Women at work within and outside academia: A Japanese sociological perspective

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6 mins
Women at work within and outside academia: A Japanese sociological perspective

I find it difficult to understand why we talk about supporting women only because they are women.

Professor Minako Konno, PhD, Sociology; Professor at the Division of Global Social Sciences, Department of Sociology, Tokyo Woman's Christian University

Professor Minako Konno is a professor at the Department of Sociology (Division of Global Sciences), Tokyo Woman's Christian University, Japan. She began her career in a corporate financial institution and soon realized that her true interest lay in the field of sociology. In 1996, she published a study on the representation of women in different professional fields in Japan. Her study continues to be cited today. Using her corporate work experience in Japan as well as her experience as a student in Japan and the US, Professor Konno explores the dynamics  behind the professional lives of women as well as the sociological aspects governing career choices and gender representation.

In this interview, she shares her views on gender bias in academia and the work space and on why gender differences exist.

What sparked your interest in sociology and in women in the workplace as a topic of study?

I started out as a student of sociology as I was certain that it was something I would enjoy. Over the years, I developed a keen interest in the field as I noticed the dynamism that sets in when a group of individuals come together and interact in various settings. During a short professional stint in a government-funded financial institution, I realized that not many women held career-track positions in large Japanese corporations. This intrigued me and I thought it indicated gender-determined professional choices (which is not very different from gender discrimination, in my opinion). That a stark gender difference existed in the professional sphere stoked my passion for sociology and gender studies.

Your paper Negotiating Gender in Uncertainty: A Mechanism of Women's Marginalization in the Japanese Workplace, published in 1996, points out that women have generally not been part of white-collar positions in large Japanese organizations. Has the situation changed today?

I believe that the situation has changed greatly. Although it is difficult to assess the manner and extent to which opportunities have opened up for women in various professional fields, I do believe that, over the years, the Japanese corporate scene has witnessed major changes in women’s expectations and the professional positions they occupy.

Although the number of female researchers in Japan has reportedly increased, it still remains low compared to other countries. How do you view such findings? Could you share your views on the representation of women in professional fields as well as academia in Japan?

I have several views on this.

First, in general in Japan, there are fewer females occupying professional positions, within and outside academia. To some extent, this can be attributed to gender stereotypes. However, there is another way of looking at this. The Japanese culture is known for its focus on perfection, hard work, and commitment. As a result, the Japanese people (men and women) devote themselves fully to any activity they undertake. This could also lead Japanese women to choose either personal or professional commitments, not both, explaining the imbalance in the representation of women in different professions.

Second, often the male-female ratio is used as an indication of how popular that profession is or if there exists a gender bias. I know that some nations propagate a 1:1 man-woman ratio in the workplace. Needless to say, the male-female ratio in academia in Japan will not be equal. But before drawing any conclusions, one must note that research in itself is not a coveted profession in Japan and does not attract many people as such.

Third, it is held that men tend to choose a profession based on the social status it is associated with, whereas women tend to choose professions that will provide them with a sense of fulfillment. To some extent, this can be considered to be valid or true. But it could also be argued those who desire higher salaries and power will be inclined to choose relevant corporate careers. Others who are driven by an inherent love for the field and the need to understand it fully will choose to undertake research. Viewed from this perspective, research is “feminine” as it is tied to a sense of fulfillment at the end of the process.

Finally, speaking of academia in Japan, I must concede that a gender bias exists for graduates as well as faculty, though the extent of bias varies across research fields. However, I do notice a more inclusive culture today: for example, when I was a student at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, there was not a single female professor; today, roughly half of the professors in the Department of Sociology here are female and an equal number of students at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology are female.

What kind of support do women in academia in Japan need? 

Sometimes I find it difficult to understand why we talk about supporting women only because they are “women.” Such acceptance of gender labels only leads us to draw sharper lines of difference between men and women in all walks of life. I believe that this defeats the larger purpose of research – enabling human progress. The success of research does not depend on whether it has been conducted by a male or a female but on whether it contributes to our understanding of phenomena and to human progress. I think that if we focus on the larger and more inclusive issues, such as how the entire research process can be optimized, hegemonic concepts such as those related to gender will cease to be viewed as problematic and every researcher will be valued for his or her contribution to the field.

You have studied in Japan as well as the US. Did you notice a great difference in opportunities for women in academia in the US as compared to those in Japan? 

I will admit that the number of female faculty in the US was high compared to that in Japan. However, the fact that women did not have equal opportunities as men when it came to being considered for permanent employment or gaining tenure at universities is a common topic of discussion in both countries.

You are currently working at a women's university. Is the environment any different from that in a co-ed university?

I left a co-ed university 5 years ago, but I do appreciate the environment at a women's university and the individuality it affords. Women can be themselves here and not worry too much about adhering to stereotypical behavior. In the co-ed environment, I did notice that women sometimes presented themselves with some reserve and that there was an imbalance of power. From this perspective, I think that studying at a women’s university will benefit women greatly.

Thank you, Professor Konno.

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Published on: Mar 10, 2015


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