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Girls & Women

The Shocking Reason a Top Medical School in Japan Lowered Women's Exam Scores for Years


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Japan ranks 114th out of 144 countries for gender equality in economic participation and opportunities. By lowering women’s exam scores to keep them out of medical schools, Tokyo Medical University is reinforcing gender discriminatory attitudes and beliefs. You can take action here to support the economic empowerment of women and advance gender equality.

Japanese students hoping to be admitted to the country’s top medical schools spend years chasing their dream. They work extremely hard in school, and, after class is dismissed, many continue to study in “cram schools.”

So when the Yomiuri Shimbun, a local newspaper, reported on Thursday that Tokyo Medical University (TMU) had been systematically lowering female applicants' entrance exams to avoid admitting them, people were outraged.

Women hoping to attend the university have had the odds stacked against them since at least 2006 as university officials lowered their entrance exam scores by 10% to 20%. The university reportedly began docking points from women’s exam scores after nearly 40% of successful applicants in 2010 were women, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

Though the school's officials have denied knowledge of test score tampering, TMU has now admitted fault after an investigation found the allegations to be true, the Guardian reported. The investigation not only confirmed that women's test scores were systematically lowered, but at least 20 points were also added to scores of male applicants, as long as they had not previously failed the entrance exam more than four times.

“We sincerely apologise for the serious wrongdoing involving entrance exams that has caused concern and trouble for many people and betrayed the public’s trust,” TMU's Managing Director Tetsuo Yukioka told the media. “I suspect that there was a lack of sensitivity to the rules of modern society, in which women should not be treated differently because of their gender,” he said.

This year, less than 9% of female applicants to the medical school were successful.

Take Action: Ask Governments and Corporations to Support Girls' Education

An unnamed university source told the Yomiuri Shimbun that university officials had justified their actions by arguing that they were protecting Japan’s medical workforce, which is facing a shortage of doctors.

“Women often quit their jobs due to marriage and childbirth after graduating from the university,” the source told the Yomiuri Shimbun. “There is a strong feeling within the university that male doctors support the medical services at its hospitals.”

“There was a silent understanding [to accept more male students] as one way to resolve the doctor shortage,” the source told the Yomiuri Shimbun, according to the Washington Post. The policy was a “necessary evil,” the source said.

The news was met with criticism from both the public and politicians. Dozens of people gathered in protest at the university last week, carrying signs that said, “Protest against sexist entrance exams!” and “You trampled on the efforts and lives of women who trusted and chose you” — according to the Associated Press.

Gender Equality Minister Seiko Noda told the press said she was taking the allegations “extremely seriously” as “any admissions process that wrongfully discriminates against women is absolutely not acceptable.”

“It is extremely important to improve the working environment so that women can pursue their medical professions,” she said.

While the scandal was shocking news to many, some have suspected gender discrimination in Japan’s university admissions process for years.

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After analyzing data from the Education Ministry, Kyoko Tanebe of the Japan Joint Association of Medical Professional Women found that Japanese women were accepted at higher rates than men to most university programs, but lagged behind men when it came to admission to medical programs.

“These stats indicate universities control the student ratio,” Tanebe wrote last year.

Some women in the medical field have also said they suspected universities were attempting to skew the gender ratio in their industry, the New York Times reported

Despite Japan’s recent push to increase female participation in its workforce — an initiative often referred to as “womenomics” — women continue to face discrimination in the workplace. The country ranks 114 out of 144 countries for gender equality in economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Gender Gap Report.

Though more women are working, they are still being kept out of leadership. About one-third of Japanese women face sexual harassment and many have reported experiencing increased discrimination when they are pregnant or have children.

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“It’s normal for full-time, working women, once they get pregnant, to quit and become a full time housewife. It’s so accepted and common, there’s even a phrase people use, they say, ‘happy retirement,’” Sayaka Osakabe, a women who worked in advertising, told PBS. “My male bosses told me to choose my career or my baby. If I stayed, they said, I should give up my baby.”

“It's a systematic problem in Japanese society that we're not supporting our mothers,” Yusuku Tsugawa, a Japanese doctor and an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, told the Washington Post. “But … this is the worst possible way to fix the problem … [the university’s] job, their role and their mission is to train the doctors. Their mission is not to ensure an optimal workforce in Japan,” he said. 

UPDATE Wednesday, Aug. 8, 10 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to reflect the university's admission to wrongdoing.