Wanted: Female Engineers

In Japan, universities are instituting quotas to help bring parity to this male-dominated field.

By Hajime Ueno, Chika Yamamoto and Fumio Masutani, The Asahi Shimbun

An increasing number of Japanese universities are introducing special quotas for female engineering majors in an effort to reach a better gender balance in this traditionally male-dominated field.

The Tokyo Institute of Technology, where female students account for only about 13 percent of the university’s undergraduates, will launch its quota program in 2024. University President Kazuya Masu believes that greater gender equality will benefit everyone. “Flexibility and creativity are rare in groups of the same kind of people,” he says.

The university has made efforts to recruit more female students in the past, but the number of those majoring in engineering has not increased. University officials hope that creating a special quota will rectify the problem. The 2024 quota is for 58 female students, the 2025 quota is 143: the university estimates that this will push female enrollment to above 20 percent.

According to a survey conducted by the education ministry in 2021, the number of female students enrolled in university engineering-related departments was about 60,000—less than 16 percent of the 380,000 engineering students nationwide. That is the lowest female participation in any university department.

Japan also lags other developed countries in this regard. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only 7 percent of female Japanese university students chose to major in science and engineering in 2019 compared with an average of 15 percent among all OECD member states.

Industry is the driving force behind this move toward greater gender parity, with many businesses now convinced that diversity is conducive to greater innovation. In 2016, the Development Bank of Japan Inc. released a study showing that the economic value of patents developed by teams that included females were 1.4 times higher than patents developed by all-male teams.

Engineering departments have reacted accordingly; Nagoya University’s website, for example, states that “diverse human resources that bring in flexible ideas and new viewpoints are necessary” and “we are in a phase where disruptive innovation is needed.” The university now has a 2023 quota of nine female students for its engineering program.

“We have received strong demand from companies that say they want to hire female engineering graduates because they believe that a woman’s viewpoint is important,” says Seiichi Miyazaki, the engineering department chair. “The job placement ratio for such female students has been nearly 100 percent, but they are few in number,” he added.

He explains that the department’s quota has been integrated into the university’s entrance exam by commendation, which bases its selection on “various criteria, in addition to academic competence.”

Shibaura Institute of Technology is adopting similar entrance examinations for female engineering students, and Nara Women’s University launched its faculty of engineering in 2022 with 45 full-time students. In a survey, many of the new students said they chose to study there because it is a women’s university, and they thought they would feel “comfortable.”

Engineering major students at Nara Women’s University on April 25, 2022 (Provided by Nara Women’s University)

In 2024, another women’s school, Ochanomizu University, will open an engineering department. “It has been a chicken-and-egg situation,” says a university representative, describing the reality of engineering majors. “Female students do not come because there are so many male students. So we need to create eggs first to change the cycle.”