by Malcolm Fosterhandjob The New York Times Company
TOKYO – If Anna Matsumoto had listened to her teachers, she would have kept her inquisitive mind to herself – asking questions, they told her, disrupting class. And when, at age 15, she had to choose a course of study at her Japanese high school, she would have avoided science, a track her male teachers described as difficult for girls.
Instead, Matsumoto plans to become an engineer. Japan could have used more young women like her.
Despite its tech-savvy image and economic height, the country remains a digitally backward country, with a traditional paperbound office culture with fax machines and personal seals known as hanko. The pandemic has reinforced the urgent need for modernization to accelerate a digital transformation effort promoted by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, including the opening of a new digital agency aimed at improving the government’s infamous online services.
To bridge the gap, Japan must address a severe shortage of technology workers and engineering students, made worse by the near absence of women. According to UNESCO statistics, among university programs that create workers in these areas, Japan has the lowest percentage of women in the developed world. It also has the smallest share of women doing research in science and technology.
An improvement in the situation will depend in part on whether Japanese society can be moved away from the mindset that technology is a strictly male domain. This is reinforced in comic books and TV shows and persists in some homes, where parents worry that daughters who become scientists or engineers will not marry.
As Matsumoto observed, keeping women away from technology is wasteful and illogical. “Half the world’s population is women,” said 18-year-old Matsumoto, who will attend Stanford University this fall and intends to study human-computer interaction. “If only men are changing the world, it’s so inefficient.”
With its shrinking, graying population and dwindling workforce, Japan has little room to squander any of its talent.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry forecasts a shortage of 450,000 information technology professionals in Japan by 2030. It likened the situation to a “digital cliff” facing the world’s third largest economy.
In the World Digital Competitiveness Rankings compiled by the International Institute for Management Development, Japan ranks 27th globally and seventh in Asia, behind countries such as Singapore, China and South Korea.
Japan’s new digital push could provide an opportunity to uplift its women. But it can leave them behind even more.
Globally, women suffer more than men as automation takes over low-skilled jobs, according to the 2021 UNESCO Science Report released in June. The report said that women have fewer opportunities to acquire skills in the rapidly growing areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning and data engineering.
“Due to digitization, some jobs will disappear, and women will probably be affected more than men,” said Takako Hashimoto, a former software engineer at Ricoh who is now vice president of Chiba University of Commerce and representative for W-20. which advises a group of 20 major countries on women’s issues. “So there’s an opportunity here but there’s also a danger.”
Hashimoto noted that there were some government programs in Japan that sought to attract women into technology. He said the Japanese government should set up technical training programs for women who want to stay home and go back to work to raise children. Others have explicitly suggested scholarships for female students wishing to study science or engineering.
“The government needs to take the lead on this,” she said. “It hasn’t really linked digitization to gender equality.”
Miki Ito, 38, an aerospace engineer, said that when she was fascinated by space as a teenager, she had few role models other than Chiaki Mukai, Japan’s first female astronaut. In college and graduate school, 90% of the students in Ito’s aerospace department were male, as were all of his teachers.
Ito, who is general manager at Astroscale, a company that seeks to remove Earth-circling space debris, said she did not face gender discrimination at school or at work. But she said she saw a lingering bias in Japanese society, including the belief that women “are not very logical or mathematical.”
She blames the images in popular culture. “Boys use robots to fight bad guys, but girls use magic,” she said. “I’ve wondered why we don’t see the opposite very much.”
Ito predicted mixed fortunes for Japanese women as the country digitized. While those 40 and older may be left behind, young women will benefit from the new opportunities, he said.
“Today’s youth will bridge the digital gender gap, but it will take time,” she said.
To help prepare youth for the digital future, the Japanese government last year made computer programming classes compulsory in primary schools.
Haruka Fujiwara, a teacher who teaches and coordinates programming classes in Tsukuba, just north of Tokyo, said she saw no difference in enthusiasm or ability between girls and boys.
By age 15, Japanese girls and boys do equally well in math and science on international standardized tests. But at this critical point, when students must choose between the science and humanities track in high school, girls’ interest and confidence in math and science suddenly dwindle, surveys and data show.
This is the beginning of Japan’s “leaking pipe” in technology and science – the higher the educational level, the less women there are, a phenomenon that exists in many countries. But in the case of Japan, it falls short of a dime, leaving a paucity of women in graduate schools that produce the country’s top science talent.
According to UNESCO statistics, 14% of university graduates in Japanese engineering programs and 25.8% in natural sciences are women. In the United States, the figures are 20.4% and 52.5%, and in India they are 30.8% and 51.4%.
To help change this trend and create a space for teenage girls to talk about their futures, Asumi Saito and Sayaka Tanaka, two women with science backgrounds, co-founded a nonprofit called Waffles. -Founded, which runs one-day technical camps for middle and high schools. Girls.
Saito, 30, and others provide career lectures and practical experiences that emphasize problem solving, community, and entrepreneurship to counter the stereotypically appealing image of technology.
“Our vision is to close the gender gap by empowering and educating women in technology,” said Saito, who holds a master’s degree in data analytics from the University of Arizona. “We think of technology as a tool. Once you’ve got that tool and are empowered, you can make an impact on the world.”
Waffle backed 23 teams of 75 teenage girls in an app creation competition—including Matsumoto, whose three-person team pitched an app called Household Heroes. It divides household chores among family members, and rewards those who complete tasks by adding items to the character, such as a beloved Pokémon.
“The gender-based division of labor is deeply rooted,” Matsumoto said. “We have decided to develop this app to change the mindset of the people.”
The same cultural expectations extend to child-rearing, forcing many women to leave their jobs after giving birth. This leaves fewer women to climb into leadership roles or contribute to technological innovations.
Megumi Moss, a former Sony employee, said she felt she had to choose between her career and her family.
For 10 years, Moss demanded that if a rewarding job be done, often returning home on the last train just before midnight, getting up early the next morning and repeating the cycle.
When she and her American husband, an investment banker, decided to have children, she quit her job with Sony. But a few months before giving birth to her daughter, she started an online business, CareFinder, that helps ease women’s childcare duties by combining them with pre-scheduled sitters.
“I feel like I’m solving a social problem and helping to ease the burden of women,” said 45-year-old Moss. “It’s really satisfying.”
Matsumoto said she also wants to improve the lives of girls and women in Japan.
A rebel against the country’s cultural expectations, she dyed her hair bright pink after graduation—something that’s banned in Japanese high schools. She said that she had decided to go to college in the US after learning that she would not have trouble asking questions in American classes.
Eventually, she wants to return to her home prefecture in the southern island of Shikoku “because I hated being there,” she said. “I want to go back there to help build a society that won’t let girls suffer like me.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.