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Are female quotas in Japan college admissions reverse discrimination?

Exam takers are seen checking how to get to their test venues, on the first day of the Common Test for University Admissions, in Tokyo on Jan. 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

TOKYO -- Tokyo Institute of Technology announced last month that it is introducing special quotas for prospective female students starting with its admission exams for those enrolling in April 2024. While the move was hailed on social media, it also drew many negative views, with some calling it "discrimination against males."

    Affirmative action aimed at rectifying disparities by giving preferential treatment to women and minorities often draws criticism. So what is the best way to approach such initiatives?

    "We hope this will be the start of a ripple effect, fostering an environment across society that genuinely accepts diversity," Tokyo Institute of Technology commented when it announced the introduction of female quotas on Nov. 10.

    Under the initiative, female quotas will be set up for those applying to the school's bachelor's degree programs through comprehensive and recommendation-based entrance exam methods, which will make 143 spots available exclusively for female students in entrance exams for the 2024 and 2025 academic years.

    The percentage of female students in the institute's bachelor's degree programs stands at roughly 13%. The new initiative is apparently expected to boost the ratio to 20% or more. At the same time, as the total number of openings remains unchanged, the quotas for those applying through general admissions that primarily focus on scholastic achievement tests will decrease by over 100 from the current 930 to 801.

    The exam reform was spurred by the low proportion of female students majoring in science and engineering in Japan. Among member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan ranks at rock-bottom in this field. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has also been calling on universities to devise ways to boost the number of female students through admission tests for science and engineering departments, and similar moves are spreading among institutions across the country. Nagoya University's School of Engineering and other institutions are setting up female quotas for admission exams for the 2023 academic year.

    However, these measures often cause a sense of unfairness and frustration. Kyushu University had planned to introduce female quotas in its Department of Mathematics from entrance exams for the 2012 academic year, but it canceled the plan after it drew criticism that such quotas constituted "discrimination against males."

    Chizuko Ueno, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in 2020 that when she talked about such corrective measures at the university, even women opposed the move on the grounds that they didn't want others to say they got in thanks to female quotas, rather than ability.

    In adopting affirmative action in college entrance exams, where fairness is expected, universities need to carefully explain the purpose and methods to gain social consensus. It is also necessary to question whether the educational environment up to the point where applicants sit for university entrance exams is equal for both men and women.

    According to Kazuo Yamaguchi, a Chicago University professor of sociology, there is a pronounced tendency in Japan for professions of higher socioeconomic status, such as doctors, researchers and business managers to be held more by men, and there is also a wide pay gap between the sexes.

    Considering these points, Yamaguchi focused on the low number of female applicants for topnotch universities and medical schools, and pointed out that the ways education is provided up to when students can apply for colleges are problematic. Specifically, he raised issue with the fact that a disproportionately large number of males take up positions as principals and vice principals at elementary and junior high schools in Japan, and that there is a lack of education in consideration of equal opportunities for the sexes, according to materials for the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry's BBL Seminar in February 2019.

    -- Unconscious bias among educators

    A Harvard University study in 2019 indicates the possibility of unconscious bias among educators preventing women from fully exhibiting their abilities, just as Yamaguchi pointed out. According to the study, a female middle school student in Italy who was taught by a teacher believing that girls are poor at math, saw her self-esteem fall and math grades drop, and ended up opting for a high school that was easier for her to pass.

    In an experiment for a 2009 study by Noriko Mizutani, a Toyo University associate professor of economics, and other researchers, Japanese students were asked to solve math problems in groups, and then choose a reward system for the task. There were two types of reward -- a commission system in which students received rewards based on the number of their correct answers, and a tournament system where only one student who came up with the most numerous correct answers in each group was entitled to compensation.

    It turned out that there was no difference between male and female students in their problem-solving abilities, but more males were likely to opt for the competitive reward system, a trend attributable to their overconfidence.

    Mizutani and fellow researchers concluded that the gaps in culture, education and environment for both sexes in Japan may have led to the gender gap in choosing competition. He referenced a separate study that indicates women tended to favor competition more than men did in the matrilineal society of a tribe in India, which was believed to be female-dominated.

    These studies and analyses indicate that women are bound by stereotypes based on gender norms in the societies and the environments where they grew up, and that in Japan, they avoid majoring in science and engineering as well as trying to enter top schools and land competitive jobs. As a result, they are paid less than men.

    If women are being deprived of even their motivation to take on challenges before college admission tests, how can this be called equal opportunity? Japan needs to pursue a system conscious of what genuinely equal opportunity is while discussing the universal agenda.

    (Japanese original by Hiromi Makino, Digital Editorial Headquarters)

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