05 Mar 2014 01:30

News Navigator: Are there many women in science-related fields?

Haruko Obokata, 30, from the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, is being hailed as a "heroine" of female scientists due to her recent discovery of a new method for creating pluripotent stem cells in mice, known as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP).

The Mainichi answers common questions readers may have about "rikejo" (women in science), referring to women working as researchers and technicians in science-related fields or studying the natural sciences in university, or girls in junior high and high school who aim to someday enter science-related fields.

Q. How many female scientists like Obokata are out there?

A. The total number of science researchers working in corporations and research institutes is around 900,000 nationwide. Of these, 125,000 are women, comprising around 14 percent. According to estimates from the Cabinet Office, this figure is quite low compared to countries like Russia (42 percent) and the United States (34 percent) -- and in fact stands as the lowest figure among all of the developed countries.

The proportion of women working as university professors and in other leading positions is also low, with a long way to go before being able to reach Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's target of women making up 30 percent of leadership positions by the year 2020.

Q. In order to become a scientist, is it true that you have to study a science-related field in university?

A. Recently, the number of female students entering science and engineering fields at the undergraduate level of university is increasing, due to the increased possibilities for finding work. This figure decreases, however, at the masters and doctoral levels. A doctoral degree is necessary in order to become a scientist, so if the number of female doctoral students does not increase, neither will the number of female scientists.

Q: Why is this figure not increasing?

A: In addition to decreasing job opportunities at the doctoral level, a significant amount of anxiety apparently exists regarding whether it is possible to work as a scientist as a minority in the field. Women are also afraid that they may face delays in social independence, marriage and having children. In addition, there are very few female role models for them to look up to.

The Gender Equality Bureau of the Cabinet Office is planning to create a website called the "Science and Technology Challenge" aimed at providing young girls interested in science with information about female scientists and related university initiatives, in the hope that this will give them a clearer future image of themselves working in the sciences.

Q. Obokata is a wonderful role model, isn't she?

A. According to the editorial department at Kodansha publishing's "Rikejo" service, the number of visits to their website doubled following the announcement of Obokata's discovery. Editor-in-chief Masao Togami commented, "Obokata's performance record is flawless, so I don't know if she is the best person to hold up as a role model -- but it is certainly clear (from Obokata's achievement) that many girls will feel encouraged that they are not mistaken in choosing to enter the field." (Answers by Yukiko Motomura, Science & Environment News Department)

February 03, 2014(Mainichi Japan)