Saturday, December 4, 2021

Japan needs a lot more technical workers. Can it find a place for women?

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.

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Japan’s new digital push could provide an opportunity to uplift its women. But it can leave them behind even more.

Nation World News Desk
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