‘Toward Diversity’ is shifting prestige to be more gender-inclusive

By Trishit Banerjee | Translated by Moe Ishii

“There is a saying that if a girl goes to the University of Tokyo (Todai) and fails to get a boyfriend by the first autumn, she can’t get married ever,” says Kozue Okamura, who is a first-year doctoral course student in Engineering at Todai. Now a leader of ‘Toward Diversity’, she seeks to dispel this image and help other female colleagues to be free from negative bias.

Founded in 1877, The University of Tokyo is Japan’s first imperial university and also its most elite. However, the challenge of the gender gap has been a long-standing issue. Only around 20% of undergraduates are female, which reduces to less than 10% in Science and Engineering courses. Amidst this, ‘Toward Diversity’ stands as a Todai student-led group pushing the discussion ahead with research into the issue and simultaneously reaching out to the public.

Welcome message from Toward Diversity board to new Todai students in Spring 2021

Max, a second-year doctoral student from France and the UK, explains the work done by ‘Toward Diversity’. “We started out in 2019 and were supported by university funds. It was in the second year that we registered as a student circle and focused more on outreach than research.” The research by the group focuses on the causes of the ‘leaky pipeline’ at Todai, which refers to a reduction of the number of female students who go on to become full professors. Only 16.7% of academic staff in Japanese national universities are women and the number reduces to 6.2% in Engineering. The 15th survey by the Japan Association of National Universities revealed that only 4% of national universities actually achieved more than a 30% female ratio among total academic staff. While there has been a slight increase in the average ratio from 13% in 2011 to 16.7% in 2018, the change has been deemed slow and the rate of change too has not been increasing over time.

Increasing numbers isn’t enough

However, the focus on the number of female students or staff isn’t enough. “The university strategy focuses on increasing female numbers through scholarships, provision of rental support, etc. however after entering the university, only a handful of them would actually become researchers as there aren’t many role models. Therefore, although the university is encouraging young female students into academia, it is difficult for students to imagine how”, says Okamura.

Putting up posters in preparation for International Women’s Day at Todai

The group this year successfully celebrated International Women’s Day. The university regularly organizes talks and events but the group felt that there hasn’t been a true celebration of the day itself. It made a video to recognize the women of Todai, hoping that this would raise awareness among the viewers of the existence of female researchers at the university. Li Yang, who is a doctoral course student at Todai from China, introduced one of the group’s other projects, ‘Her UTokyo’. “We interview PhD female students from Todai and share their stories on Instagram (@ge.at.utokyo). This is to also inspire students outside of the Todai community.”

Necessity is the mother of invention

The group members all highlight their own motivation to be a part of Toward Diversity. For Yang, it was surprising to see the difference of confidence levels between female students in China and Japan, and she wanted to dig deeper while at the same time encouraging Japanese students. Saeko Kawataki, a second-year doctoral student of Biology and the former group leader, took over the reins from her senior who was attempting to find out why there are so few females in STEM fields in Japan. Since the project did not give the expected results, Kawataki narrowed down her focus to Todai and continued with it. “I took a gap-year and then joined Todai but I was extremely uncomfortable with the low number of female undergrads. I had very few friends so I wanted to make a community for females or those who are supportive of this issue”, she says.

Micro-aggression compounds to discrimination

The group members mention how discrimination is never outright and appears as microaggressions. “There is no direct discrimination but the lab culture is still male-centric. For example, in my friends’ lab, I have heard that most important research discussions usually take place in Izakayas (Japanese-style bar) or other places where females usually do not go”, highlights Okamura. “In my case if I apply for some competitive scholarships, people tell me that I got selected because I am a woman. I feel like an imposter”, says Kawataki. “When I was looking around labs to choose where I wanted to do my research, one professor in the medicine department said to me that I would have to choose between my life as a happy woman and a researcher. I couldn’t help but wonder that he has 3 kids and he didn’t have to think about that for himself”, she adds.

In a society where young people seldom discuss politics, the activities of the group can seem radical to many. “My parents aren’t supportive of my activities related to gender and want me to focus on my research. I can understand their point. My female colleagues however have been extremely supportive”, says Kawataki. “In my case, my lab members are very open-minded. We sometimes talk about my gender-related activities, and my lab encouraged me to share the video from our Women’s day event with its members”, says Max. “In fact, I have seen lab members make some changes too. Before, they sometimes used only male pronouns, and now they use both ‘he’ and ‘she’ together. That’s the start of positive change”, he adds.

The status of Todai is unparalleled in the imagination of Japanese society. More than half of justices in the Japanese Supreme Court are its alumni and the university has consistently  produced graduates who go on to become Prime Ministers, Parliamentarians and Nobel Laureates. Being the trend-setter, one cannot help but wonder: what has taken it so long to create a gender-equal environment? “The long time is part of the issue. The way of doing things has been fixed and it has been successful so far. Therefore, there is pressure to maintain the status quo”, points out Max. “I have met people at the Gender Equality Office but in spite of their efforts, success has been limited. Maybe Todai isn’t attractive for female graduates, or high school girls underestimate themselves. Female applicants are only 20% of the pool. Maybe the image created by media isn’t good”, highlights Kawataki.

Gender imbalance among other groups in Todai

The situation for international students differs slightly. The proportion of females in highly technical fields has been historically low globally. “In my university in the UK, the aeronautics field had 0 females. University-wide however, there were more females than males”, notes Max. However, the gender balance is much better among international students at Todai. “Around 45% of international master students at Todai are female and that is about 23% among Japanese. It’s almost double. So, if you do not mingle with the Japanese community, you won’t realise the extent of imbalance”, adds Max.

Even though the group focuses on the research community, gender imbalance can be seen university-wide. With the implementation of amendments to labour law in 2013 which has led to mass lay-offs after 5-years working under a temporary contract, more females are losing jobs. Men tend to not apply for such positions due to their perceived sense of responsibility towards their families. Even among parents of high schoolers, there are many who actively discourage daughters from aiming for higher education especially in Todai. Many students who enter Todai take a gap-year (ronin) to prepare for the same. Young girls are pressured to not opt for this path and instead settle for an ‘easier’ university.

Every cloud has a silver lining

Yet, there is hope to look forward to. With the change in university presidency this April and thus the board of directors, 5 out of 9 board members are now female. Toward Diversity has also submitted a white paper listing out recommendations resulting from their research into this issue to the President’s office. Things seem to be moving, albeit slowly. “I want more female professors in the university who have a good work-life balance”, wishes Kawataki, who had only one female professor at her institute when she entered. “I want more student-led initiatives on the campus promoting gender equality. If Todai can change, it can influence educational institutes all over Japan”, says Max.

As prestige and a conservative approach is confronted with evolving ideas in modern society, it is the younger wheels which can slowly and steadily lead to a tectonic shift.


The International Women’s Day video by ‘Toward Diversity’ is available here.

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