The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


When Masako Nakano was in junior high school, a male teacher asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Nakano replied, “A doctor.” Chuckling, her teacher retorted, “I’m not talking about dreams, be real.”

Undeterred—and spurred by her teacher’s defiant response—Nakano, now a licensed doctor, went on to study and work in clinical pharmacology in the United States and Japan. Countries around the world have come to recognize the need for more diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In the United States and Japan, women comprise roughly half of the total workforce. In America, 24 percent of STEM-related occupations are filled by women; in Japan, the figure drops to about 14 percent, and has not increased in recent years.

Action is being taken in the public and private sectors to address the gender gap. In Japan’s 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan, released in December 2015, there is a brief section on “promoting diversity and career mobility.” The administration of US President Barack Obama had released a Federal STEM Education Five-Year Strategic Plan in 2013. Interestingly, the report indicates that women in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than their counterparts in non-STEM-related occupations.

Within STEM fields, a majority of women work in the social sciences, as well as biological and medical sciences. They are consistently under-represented in engineering, computer science, and mathematics; the US National Science Foundation reports just 13 percent of engineers were women in 2014.

The decision to choose a STEM-related career is shaped largely by one’s home environment. In 2014, a professor at Yamaguchi University conducted a survey of parents’ willingness to have their daughters choose such careers. The percentage of those who supported their daughters’ decision to enter STEM fields in higher education (58 percent) mirrors that of responding parents’ support for sons entering such fields (60 percent). However, only 15 percent of parents said engineering was an acceptable career choice for their daughters, versus 53 percent for their sons. Pharmaceutical studies were favored for daughters (39 percent) over sons (9 percent).

Both of clinical pharmacologist Nakano’s parents received a PhD in pharmaceutics in the United States, so her chosen line of work is perhaps no surprise. In an interview with The Journal, she described how she always knew her family was different, because her mother worked outside the home. Her father had encouraged her to study medicine, so she stumbled into clinical pharmacology rather by chance.

“In medical school, I found cardiology interesting, but it was so male-focused. I thought I would never get chosen to study abroad if I had to compete with men. So, I was realistic. Because clinical pharmacology was somewhat new, they welcomed anyone to the major,” Nakano said. Clinical pharmacology is an instrumental aspect of pharma-ceutics development, to aid in finding new drugs and determining optimal usage of new and existing ones.

After completing a post-doctoral program at Stanford University, she got her first job at a pharmaceutical company—a career path she never considered before going abroad. “In Japan, I thought there was only the path of practicing medicine as a doctor or pursuing research at the university,” she explained.

Her experience working for a private US company was eye-opening in terms of work–life balance. At the time she was interviewing for that job, her child was just under one year old. “Companies didn’t even blink an eye at this,” she said.

Nakano returned to Japan in 2000 and has worked for Eli Lilly ever since. Her decision to join the company was heavily motivated by their policies to support working mothers. She was particularly impressed by a human resources colleague’s explanation that they fully support families so that employees can better focus on their work.

“Japan has all these programs [to help working mothers], but sometimes it’s not easy to take advantage of them, as colleagues can make such women feel they are burdening others with extra work. This [isn’t] the case at Lilly Japan.”

Nakano has been a leader in her field and company to bring more early drug development trials to Japan. This has helped make cutting-edge treatments available to Japanese at the same time as to patients in other countries, such as the United States.

According to Women in Science, a fact sheet published in 2012 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, just 28 percent of the world’s researchers are women. A reverse funnel effect is visible in education, with women representing a diminishing proportion of masters, then doctoral students; even fewer go on to pursue a professional research career.

Japan lags behind the global average and that of the East Asia and Pacific region, with just 14 percent of total researchers being female—less than half of the North America and Western Europe average of 23 percent. The Japanese government’s previous Basic Plan specifies active involvement of female researchers as a “crucial agenda” item.

Dr. Marcy Wilder is a senior research scientist at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS). Like Nakano, her parents substantially influenced her career path from an early age. Her mother was a computer programmer and mathematician. “[She was] often teaching me new things before I learned them in school,” Wilder told The Journal.

Wilder planned to go into medicine, but her academic path took a different course after an orchestra trip to Japan in college. She had always been drawn to foreign countries, and studied Japanese in school. When the father of her Japanese host family introduced her to an aquatics specialist at Mie University, Wilder began to imagine a similar future in which she would work in Japan, recalling fondly her frequent trips to the beach as a child.

Today she’s in charge of a laboratory currently focusing on crustaceans. She manages six to seven scientists and technicians, all of whom are women. Her work has led to the first commercial, non-saltwater, recirculating shrimp farms in Japan—a technology that is now being exported to Mongolia to provide children a lean protein alternative for school lunches.

