By >RENO J. TIBKE
Japanese Science & Engineering: STEM Needs More Women, But Japan Needs More Children
Japan’s double-dip demographics debacle, a rapidly aging society combined with decades of low birth rates, has yet another layer of complication: Japanese women are woefully underrepresented in STEM fields, but addressing the latter could worsen the former. And the other way around, too.
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Female Scientists in Japan: Lacking Number, Lacking Identity
Japan’s METI, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, estimates that, while they comprise 43% of college students nationwide, women account for only 14% of those enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (i.e., STEM; in this case, excluding social sciences). The percentage is slowly creeping up, but in the meantime, a large swath of the Japanese citizenry goes unrepresented in the scientific brain trust. Suffice it to say, women like Kanako Miura, tragically no longer with us, are among Japan’s rarest and most valuable social commodities.
Now, with next to no statistically significant exceptions, Japanese society is universally modern, 100% literate, and boasts an extremely affluent, dominant middle class. By no means is it a gender equality utopia, but on paper at least, most career options are reasonably open to all citizens regardless of sex. However, as is almost always the case, cultural traditions and long-accepted norms and mores rarely find perfect alignment with our highest ideals.
A few weeks back, the New York Times published an account of the stereotyping and understated yet powerful social stigma faced by Japanese women studying or working in STEM fields. Generally speaking, in Japanese pair bonding, science girls are considered less attractive and/or less amenable to traditional gender roles. Women pursuing STEM careers in Japan often feel out of place and struggle to maintain or even define a feminine identity. Plainly stated, sciencey Japanese women have a bit of a PR problem in the romance department – and yes, the problem lies equally with the men.
Changing Hearts & Minds… With a Catch
Anywhere in the world, the psyche of your average 14-20 year-old human is an awkward explosion of befuddled sexuality longing for validation. Naturally, these proto-citizens are desperate to minimize any factor that could jeopardize their chances for romance, and as the social hardships of the J-science girl are an easy to appreciate, easy to avoid barrier, exactly that happens – appreciation and avoidance. J-parents, being hip to this as well, have a tendency to push the proverbial Barbie into the hands of young J-girls who, if left to their own interests, might in greater numbers have self-selected a petri dish or microscope or particle accelerator – whatever represents the sciencey contrary to Barbie.
Aware of the problem, pro-science organizations in Japan are working to counter negative associations through a number of promotional programs, magazines, clubs, and even celebrity tours preaching the good news that: “Hey, dorky science girls are hott, too!” Not those exact words, but – you know. So good on them, and well done. Because in any civilized society, that it’s silly and immoral to argue against encouraging women toward STEM fields should be more than obvious.
Buuuuuut, the thing is, professional women with careers and such are less likely to have children, or if they do, less likely to have more than one or two. What the NYT piece doesn’t mention is that, if such pro-girl science recruitment programs are widely successful here in Japan, it adds interest to an already profoundly expensive social problem – a problem that might be vastly more dire than not enough ladies in lab coats.
Slowly, But Very Surely, the Japanese are Disappearing
First, without question many developed societies face a similar discrepancy between men and women in science, but few if any are simultaneously facing the sort of macro-scale social problem that’s bearing down upon all of Japan, and it’s a point that the Times, in their otherwise enjoyable coverage, sorta just drove right past.
The thing is, Japan’s aging society & declining population situation, the 人口問題 (jeen-kō moan-die; literally, “Population Issue/Problem”),* is a lot more than a debacle; this slow-moving monster is going to mature into a virtually unstoppable, nation-scale existential crisis. Nutshelled, it breaks down like this:
A. Statistically, about 1.2 children are born to each Japanese woman. A rate of 2 is necessary for population stasis.
B. A post-war and post-post-war baby boom means contemporary Japan is full of elderly people who will soon pass.
C. The Japanese are not at all interested in large-scale immigration. Powerfully, very not at all interested.
Given current demographics, this virtually guarantees that Japan’s population will drop from approximately 127 million now to about 93 million by 2063. To be clear, this isn’t a warning of what could happen – barring a fantastically unlikely, epic-scale baby boom, it’s a forgone conclusion. Should the trend continue, by 2113 Japan’s population will drop to around 40 million.
