Gender gets in the way of Japanese female scientists

This picture taken on January 28, 2014 shows Japan's national institute Riken researcher Haruko Obokata working at her laboratory in Kobe in Hyogo prefecture, western japan. She announced that she discovered a simple way to turn animal cells back to
This picture taken on January 28, 2014 shows Japan's national institute Riken researcher Haruko Obokata working at her laboratory in Kobe in Hyogo prefecture, western japan. She announced that she discovered a simple way to turn animal cells back to a youthful, neutral state, a feat hailed as a "game-changer" in the quest to grow transplant tissue in the lab. The research could be the third great advance in stem cells, a futuristic field that aims to reverse Alzheimer's, cancer and other crippling or lethal diseases. -- PHOTO: AFP

Overnight, Dr Haruko Obokata has become something of a celebrity in Japan, but maybe not quite for the right reasons.

When it was announced recently that the 30-year-old biologist had discovered a new and radically simpler way of producing stem cells that can grow into any tissue in the body, Japanese media showed greater interest in her gender than in her work.

The Western press zoomed in on the important implications of her research for the future of regenerative medicine, even though her work is so far confined only to laboratory mice. Regenerative medicine is a new area of medicine that involves the use of stem cells to repair or replace tissues that have degenerated due to age, disease or other reasons.

But among Japan's major newspapers and television networks, only one - the Mainichi Shimbun daily - managed to discuss the importance of her research without letting her gender get in the way.

The rest immediately saw her as the quintessential “rikejo” - an abbreviation of “rikei joshi” or “female scientist”.

“Rikejo” is a buzzword coined in 2011 after a female Japanese high school student had a paper published by the Journal of Physical Chemistry, an American academic publication.

These days, “rikejo” is also used to refer to young women who major in the sciences at university or are planning to do so.

The Japanese media hailed Dr Obokata as the “star” of the “rikejo” and competed to highlight her femininity.

She was photographed at her workplace wearing not the usual white laboratory coats favoured by scientists the world over, but a white cooking coverall, called “kappogi” in Japanese, that she had received from her grandmother.

“It makes me feel that Grandma is cheering me on,” she said.

She also told reporters that she thinks about her research “whether in the bath or on a date”.

Reporters also noted that the walls of her office were painted in pink and yellow and that her desk and shelves were decorated with little Moomin trinkets and stickers.

Moomins are fairy tale characters with large snouts resembling hippopotamuses that were created by Swedish-Finn illustrator and writer Tove Jannson, and are popular among the Japanese through a series of books and comic strips.

The media even homed in on the designer ring that Dr Obokata wore at her press conference, noting that it was a Vivienne Westwood creation.

London-based communications consultant Mayumi Tanimoto summed up her indignation at the Japanese media's reporting in an article she wrote on the WirelessWire News website which drew over 45,000 Facebook “likes”.

The article's rather unwieldy title reads: “Japan seems to have only gossip papers as they describe Obokata as a 30-year-old young female researcher who wept all night”.

The last was a reference to Dr Obokata's confession that she had spent countless nights crying when she initially could not get her experimental results verified by other researchers and was told that maybe she had made a mistake.

In contrast, Ms Tanimoto pointed out, the BBC's report focused on the content of Dr Obokata's research and made no mention of her age, nor even her gender.

But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was delighted with the fact that Dr Obokata is female as she is just the kind of role model that the government was looking for in its bid to encourage more women to go into the sciences.

Mr Abe said in parliament: “Young researcher Obokata has, through her flexible thinking, created stem cells that have surprised the world. I will do my best to make Japan the top country in the world where women shine.”

According to a government report on gender equality last year (2013), women make up only 14 per cent of all scientific researchers in Japan.

The Abe administration has set a target of 30 per cent by 2020.

In contrast, the percentage of female scientists in Russia stands at 42 per cent, followed by Britain at 38 per cent. Even South Korea, with 17 per cent, is ahead of Japan.

In the past, Japanese women who are interested in the sciences tended to do medicine and pharmacology.

But in recent years, the number of women entering other science programmes at university is on the increase because it is said that science graduates have better job prospects.

According to data from the education ministry, the percentage of female first-year undergraduate students pursuing pure science, engineering and agricultural science courses rose from 9.3 per cent in 1990 to 19.7 per cent in 2013.

However, the percentage of women in science programmes at postgraduate level is falling.

The trend is blamed on the difficulty of finding work for people with post graduate qualifications and on the lack of role models for women.

The government clearly hopes that the example of Dr Obokata will inspire more young women to don white coats and work in research labs.

wengkin@sph.com.sg