“It’s very satisfying to see how our work in the lab leads to viable technology. My dream was to do something that could be applied to industry,” Wilder shared.

Now with 22 years’ tenure at JIRCAS, Wilder admits to having her fair share of challenges, having to justify lab projects when results don’t turn out as expected. Some of her most rewarding professional moments include when female students told her she inspired them to pursue science.


In Japan, initiatives are being taken at the public and private level to lure more women into STEM fields. In 2011, the term rikejo emerged to describe a new era of cool—rather than geeky—“science women,” some of whom accessorize their lab outfits with kitten heels and polka-dot hair bows to combat masculine stereotypes at work.

Masao Tagami edits Rikejo magazine, a free publication with more than 18,000 subscribers. In a 2013 New York Times article Tagami noted, “Universities have been strengthening efforts to recruit more female students.”

Kyushu University experimented with a quota in 2012 to boost female enrollment in scientific degree programs. However, just months after the quota was announced, officials revoked the policy after receiving a deluge of calls and emails criticizing such “reverse discrimination.”

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) continues to organize rikejo fairs aimed at high school girls, often inviting female researchers and engineers to lead experiments with attendees. These events, along with the government’s super science summer programs, serve a dual purpose: exposing the girls to potential career opportunities and providing avenues for mentorships.

Ryoko Morita, lead engineer, in the Packaging and Specialty Plastics business unit at Dow Chemical Company Japan, was impressed by just such a course she took one summer. She also cites the children’s novel Sophie’s World as scientific inspiration. “I learned that science and philosophy share the same roots, as science encourages us to consider the reason behind things,” Morita explained.

Morita obtained her degree in chemistry, and the demands of her lab work left her little opportunity to learn firsthand about working in the field or private sector. “I had imagined that STEM work in companies was the same as in the lab at universities, but this was not true at all. Working in companies is exciting, involves more communication skills, and there is a sense of fulfillment when you actually see a product in the market you were involved with,” she said. Much of her work today requires communicating with customers, and solving technical challenges.

Globally, women represent higher proportions of STEM workers in government and academic roles than in the private sector, which typically offers far better salaries and often superior work–life balance. Morita recently returned to work after maternity leave, but kept in touch with her team by email, through teleconferences, and with the occasional dinner while away. Though her schedule can be taxing, she shared, “[Returning to work] was not as difficult as I imagined during childcare leave. I think there is a great advantage of being in STEM fields as a female; it is not just a hardship.”

Morita also said many of her female STEM colleagues have left the workplace after marrying men working in R&D or production—careers that often require relocation to the countryside, where there is less chance of finding work for both partners.

For Athena Andreadis, author and previous associate professor of cell biology at the University of Massachusetts, having a supportive husband who is a fellow workaholic has greatly bolstered her career.

Her experience working in the United States has led her to believe that, “the ratio of women to men in biomedical sciences is passable [here], though prone to the pyramid effect,” with lots of women in the lower echelons, then fewer as we go up the totem pole. As a research professional, one of her aims is to “nurture future scientists to take up the torch.”

Andreadis formerly led a small lab researching regulatory pathways in the brain and the deterioration thereof, which can lead to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. She described how lab heads must be jills-of-all-trades and work odd hours, as “cells that need feeding don’t care if it’s Sunday.” Like Wilder, her days were often consumed with paperwork, particularly grant writing to secure funding. This reality of lab management makes communication skills, written ones especially, a fundamental aspect of success for scientific leaders. This is an area where women tend to excel.

The University of Kyoto’s Kayo Inaba, Asia–Pacific Laureate of the 2014 L’Oréal–UNESCO Award for Women in Science, said: “To get recognition, I focused on the business—which was research. So I worked hard to publish as many papers as I could. I also feel that women have unique advantages. For example I could talk openly to high-ranking men from academic societies, since they did not consider women as competition.”

Though advances have been made in recruiting women into the sciences, the need remains for role models to whom secondary-school girls can relate, and for more exposure to mentors and the vast career paths available to girls and boys in STEM fields. Japan’s growing reputation as a research hub, particularly in the Kansai region, makes the country a prime source of jobs for women with inclinations toward math and science.

STEM careers can be incredibly fulfilling, a truth echoed by all four women interviewed. As Andreadis said, “The most amazing moments in research are when you discover something that makes puzzle pieces fall into a coherent pattern, that sheds light on something not known or understood. It’s like shaping the dark.”


Brandi Goode is a freelance writer and editor based in Manila, and previously Editor-in-Chief of The Journal.
Universities have been strengthening efforts to recruit more female [science] students.