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How Female Professors in Their Mid-30's Came into Meidai

  • Read in Japanese
  • 2017/07/18

Institute of International Education and Exchange

Designated Prof. Atsuko Tsuji

The Graduate School of Science at Nagoya University boasts two female academics who reached professorship in their mid-30's. Even in the entire country, I don't think there are many female professors as young as them; after all, it is rare even for men to reach professorship in their thirties. There are, however, people who achieved just that here at Meidai. What makes it possible, I guess, is the institution's culture that encourages a free exchange of ideas regardless of one's positions, and the various initiatives that have made Meidai famous for its wealth of female talents. One such initiative is the daring move of introducing female-only posts.

Professor Azusa Kamikouchi in the Division of Biological Science was appointed to a female-only post through open recruitment in 2011. She was 36 and, after a PhD in Pharmacy from the University of Tokyo and a spell as a research fellow in Germany, working as an assistant professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences at the time. "I didn't think about applying to be a professor yet," confesses Kamikouchi, "but I did. The recruitment for a female-only post made me consider myself as a candidate." Without the gender restriction, she probably would not have tried, choosing instead to wait until later.

The recruitment call was for a very unique post: a Principal Investigator (PI), an independent researcher at the professor level or similar, and the first ever in Japan. The university initially bears the cost of the PI's post, for up to five years, until she is transferred to the full professorial post. Once the post is vacated, a new call is put out to fill it again. Since the candidate is regarded as a professor-in-waiting, the selection process is just as rigorous as that of conventional open recruitment. Any woman who successfully fills this slot would be equally successful in open recruitment. Nevertheless, the competition for this post is exceptionally fierce because of the gender restriction.

Prof. Azusa Kamikouchi

Kamikouchi looks back and wonders: "I don't know why I decided the job was worth applying for only because it was for a woman - why I was so convinced it had to be a female-only post." It may be, perhaps, to do with the general tendency for men to be more self-confident while women often underrate themselves.

Now on the other side of the recruitment table, she has become acutely aware of how few women apply for posts. Of course, this is partly because female researchers are a very small minority. Professor Ikue Mori, a colleague of Kamikouchi's in the Division of Biological Science, believes that the key to increasing the number of women is "not to limit the field and instead to focus on the quality of research." The narrower the field of research, the smaller the number of women in it; by casting the net wider, more women can be found in the talent pool.

The seismologist Robert J. Geller, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo, points out in an interview titled "the challenge of internationalizing universities," which appeared in the Japanese newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun on July 12, that one of the reasons why the number of non-Japanese academics remains low is recruitment criteria are vague and designed to make sure that only your disciples and buddies would meet them. He pulls no punches in his criticism: the system cannot attract outsiders no matter how brilliant they are. Universities have become a closed shop. I suspect the same applies to recruiting female researchers. A closed shop is hard to crack for women, who are vastly outnumbered. In the US, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology successfully doubled the number of women in STEM faculties without compromising on the standard only by looking far and wide for talents.

The time will come one day - and soon, it is hoped - when female-only posts will no longer be necessary. In the meantime, however, they seem to have a certain positive effect.

Kamikouchi, on the other hand, feels that the unique challenges women often face may also be a reason why so few women apply......> read more on the Meidai Watch

Atsuko Tsuji: Earned B.A. in Arts, College of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo in 1976. Joined The Asahi Shimbun Company in 1979 as a journalist and wrote many articles in science and technology area for newspaper and magazines published by the company including editorial pieces. Knight Science Journalism Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989 and Reuters Fellow at University of Oxford in 2014. Designated Professor of Nagoya University's Institute of International Education and Exchange since October 2016.


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