Rikejo (science women), a term frequently heard in Japanese media and daily conversations, addresses women who are pursuing an education in STEM or working in STEM careers. This term does not have a negative or positive connotation, but instead the special term signals opportunities for businesses to align with the government’s efforts to encourage and facilitate women in STEM pursuits.
Following the June release of the White Paper on Gender Equality 2022 by the Gender Equality Bureau of the Cabinet Office, comments and discussions from various angles were seen on social media platforms, such as the persisting outdated gender roles and passive attitude towards relationship and marriage in the younger generation. As Japan faces the era of 100-year life, according to the white paper, one of the five challenges is the “career education for women from an early age.” The white paper highlights the need for a “provision of information that helps future career choices” and “opportunities for reskilling and recurrent education, etc. which links directly to the employment of women.”
There is also a widespread recognition by the Japanese society that interests and abilities must be cultivated early and nurtured generously through academic education, extracurricular activities and social interactions. However, data from the National Institute for Educational Policy Research shows only 16% of girls choose to further pursue science and math education in high school, compared to 27% of high school boys who select science and mathematics.
This trend continues in higher education, as well. A 2021 OECD report–Education at a Glance 2021–estimated that in Japan, women represented only 16% of the STEM field, the lowest share among the OECD countries. The report attributed this exceptionally low rate of women’s participation to “cultural perceptions and gender stereotypes.” Likewise, Japan’s “Roadmap to Realize the Three Pillars of Policies” created by the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation in the Cabinet Office, pointed to lingering bias as a fundamental contributor to the gender gap in education fields.
Investment into Human Resources
In this context, Japan’s public sector initiated more robust discussions and introduced measures to encourage and facilitate more women in STEM. At the national level, the Kishida administration’s new capitalism agenda includes a 400-billion-yen package for investments in people over the next three years. One of the key elements of this plan envisions public-private sector momentum to promote the success of women in science, such as the establishment of STEM education enrollment support program.
These developments provide a clear opening for businesses to support STEM education for young women. Executing programs and initiatives for the cause is beneficial in terms of corporate communications, supporters of the next generation and perhaps–more importantly–longer-term market-shaping, which helps ensure a robust STEM talent pool to support scientific research, new products, process developments and technological innovation. Indeed, a growing number of businesses and organizations are taking actions that advocate STEM education for females.
One initiative that reflects the opportunity is Lockheed Martin’s* long-standing sponsorship of the Girls’ Rocketry Challenge. Now in its sixth cycle, this initiative brings together the Japan Association of Rocketry, other private entities and academia, to introduce and expand the joys of pursuing an interest in STEM through rocket science to young females. It also provides opportunities for young women in Japan to apply STEM knowledge and skills outside of the classroom, which exposes them to the idea of building a career in STEM. As a group activity, it also teaches the skills and values of team spirit and a positive work ethic and rewards their achievement. In fact, the winners of this year’s Rocket Koshien model rocketry competitions that the company also supports as part of its overall STEM Program moved on to achieve two firsts in an International Rocketry Competition held during the Farnborough International Air Show this past July: not only were they the first team from Japan to take first place but were also an all-girls team to take pole position for the very first time.
LEGO* provides another example. The world-famous toy manufacturer introduced an education system that uses their iconic block toys to promote STEM and STEAM education for elementary to junior high school students. Recognizing the importance of active learning to foster curiosity, enjoyment and creativity from a young age, the company has placed exhibitions and hands-on experience booths throughout the country.
These companies are helping create a society where rikejo is an obsolete term, by launching initiatives aligned with both national policy and shifting social interest in gender equity. With heightened attention on growing digital human resources and fostering future entrepreneurs and start-ups, businesses should consider extending their perspectives into growing talented and diverse future workforce.