Women top Japanese medical admissions after discrimination row

Experts say expectation of long work hours and ‘old boys club’ culture among doctors still pose barriers

February 4, 2022
Female doctor and senior man illustrating news article about increase in admissions of women to Japanese medical schools
Source: iStock

Women’s admission rates to Japanese medical schools have surpassed those of male applicants for the first time, just three years after a gender discrimination scandal.

In 2021, 13.6 per cent of female applicants won a place, just a sliver more than the 13.5 per cent of men, Nikkei Asia reported.

While that margin may be small, it represents a world of difference after historically low admission rates for women entering the profession, academics and doctors said.

The milestone comes after a recent controversy over unfair admissions practices by numerous medical schools, including the prestigious Tokyo Medical University, prompted public outcry. A 2018 government investigation found that at least nine Japanese medical schools manipulated their entrance exams, making it harder for women to get in.

“Clearly the scandal around medical schools was systematic discrimination that was going on for years, so it doesn’t surprise me that when…women at least had a chance, they showed themselves to excel,” said Beverley Yamamoto, a gender researcher and director of the human sciences undergraduate degree programme at Osaka University.

Academics including Professor Yamamoto applauded the recent gain but highlighted persisting problems that held women back in the medical profession.

“It is a very important deal for Japan, but it is not so simple,” said Miyoko Watanabe, deputy executive director at the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

She pointed out that doctors in the country are unable to refuse requests for medical treatment – a policy that ensures swift medical care but effectively prevents many women from entering the field as Japanese women are expected to be primary carers for their children. 

“Work with long hours including late-night work is commonplace for doctors,” said Dr Watanabe, who stressed that “it is necessary to change the law of the obligations of the doctors at the same time as increasing the number of female doctors”.

Noriko Osumi, vice-president of Tohoku University and director of its centre for neuroscience, acknowledged that the situation has become “better and better” for women entering medicine.

“Forty years ago when I entered Tokyo Medical and Dental University, we were taught that women [needed to be] more competitive to get into medical schools and we…accepted the situation,” she said, adding that a third to a half of her peers quit their careers to raise families.

But the field remains an “old boys club…and these old boys do not want their own society invaded by female doctors”, she said.

Kyoko Tanebe, an obstetrician and executive board member at the Japan Joint Association of Medical Professional Women, also applauded the end of “gate control” at medical schools, but she noted persisting inequality at the top of the career ladder.

“It is necessary to tackle the glass ceiling problem in science, including the medical school,” said Dr Tanebe.

“There is no change in the culture that self-sacrifice is the norm. Unless we change the environment in which medical doctors who work long hours at services are valued, there will be no clinical departments such as surgery and obstetrics and gynaecology – which have long working hours – let alone female doctors.”

Still, the problem is not insurmountable, said Professor Yamamoto, who cautioned against accepting a gender gap due to Japanese exceptionalism, the idea that “Japan is different” or that “Japanese women won’t want to do this”.

“We need to be careful of accepting lazy ways of thinking…that these are uniquely Japanese problems, and think more creatively about how these things can be made to work,” she said.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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