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Japan eyes panel to boost women's perspectives in science and technology policy

Naoko Yamazaki

The Cabinet Office is eyeing the establishment of private ministerial panel to help incorporate women's views in the nation's science and technology policies and promote the activities of women with science backgrounds -- informally known in Japanese as "rikejo."

    Minister of State for Science and Technology Policy Aiko Shimajiri in December unveiled plans to create the "Rikejo no Kai" panel as early as this month.

    Japan currently has about 130,000 female researchers. Though this is practically double the level of 20 years ago, these researchers account for just 14.6 percent of the total in Japan. This proportion is lower than in developed countries like Britain (37.8 percent) and Germany (26.8 percent). In Asia, both Taiwan and South Korea have higher levels, at 21.8 percent and 17.7 percent, respectively. At Japanese corporations, female researchers make up just 8.1 percent of the total, and it appears that even if female researchers in Japan obtain doctorates, there aren't enough jobs for them.

    In the 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan this coming fiscal year, the government is poised to set a goal of raising the proportion of newly employed female researchers for natural science fields from around 25 percent -- a level that has persisted for about the past decade -- to 30 percent. For this to happen, it is deemed necessary to provide women with an environment in which they can engage in research as well as give birth to and raise children.

    The new "Rikejo no Kai" body is set to provide advice to Shimajiri, with members including former Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, 44.

    "People tend to shy away from science and technology, thinking, 'It's difficult.' In delivering information on policies, we want to incorporate perspectives characteristic of women in their day-to-day lives," Shimajiri said.

    Keio University professor emeritus Fumiko Yonezawa, 77, a pioneering female researcher who was the first woman to assume the role of president of the Physical Society of Japan, underscored the need for change in Japan.

    "Basically, I feel there's a perception that 'women are not up to taking on jobs as researchers or professors.' Unless we make it compulsory to introduce a quota system and increase the proportion of women, then things won't change," she said.

    Yonezawa says that around 30 years ago, the proportion of women in the Physical Society of Japan stood at around 2 percent, and now that figure is around 6 percent. While it is slowly increasing, she says it is still much lower than in other countries. She welcomes the government's stance of incorporating the voices of female researchers, but stresses, "Unless the content of the panel leads to policy, then it's meaningless. It's no good to merely call for something."

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