Allocating positions exclusively to women does not give women an improper advantage but aims to destroy invisible barriers,” she said.

Hiroko Tsukamura, vice president of Nagoya University, said the policy to slash budgets for sections that do not reach the goals was decided after incentive-oriented, less strict female employment encouragement measures failed to improve the ratio of women.

“Opposition came from some, but we repeatedly held discussions with each division and approved the policy at the all-campus trustee meeting,” she said. “Exceptional academics should be selected regardless of gender. If the right people are picked for the positions, there should be more women in the research community.”

Gunma University, in the nation’s northern Kanto region, is also taking aggressive measures to narrow the gender gap.

Instead of using one-time budgets for equal-rights projects, the university prepares long-term funding not only to help female researchers install their own labs but also to hire part-time assistants for those with small children. It has also sought to hire only female researchers for recent openings in its male-dominated School of Science and Technology.

As a result, the number of permanent female professors rose from four in 2012, to 12 in 2019. The female student percentage in the doctoral course more than doubled during the same period, from 12 percent to 26 percent.


Another challenge for female researchers concerns the parental leave system, which leaves much to be desired. While young researchers must frequently renew their contracts to secure academic posts, many universities implement labor-management agreements or in-house rules that prohibit staff from taking parental leave in their first year and in the last year-and-a-half of their tenures.

This makes it impossible for those working under two-year contracts to take child care leave, while three-year temporary staff members can take only six months off to take care of their offspring. These obstacles have made academics think twice about having children.

Although the rules are based on the labor ministry’s guidelines on fixed-term employment, they can be revised if employees and employers reach an agreement.

For instance, the Nara Institute of Science and Technology abolished these rules last year to allow its staff to take parental leave whenever they want during their employment periods.

It took the institute only six months to review the rules after the issue was raised by young female academics. Under the amended rules, all temporary teachers are now eligible for one-year parental leave.

The University of Tokyo scrapped restrictions on child care leave for both permanent and temporary staff members in 2005. The university also runs six nurseries that accept new children every month.

It covers 70 percent of the employment costs for five years for newly hired female professors and associate professors, to promote women’s employment.

Teruo Fujii, who became the university’s president in April this year, emphasized its “diversity and inclusion.”

More than half of the university’s new executives are women. They come from various backgrounds, including a private company and an international organization. Women also accounted for a record high 21.1 percent of new students this year.

“Women being publicly incorporated into management has symbolic importance,” said Kaori Hayashi, vice president at the university. “We will make the university a school that individuals in a range of positions will want to attend.”

However, the university’s female teacher ratio--including female associate and assistant professors--remains low at 13.7 percent, while around 90 percent of its professors are men.

Hayashi said both men and women in academia compete based on their achievements and hope that those who get chosen is not “simply because they are women.”

Reaffirming the significance of helping women in employment, Hayashi said: “The gender gap (in the University of Tokyo) of one woman for every nine men is too wide to ignore, and there is a possibility that hidden talents have yet to be unearthed. There will be more cases where the most talented person is hired and the individual happens to be a woman.”


This article is being published as part of “Towards Equality,” an international and collaborative initiative gathering 15 international news outlets to highlight the challenges and solutions to reach gender equality. The Asahi Shimbun is participating in this campaign spearheaded by Sparknews.

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