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Tokyo medical school takes heat for gender discrimination

Entrance exam sabotage reveals male-oriented culture in medical field

Tokyo Medical University deliberately failed women applicants by rigging test scores. (Photo by Maho Obata)

TOKYO -- Tokyo Medical University's reported altering of test scores to limit female entrants has sparked criticism as a symbol of the barriers women still face as they try to advance in Japanese society.

The private school began lowering test scores of women applicants from around 2010, when admitted female students began to increase. The practice, reported Thursday, was designed to curb the number of women doctors at its own university hospital, as they are seen as more likely to take leave or quit to give birth or raise children.

"Deliberately lowering the number of women who pass the exam runs counter to the times," said Kyoko Tanebe, a board member at the Japan Joint Association of Medical Professional Women. And "women's viewpoints are needed" to achieve work reform for female doctors, she said.

Making the workplace more accommodating for women is a core part of Japan's ongoing work reform efforts. The Tokyo Medical issue points to male-centric thinking in medicine that has slowed progress.

Women make up a smaller share of doctors in Japan than in many other countries. In 2016, 21.1% of the nation's doctors were women, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. This pales beside the 2015 average of 46% among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with Latvia and Estonia surpassing 70% and the U.K., Germany and other European countries coming in above 40%.


Other countries are seen adopting policies friendly to female doctors, such as spousal leave for child-rearing, as they move toward shift work systems.

Japan's labor ministry is working to help doctors return to work after giving birth, such as through connecting them with hospitals offering short shifts and other accommodations.

The medical profession "ought to be made into one that offers work-life balance regardless of gender," said Yuri Etani of the Osaka Women's and Children's Hospital.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology lets schools set separate acceptance limits for men and women if admissions policies are made clear. Japan has a number of women's colleges, and some programs where women tend to be the majority have adjusted the gender balance by creating separate sections for men.

But Tokyo Medical's actions amounted to "extraordinary unfairness," said an education ministry official, who described the practice as adding factors not spelled out in the recruitment form. The ministry may scale back its roughly 2 billion yen ($18 million) in aid to the university.

The score-slashing came to light in an internal probe by the school's lawyers and other investigators. The probe followed the indictment of school officials, including a former board chairman, on graft charges related to the education ministry's support program for private universities. Tokyo Medical intends to disclose its practices soon.

A Tokyo Medical-affiliated source acknowledged that the university lowered all women's test scores and said leaving them unchanged "would have led to many women passing." Women leave their jobs at high rates, and "it is within the university's discretion to choose what students to accept," the source argued.

The practice might not be unique to Tokyo Medical.

Just 5.9% of women applying to medical school programs got in, compared with 6.6% of men, in a fiscal 2017 survey by the education ministry. But men and women shared an 11.6% acceptance rate for science programs. And in engineering, women came in 0.2 percentage point higher at 12.2%.

"I've been told for a long time that women are at a disadvantage" in entrance exams for private-school medical programs, said a man teaching at a prep school focused on such tests.

"It would be wrong to accept or deny [a student] based on factors aside from their abilities," said a male vice principal at a private high school that sends an annual 100 students or more to medical schools.

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