The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

You may not immediately associate computer science or engineering with women. But as far back as 1815, women were pioneers of technology. The world’s first computer programmer, by many accounts, was London-born Ada Lovelace, who created the first algorithm performed by Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer.

Despite this, men have since dominated computer programming—a fact that is clearer in Japan than perhaps anywhere.

Japanese society is in the throes of aging, bringing with it a candidate-short job market. The country is facing a shortage of software engineers—a resource critical to future competitiveness—but there is a largely untapped group whose expertise could close the gap: women.

The Journal spoke with three industry leaders—Chiaki Narusawa, director of not-for-profit organization (NPO) Women Who Code Tokyo, Yan Fan, co-founder of start-up Code Chrysalis, and Reimi Dallyn, principal at Fusion Systems—about the role of women in programming.

THE SITUATION
Companies in Japan are beginning to look abroad for talent. In March, the Nikkei Asian Review reported that Japanese and Vietnamese technology outsourcing companies are working together to send software engineers to Japan.

What is it about software engineering—a male-dominated sector in Japan—that women find unattractive? Women Who Code’s Narusawa believes, “It is a field viewed as less glamorous and rewarding as opposed to higher-paying fields such as finance and healthcare.”

In Japan, this lack of glamor can be attributed to the nature of the domestic industry—it’s a far-cry from Silicon Valley’s trendy start-up environment. Instead, most software engineers are working in manufacturing, writing code to operate machinery.

Code Chrysalis is one such Silicon Valley start-up that has made its way across the Pacific, bringing with it what they describe as an advanced coding boot camp—the first of which begins on July 3. More women than men have signed up for the program.

“I think we are proving the naysayers wrong. I think there are a lot of women who are really interested in learning how to code, and maybe they don’t go to the regular events because they are intimidated and shy.”

Women Who Code Tokyo aims to change that. “We provide a welcoming environment where women have access to resources to further advance their tech career, and to connect and build networks with other women in tech,” Narusawa explained.

The organization offers sessions free of charge to women of any level or technical knowledge.

LEARNING
The pressing need for development in the software industry is clear. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term coined at the World Economic Forum 2017, is being driven by advanced technology. Labor shortages in Japan could leave the country on the sidelines in this next evolution of society. Increased education in programming is needed for both men and women, but companies must find a way to help more women unleash their coding talent.

Aspiring coders gather at a Code Chrysalis class in Tokyo.

“In Japan, the first two years of university education tend to be spent studying general knowledge rather than specialized hands-on subjects,” Fusion Systems’ Dallyn explained. Comparing the candidates that they hire locally and abroad, she finds a huge gap in knowledge and skills. “If they do have the right level, they will often go abroad,” she said.

Dallyn noted that one problem Fusion Systems encounters when hiring is skill level—often Japanese developers “don’t pass the technical interviews.” And, most applicants are male. The goal of schools such as Code Chrysalis and NPOs such as Women Who Code Tokyo is to fill this gap in knowledge and create gender balance.

Fan said many arrive at their workshops as beginners, but show great potential to learn quickly. “We do have a handful that are already working as software developers, and they want to improve. Most of them are beginners, a lot of designers, people working in tech, and a lot of systems engineers.”

However, as Fan explained, the way people are taught at university in Japan could be an issue.

“People here want to be given instructions,” she said. “As a school—in our curriculum and the way that we teach—we do give instructions, but a lot of it relies on people to make a creative decision.”

A large part of this means making mistakes, something Japanese society is notoriously fearful of in contrast with the United States where, she explained, people are taught from a young age that failure is okay.

It’s no secret that the key to growing the number of software engineers in Japan is education, both at a higher level and at earlier stages. In addition, tackling gender norms is also necessary.

“It’s evident that men are more likely than women to major in computer science and engineering, which typically lead to higher-paying careers,” Narusawa said. “Early education is vital to eliminate the societal norms of engineering as a male-dominant field.”

This means viewing programming as being as basic as literacy for younger learners. Dallyn believes it is a skill that also helps with logical thinking.

A hands-on event at the Embassy of the United States, Tokyo, in 2015.

GLOBAL LANGUAGE
A higher-level of English is needed to take Japanese businesses abroad, but such language proficiency remains an issue in the coding field, despite mandatory English education in Japanese public schools and an abundance of conversation schools in Tokyo.

Code Chrysalis also looks to encourage learners to learn to code in English, which can initially be a challenge.

“Japanese people tend to translate it back to Japanese and then try to digest it,” Dallyn explained. “But the more important thing—when you’re learning the language of programming—is to just learn it in English because you don’t have time to translate back into Japanese.”

Narusawa agreed that the lack of effective English education is contributing to the shortage of software engineers in Japan. This puts limitations on resources and what can be communicated outside Japan.

From a wider perspective, Dallyn highlighted that it’s not just the programming or coding sectors, but other positions in the information technology (IT) industry in which women need to be more involved in. “It’s such a stereotypical image that IT is not for women, but there are so many parts to the industry.”

Having positive role models is another necessity, and building a community for women to rely on is crucial. Narusawa explained that girls grow up with a negative view of the technology industry as being “geeky and antisocial.” Changing this view is essential.

In Japan, another persistent problem is encouraging women to reenter the workforce and retrain after having children.

“It’s important not to quit, because it becomes more daunting, and the world changes all the time,” Dallyn said. This is particularly true in the digital world. Having the coding or programming skills to work in this expanding sector should be a priority for any young woman in Japan looking for job options in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

According to a report by Accenture, artificial intelligence (AI) could boost productivity by 34 percent by 2035. Japan’s forecast working-age population is set to decline by 0.73 percent between 2016 and 2030, an acceleration from the period between 2000 and 2015, which saw a decline of 0.69 percent. Help is much needed from technology to dampen the impact of a diminishing workforce. In terms of gross value added, AI has the potential to more than double annual economic growth in Japan, from 0.8 percent to 2.7 percent by 2035.

Aspiring coders at a Unity Technologies VR event held in collaboration with Geek Girls Carrots Tokyo in November 2016.

Narusawa acknowledged that business must also do its part. “Companies are slowly acknowledging that employing and promoting women to this field can be a great tactic to bring more talent and promising people into this ever-growing industry.”

In a country with a mature technology industry, where the need for software engineers continues to rise, women have a bright future and will play a critical role in Japan’s 21st-century success. Educational institutions must ensure that potential software engineers are adequately prepared to compete on a global stage, and that more girls and young women choose this career path.

Maxine Cheyney is a staff writer at The Journal.
Companies must find a way to help more women unleash their coding talent.