This is especially prevalent in physical sciences, where women make up only 28% of the combined fields worldwide. Observers of the scientific disciplines such as Elsevier have suggested several reasons why this may be the case, from bias in hiring to authorship, recognition, and promotion. To some degree the ‘leaky pipeline’ in scientific fields is no different than in other disciplines and sectors – the pattern of many women at entry level but few at the top is familiar.
However in STEM this is exacerbated by the shortage of women entering the field in the first place. Even in countries such as Australia, where women read STEM subjects at university in equal numbers with men, attrition rates are higher for women and the gender gap continues to widen among post-doc cohorts and throughout research careers because only 17% of Australian STEM professors are women. This is already very concerning, but the situation in countries where fewer women study STEM initially is even more challenging. For example, elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, in the same year that 50.1% of Australia’s STEM undergraduates were female, in Japan the number was only a little over a quarter (26.8%).
Historically, Japan has faced difficulties in attracting and retaining women in STEM. Despite government targets set in 2006 to have 20% of researcher positions and 15% of engineering positions occupied by women, as of 2016 these targets had not been met – only 15.3% of Japan’s researchers in science and technology were women. Of the twelve highly developed countries featured in Elsevier’s Gender in the Global Research Landscape Report 2017, Japan had the lowest proportion of women as named authors on research papers (20%).
The problem is even more acute within physics, where only 6% of the members of the Japan Society of Applied Physics (JSAP) are women. JSAP sought to highlight this challenge when it sponsored the International Conference on Challenges in Quantum Information Science in April 2018, which placed gender issues at the heart of the programme.
At this year’s International Conference on challenges in Quantum Information, conference chair Kae Nemoto of the National Institute of Informatics wished to draw attention to the problem of attracting and keeping women in physics. She ensured that every invited speaker and every plenary speaker was a prominent woman scientist in the field. The conference aimed to set an example by foregrounding women scientists – demonstrating not only that women are at the cutting edge of quantum research and development, but that Japan is under an international microscope when it comes to promoting and encouraging its new generations of female scientists. Reports such as Elsevier’s drew attention to the problem of the ‘brain drain’ of women scientists that Japan is experiencing, and points out that Japan’s female scientists can often progress their careers more effectively outside their home country.
Japan is not the only country struggling with the gender balance in STEM – the EU’s Horizon 2020 includes gender equity and it is built into the Responsible Research and Innovation Framework being promulgated within the UK. Organisations such as ORBIT (the Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT) train scientists and engineers in using responsible research techniques, including considerations of gender equity. Japan is making efforts to address its gender challenges; the government is aware that to grow the country’s economic base it needs more women in the workplace, and Japan hosted the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Equity summit. This built on its work at the previous year’s G7 lse-Shima summit where it announced programmes like WINDS (Women’s Initiative in Developing STEM Careers). It is not yet clear, however, whether programmes such as Prime Minister Abe’s ‘womenomics’ are making a substantial difference. The WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index in November 2017 showed Japan falling four places to its worst position ever – 114th out of 144 countries. It is clear that the challenge of attracting and retaining women to careers that help Japan sustain its position at the leading edge of global research is receiving a great deal of attention – it remains to be seen whether it will be enough.