On November 13, 2023, a discussion highlighted the potential economic benefits for Japan by removing barriers for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers. Japan, known for its aging population and shrinking workforce, has seen notable GDP growth per capita, especially during the period of “Abenomics” under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. This growth was partly fueled by an increase in female labor-force participation, which rose from 63% in 2012 to 74% in 2022, thanks to improved child-care support and maternity-leave policies.
However, the rise in women’s participation in the labor force is plateauing, prompting the need for new growth strategies. Japan’s low number of foreign workers compared to other G7 countries and the political challenges in significantly increasing this number necessitate a focus on enhancing the productivity of the existing workforce. This is where the role of women in STEM becomes crucial.
Currently, only 7% of female university students in Japan major in STEM, compared to 36% of male students, and this under-representation is due to barriers rather than a lack of talent. Addressing these barriers could lead to a 20% increase in productivity growth in Japan, as more STEM workers contribute to innovation and technological advancement. This would not only boost output and wages but also improve overall welfare.
The gender gap in STEM fields presents both explicit and implicit pay gaps. Explicit gaps are observable in earnings data, while implicit gaps stem from factors like disproportionate family burdens and workplace discrimination. The Japanese government has made strides in addressing the explicit pay gap, but more efforts are needed to tackle the implicit gap.
Policies focusing on work-style reforms and a more merit-based labor market could enhance the returns on STEM education for women. Although fully eliminating these barriers may take years, implementing quotas and policies to correct gender biases in STEM fields could accelerate this process. Over time, as more women succeed in STEM careers, it will encourage others to join, contributing significantly to Japan’s economic prosperity.