Put another way, over his or her lifetime, a Japanese child born today could witness a 70% decrease in their nation’s population. Unaddressed, this would also result in the utter decimation of a massive, globally intertwined economy that’s hugely dependent on goods and services bought and sold domestically; it’s not at all complicated: if a business loses 70% of its customers, then game over.
The above projections exclude the near-term development of some kind of morally acceptable human cloning or guaranteed-triplets-every-time or technological immortality… which might sound kinda of far out, but such things are not entirely infeasible (Google: The Singularity; Transhumanism). It’s foolish to dismiss out of hand the potential impact of technologies we can’t yet imagine, but they’re far from something to bet on.
Human Development Equals Population Stability or Decline, but…
While Japan’s is a singular case, the nation is not alone in facing population decline. That feature comes standard with long-term, broadly distributed economic success and liberal, rule-of-law-based social structures. e.g., the majority of countries near the top of the United Nation’s Human Development Index have relatively stable or declining populations. In contrast, Afghanistan’s fertility rate, along with that of all the least developed African nations, is outrageously high at 5+ births per woman.
Like anywhere, Japan’s young, healthy women of childbearing age bearing as many children as possible is pretty much the only tool in the shed. But ideal childbearing age happens exactly when a woman would be preparing for and beginning a STEM career. Oh, and STEM work aside, these days Japanese women are really starting to enjoy more social autonomy and are becoming ever more present in the broader, non-scientific workforce.
So, realistically, the cat’s outta the bag, the ship’s sailed, it’s しょうがない (show gaw nye; “it can’t be helped”).* The Japanese are not going to forestall this trend through a sudden surge of reproduction. Japan’s population is going to plummet, and biologically neither women nor men can do a thing about it.
The Time to Beg for Babies is Over – Do Science!
Should Japan aggressively incentivize baby making, or aggressively incentivize STEM studies? Practically speaking, given that the time to begin a career in science and the prime time for reproduction are essentially the same, simultaneously encouraging both is basically tail-chasing, zero-sum gaming of the status quo.
“No complex social system can be rapidly changed without significant damage to or destruction of the system itself,” …goes the classic sociological aphorism – and we know that the inverse, i.e., complex systems too rigid even for gradual change, also invariably fail. It doesn’t mean that the complex system that is contemporary Japanese society, the status quo, is too big to change or destined to collapse, it just means that both rapid change and stagnation are equally destructive.
All things considered, it’s much more feasible to focus more on getting Japanese women into STEM fields and, with a simultaneous campaign, work toward gradually bringing men around. Rather than blithely hoping against hope for a population boom, Japan should instead count on the female population’s potential contributions toward things like Japan’s advanced social robotics programs, JAXA’s growing contribution to the ISS and other space endeavors, and, of the most immediate practicality, the bionics and cybernetics initiatives aimed at assisting Japan’s aging population.
Growing and expanding Japan’s technological infrastructure and bringing those advancements to the world market – something accomplished before – is eminently doable once again. Stemming their population decline is not. So really, what other choice is there?
And so, Japanese women, go for the science! Also a good idea to have a nice long talk with Japanese men about their preconceptions. Because come on guys, science can be sexy… if you just let it.
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Addendum: The World Should Watch
In a utilitarian sense, one might argue that Japan’s problem is Japan’s problem, and it’s a bum deal, but they’ve just gotta adapt and do the best they can. That makes a certain sense, but we’d be well-served to bear in mind that, though often predisposed toward lumbering and at times myopic internal self-management, as an economic and political entity Japan is about as internationalized and internationally committed as a nation-state can be.
To wit, though only 1.8% of the human population, Japan has the world’s 3rd largest economy, is globally 5th for both import expenditures and export revenue, is the largest trading partner of the world’s 2nd largest economy, and unbeknownst to many, is the #2 source of funding for the United Nations. If Japan slides, a lot of the world will slide with it. So, keep an eye on things over here, and if anyone’s got any good ideas, just, you know, let Japan know.
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Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.
*Yep, these are non-standard romanizations of Japanese. Go ahead and type it out using one of the standardized systems and see how many non-students of the language pronounce it correctly. Go ahead. Try. Do it!