Tokyo Medical University and anticipatory childcare penalties

As you may have heard, in a scandal that incorporates almost everything toxic about Japan’s educational, workplace, and oyaji cultures, Tokyo Medical University, a top medical school in Japan, was discovered to have had a secret policy of discriminating against female applicants to their medical program for almost the last decade. Specifically, they reduced female applicants’ entrance exam scores to 0.9 or 0.8 of their actual levels so as to keep the female population of incoming classes down to 30%. College entrance exams being pretty much the single most important determiner of a young person’s career prospects, lots of people are livid in Japan, and the international press has picked up the story. It’s quite a blood-boiler.


Here are a few random thoughts that squeak out between the anger:

The sting of lost points

Most pithy point first: Losses are felt more acutely than forgone gains. It probably would make less news (although it would be equally unfair) to raise the threshold for women to pass rather than subtract already-earned points from their scores.

192 underqualified male doctors

Assuming the female population would otherwise be 50% (the year the exclusionary policy started, it was 40%, up from previous years), out of an average incoming class of about 120 people, 20% of that group or 24 women per year were wrongly excluded from admission. 24 per year * 8 years=192 female applicants total who were excluded after the discriminatory policy was applied. Something that no doubt stings the current male students at that institution is that 192 male students during the same period were  admitted only as a result of that policy of underrating female applicants – the male beneficiaries of this anti-female discriminatory program. Now, no doubt these undeserving admittees were close to the threshold (not all government officials’ children admitted through the back door), but there can be no question that a raising of the bar for female applicants coincided with a lowering of the bar for male ones. Whatever being a male graduate of Tokyo Medical University was worth before, it should be worth 80% of that now (and being a female graduate should be worth 120%).

It chafes at my educational instincts to talk about the value of a college degree solely as a product of the difficulty, as measured in standardized tests, of admittance. No doubt many of the male students who were admitted as a result of the discriminatory policy rise to the occasion and become excellent doctors. It’s unfortunate that the value of a degree in the job market is so heavily weighted towards the pure difficulty of admittance (measured in standard deviations from the mean, or hensachi). It’s also unfortunate that women need higher qualifications in the job market in order to compensate for the fact that they are women and are being denied them in this case… because they are women.

I had a student once who was a researcher on economics in Japan who studied the gender wage gap extensively. She pointed out that women applying for career-track (総合職) positions at established companies actually need to be overqualified to make up for the penalties given them for 1) the expectation that they will take time off for childrearing and 2) the likelihood that they will quit upon marriage, and that the women who were hired for career-track jobs were therefore much more qualified in the traditional ways than the men they worked with. The phenomenon of companies discriminating up front against female applicants is not limited to Tokyo Medical University. On the other hand, if you end up at the doctor’s office with a female graduate of Tokyo Medical University (or really, any female professional in any field), you can rest assured that she was likely superior to the rest of her graduating class.

Some quick math on what is owed

I’ve heard it mentioned that a class action lawsuit may be in order. A shorthand for what Tokyo Medical University should, at a minimum, pay these women might be:

The cost of the entrance exam itself (60,000 or 40,000 yen)

Hotel fees and transportation to the testing site (10,000-100,000 yen or so –  it seems that the Tokyo area is overrepresented among admittees)

(Quick note, in case you weren’t aware: medical schools in Japan are generally 6-year programs that start at the undergraduate level. Most of the test-takers are probably 18 or 19 years old, minors in Japan who would be traveling with their parents.)

The difference in average salary between one of their graduates and those of a 2nd tier school (I don’t have numbers for this, but let’s say it’s 1,000,000 yen, or about $10,000) * 30 years

1 year’s tuition at a test prep center like this one (2-3 million yen)

= a total of 33,160,000 yen, or roughly $330,000, per wrongly rejected applicant, just for demonstrable monetary harm. That’s $63,000,000 or so for all 192 applicants.

The anticipatory childbirth penalty

It’s widely known that the gap between men’s and women’s incomes within jobs is increased (some say almost entirely produced) by time off that women and not men take after childbirth. There are those who believe society’s job in the face of the persistence of the gender wage gap is to make childcare while working easier, to better facilitate all adults’ participation in the labor force and the efficient use of heretofore invested human capital. Others believe that requiring both men and women to take childcare leave can mitigate the inequality of responsibilities (even when paid paternal leave is offered, many couples refuse to take it, leaving a de facto maternity-leave-only situation). Then there is Japan, where the solution to women’s wasted human capital after childbirth is to invest less capital in them to begin with.

As I pointed out above, it’s common for companies to figure the odds of female employees quitting or scaling back their duties mid-career, and thereby voiding investment in their training, into their hiring and placement calculations. What seems to have been a large part of the motivation in Tokyo Medical University’s case is the fact that a large portion of each graduating class ends up working at the university’s own affiliated hospital, making admission to the university a de facto first step in the hiring process. What the university did in this case was extend the logic that discriminates against women in job placement in many fields to an earlier step in the career ladder. I can’t find any information about a “Tokyo Medical University-affiliated High School” (付属高校), but if one exists you can bet someone has considered discriminating against female applicants at that level too.

If I remember correctly, there are statutes against clear gender discrimination going back to the 1980s (before which career-track and non-career-track jobs were more explicitly gendered), but companies find their ways around this. What seems to be most missing here is simply a cultural norm that gender discrimination, and by extension strict adherence to gender roles, is wrong. And that is a difficult gear to get rotating, connected as it is to language, clothing, family norms dating back to the Meiji period, and well… everything. I find it very hard to imagine a Japan where people think men and women have more in common than not, but one can hope. It’s worth mentioning that one of the countervailing forces here is that many people who celebrate Japanese culture around the world revel in exactly this backward aspect of it. If you are a fan of anime or idol groups, you are probably contributing to the problem.

One lever that is within reach of current policymakers is revision of the human resource management system that encourages sorting of workers at the point of hiring into “can work infinite hours per week until age 60 and is willing to start at starvation wages” and “needs money and time to live”. Let’s see if these dots are connected and some of the pressure on companies to on-the-sly discriminate against female applicants is reduced, or if the current trend of simply bashing people who don’t have kids continues.

4 thoughts on “Tokyo Medical University and anticipatory childcare penalties

  1. Very interesting post, Marc, thank you!
    Just wanted to say that in our course, we have a topic called Gender Issues. In this lesson, students discuss gender pressure and gender inequality. I have taught this lesson to 13 groups last semester, and in every single group, female students admitted they feel almost all or all kinds of gender pressure mentioned in the textbook while male students feel around 2-4 pressure out of 8 (or 10?). As for gender inequality, somehow female students did not express any strong concerns. They did admit that there is such issue as gender inequality in Japan, but it seemed that many of them have not experienced it – yet. I wonder if their opinion changes upon entering the job search period in their senior year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We are using our own, internal, textbook. Students are given some examples of gender inequality like salary gap, female politicians being underrepresented, etc. That is the content for next semester. Last semester was a bit different (less serious, I’d say). I am looking forward to teaching this lesson with the new content and see what students say about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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