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Outdated sexist ideas behind medical field 'glass ceiling': female physicians

The front gate to Tokyo Medical University is seen in this photo taken in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on July 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

With the scandal surrounding Tokyo Medical University padding entrance exam scores to give preference to male applicants, the glass ceiling preventing women in Japan from advancing in medical fields has never been more apparent. And female physicians are furious.

"This problem has opened a Pandora's box," said Kyoko Tanebe, a Toyama physician in obstetrics and gynecology. Tanebe has actually been questioning the way entrance exams have been scored for quite some time, and published a report titled, "The glass ceiling of 'we can't increase (the number of)' female doctors" on the website of the foundation Japan Joint Association of Medical Professional Women (JAMP) last year.

In the report, Tanebe writes that the percentage of women who had passed the national exam for medical practitioners to receive their medical licenses topped 30 percent in 2000, but it plateaued and has not changed for over 15 years. When investigating the entrance into the profession, while the proportion of successful female applicants in other departments had been even beyond that of men, there were still few women in medical departments. Even in the medical departments of national and public universities, the difference in the proportion of the sex of successful test-takers was obvious.

However, the ratio of women who successfully passed the national test for their medical license actually exceeded that of men by a small margin. Were universities engaging in "gate control" to limit the number of women who could get in the door to the profession?

"I didn't have any concrete evidence, but I felt like something was off," Tanebe said. Of the long hours worked by doctors, she said, "The idea that the 'selfless devotion' of mainly male doctors supporting the medical system is the problem itself. Now that we have opened this Pandora's box, there needs to be a national discussion about what should be done on the floors of hospitals and other medical facilities."

Along with comments online directly criticizing Tokyo Medical University's actions as blaringly sexist, other comments have arisen highlighting that the scandal is an issue for men as well. "Men should be angry, too," one comment read. "You are just being considered a slave that can't fall down even when you are overworked." On the other hand, comments supporting the school such as, "Making a big deal about sexism misses the point. If women (in the medical field) increase even more, there's no way to handle women quitting or taking child care leave," also appeared. In addition, there was even a post that read, "From the perspective of a male applicant, I think, 'Tokyo Medical University really screwed up this time.'"

"It really is unfair," said Yasuko Tomizawa, an assistant professor at Tokyo Women's Medical University's Department of Cardiovascular Surgery, when commenting on Tokyo Medical University's sexist test-score padding policy. However, she added, "Setting limits for male and female students is completely plausible from an administrative standpoint for private universities." This is because getting rid of the idea that it is easier for male doctors to handle personnel changes across university hospitals with several branches, and that there is a lower risk of limits on labor hours or leaving the position entirely, is no easy task. "We have to consider support that will make it possible for women to continue working (instead of leaving because of an inflexible working environment)," Tomizawa emphasized.

According to Tomizawa, marriages between doctors are common, and roughly 70 percent of married female surgeon's husbands are also physicians.

"The idea that women have to be the ones doing housework and raising children is just pushing female physicians out of their jobs," she said, pointing to a need for male doctors to change both their ideas about handling home matters and childrearing and the way in which they work.

(Japanese original by Kasane Nakamura and Haruka Udagawa, General Digital News Center)

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