Japan doctoring figures: a taste of things to come?

Japan, along with Korea, is the outstanding example of a country where the Paula Principle is powerfully at work. Japanese women are very highly educated, with one of the highest rates of female university graduation in all OECD countries, nearing 50%; and yet the gender pay gap is also one of the highest, at around 30%.

The main reasons for this are well known. Very long working hours and lack of affordable chidcare are two, but what really marks Japan out is a domestic culture that makes them solely responsible for child- and eldercare, and a corporate culture that remains very traditionally hierarchical and male. Women are discouraged from climbing the career ladder, sometimes directly, sometimes through their reluctance to join in corporate practices such as serious after-work drinking sessions. That signals a huge waste of Japanese talent and competence.

Now comes a quite extraordinary expose, reported in the Guardian, which unmasks practice in one particular sector: medicine. For over a decade, a leading medical school has been systematically marking women down in order to reduce the numbers entering into the profession.

Since 2006, the Tokyo University Medical School has been systematically reducing all applicants’ first-stage test scores by 20% – and then adding back in 20 points for all male applicants. The motivating factor: fear that too many doctors would be women – and expensive training would therefore be lost as they dropped out from their careers. Women reached 30% of the medical student population – and then the proportion stayed there. Apparently TUMS may not be the only medical school to have engaged in such manipulation. It’s an extraordinary expression of fear of feminisation.

Japan is exceptional in another respect, also highly relevant to the PP. Its population is aging faster than anywhere else – or to be precise, it has a higher proportion of older people than anywhere else. This is causing major national debate, both for its implications for employment – not enough young people to do the jobs – and for health care, with the needs of older people shooting up the agenda. All the more reason, you might think, for a major rethink on how the medical profession manages its career structure. And all the more reason for Japan to take a hard look at why so much of its educational effort is not paying off.

The TUMS case is a particularly egregious example, of course. But as, across all OECD countries, women push further and further ahead in initial educational achievement, I just wonder whether – when? – some institutions might start to engage in something similar. Just perhaps not so blatantly.

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