One of Japan's top medical universities has been systematically blocking female applicants from entering the school for at least eight years, local news agencies reported on Thursday.
Tokyo Medical University, a private institution consistently ranked among the country's best for clinical medicine, has been automatically lowering the entrance exam results of female applicants for the past decade, an attempt to keep the ratio of women in each class of students below 30 percent, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.
A specific coefficient was reportedly applied to the scores of all female applicants, lowering them by 10 to 20 percent.
Details about the tampering were leaked amid an investigation into top administrators at Tokyo Medical University, who came under fire in June for accepting bribes from an education ministry official.
Masahiko Usui, chairman of the school's board of regents, and Mamoru Suzuki, the university president, resigned last month after allegations that they had inflated the grades of the ministry official's son to secure him a spot at the school.
Of the 1,019 female applicants to the university in 2018, 30 women — less than 3 percent — were eventually accepted. Nearly 9 percent of male applicants gained admission, the Asahi Shimbun reported.
Kyoko Tanebe, an executive board member at the Japan Joint Association of Medical Professional Women, told the Japan Times that other medical institutions probably have similar policies that discriminate against female applicants.
According to recent data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, women make up less than a quarter of doctors in Japan — the lowest proportion among the 34 OECD countries studied.
So why is a country that is battling a shortage of doctors to support its aging population trying to bar qualified candidates from getting training?
According to an unnamed source who spoke to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the school thought female students would eventually leave the medical profession to give birth and raise their children.
"There was a silent understanding [to accept more male students] as one way to resolve the doctor shortage," the source said, adding that the policy was a "necessary evil."
It is true that female physicians tend to leave the profession at much higher rates than their male counterparts (particularly when they become mothers), but many disagree that keeping them out of medical school is an appropriate or effective response.
"It's a systematic problem in Japanese society that we're not supporting our mothers, but ... this is the worst possible way to fix the problem," said Yusuku Tsugawa, a Japanese doctor working as an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA.
In a widely read study published last year, Tsugawa found that patients treated by female physicians in the United States had significantly lower mortality rates and readmission rates than those cared for by male physicians at the same hospital.
These findings may not be directly translatable to Japan, but Tsugawa believes it is still unwise to exclude potential female doctors. Barring qualified candidates from medical school, particularly as Japan continues to grapple with an aging population, will harm the country in the long run, he said.
And even if Japanese women do drop out of the profession at higher rates than men right now, it is not the role of medical schools to fix that, Tsugawa argued.
"Their job, their role and their mission is to train the doctors. Their mission is not to ensure an optimal workforce in Japan," he said.
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