Tetsuo Yukioka (left) and Keisuke Miyazawa (right) of Tokyo Medical University apologize for discriminatory practices.

TORU HANAI/REUTERS/Newscom

Japanese medical university admits to discriminating against female applicants

TOKYO—A prominent Japanese medical university said yesterday that school administrators have deliberately manipulated entrance exam scores to limit the number of women admitted. The confession helps explain the lopsided gender ratio of graduates from Tokyo Medical University (TMU) and strengthens suspicions that similar practices have prevailed at other Japanese medical schools.

At an evening press conference yesterday, an external investigative panel confirmed that TMU administrators routinely lowered the scores of all female applicants. The policy derived from concerns that women would leave their careers after having children, the investigators reported. Officials feared such an exodus would cause staffing problems at TMU’s affiliated hospitals, which rely heavily on the university’s graduates for medical professionals.

The policy appears to have had the desired effect on admissions and the gender balance of incoming classes. Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading daily newspaper, separately reported that 8.8% of male applicants and only 2.9% of female applicants were admitted this year. Some 1596 men and 1018 women took the exam this year, resulting in 141 men and 30 women gaining entry.

TMU officials appeared at a separate press conference that followed the first one. “We have seriously violated the trust of society,” said Tetsuo Yukioka, TMU’s managing director, before giving the ritualistic deep and prolonged bow of apology.

Several female scientists told ScienceInsider they haven’t seen any admissions shenanigans in their fields. But women still face serious roadblocks, they add. “I think there are few women in research in Japan because many give up because of sexual harassment and bullying,” says Mariko Kato, an astronomer at Keio University here.

The TMU investigation was a response to allegations that an official in the national education ministry promised a TMU official preferential treatment for a government grant in return for having his son accepted. Last month, the university’s chairman and president resigned in connection with the scandal. The bureaucrat and the two officials now face bribery charges. It was also confirmed yesterday that TMU officials raised the test scores of certain applicants to ensure admission in hopes of securing donations from their parents.

TMU may not be alone in pursuing such policies. Yoshimasa Hayashi, the education minister, told the Japanese press that the ministry intends to investigate practices at other medical schools.

Kato says it would be extremely difficult to manipulate the test scores of applicants to its science and engineering departments because of the transparency in handling the exam materials. She says about 18% of applicants are women, and that women make up a similar percentage of each entering class.

Hisako Ohtsubo, a molecular biologist at Nihon University in Funabashi, Japan, thinks the education ministry “should investigate and disclose the actual number of female candidates and the number of those who passed the exams at medical schools nationwide.” The numbers for individual schools are not publicly available.

Ohtsubo says other fields have become more welcoming to women. “The number of capable women in science, engineering, and agriculture is gradually increasing,” she says. However, a “feudal system persists in medical departments” where the expectation is that doctors should be on call 24 hours a day. This makes it hard for female physicians to balance work and family obligations, she says. Rather than discourage women interested in medical careers, she asks, “why not reform and improve” hospital operations?

Kato thinks the TMU investigation could lead to a dramatic improvement for women. “I’m looking forward to next year’s entrance exam results,” she says.