Parental gender attitudes associated with Japanese girls’ reduced university participation

Stereotypical gender role attitudes and negative images of STEM fields of Japanese parents may be associated with girls’ reduced university participation, new study finds.

Parental agreement with girls’ choosing to study in each field. Parents were asked to respond about in general, not about their own daughter in particular.

A group of University of Tokyo researchers and their colleagues suggest that stereotypical gender role attitudes and negative images of STEM fields of Japanese parents may be associated with girls’ reduced university participation. Providing more information to parents about potential career paths in certain fields after university may be one way to overcome this hurdle.

In Japan, women’s participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields remains lower than in the west. Japan ranked 110 out of 149 countries on a 2018 gender-gap survey, underscoring Japanese women’s limited participation in the economy and government. However, despite multiple government and industry initiatives, encouraging greater participation across society is challenging in a country where gender role divisions are deeply entrenched.

It is known that parents have significant influence on their children’s choice of university field and career. As part of a larger research project looking at why so few women in Japan choose STEM fields at university, a group led by Professor Hiromi Yokoyama at the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe looked at parental influence on girls’ choice of university subject.

“We used a psychological measure of gender role attitudes called SESRA-S to measure parental attitudes, and then looked at how parents felt about girls choosing a range of different fields,” said Yokoyama. “However, we were interested not just in whether they supported girls choosing STEM subjects. We wanted to know why they supported or opposed girls participating in those fields, and also what image they held of each field. We expected that there might be some differences.”

The group used an online survey to canvas 618 mothers and 618 fathers across Japan with at least one daughter who had graduated from university and at least one son. They found that while parents’ showing higher scores on gender equality don’t mind what field girls choose, those with lower scores were opposed to girls choosing any field at university. Over 40% of parents surveyed in this study either “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” with girls’ own choice of any university course. However, in the case of science courses their main reason for agreement was because of the availability of employment opportunities after university, while they regarded the humanities as a suitable area of study for girls.

In contrast, lower scoring parents, while fewer in number, offered different reasons for their opposition for each field:

- information technology (IT), life sciences, mathematics and physics because they don’t know if there are employment opportunities for women;

- agriculture, veterinary science and nursing because they require hard manual labor;

- medicine, dentistry and pharmaceutical sciences because of expensive tuition fees; and

- engineering generally because the field is “not suitable for women.”

“We were quite surprised to see that after pharmacy, IT was the STEM field most favored by parents,” said Yokoyama. “While parents are sensitive to societal changes, some still maintain an image of engineering as not suitable for women, despite strong demand for female talent from across engineering fields. It may be that STEM fields need to update their image. We know that parents with positive attitudes towards gender equality can support girls going to university, so it is essential that we improve attitudes towards gender equality of society as a whole.”

The research group hopes to model societal factors that affect girls’ decision to choose STEM fields and use international comparisons to understand differences in low levels of female student participation across different STEM fields.


About the Kavli IPMU

Kavli IPMU (Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe) is an international research institute with English as its official language. The goal of the institute is to discover the fundamental laws of nature and to understand the Universe from the synergistic perspectives of mathematics, astronomy, and theoretical and experimental physics. The Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU) was established in October 2007 under the World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI) of the Ministry of Education, Sports, Science and Technology in Japan with the University of Tokyo as the host institution. IPMU was designated as the first research institute within Todai Institutes for Advanced Study (TODIAS) in January 2011. It received an endowment from The Kavli Foundation and was renamed the "Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe" in April 2012. Kavli IPMU is located on the Kashiwa campus of the University of Tokyo, and more than half of its full-time scientific members come from outside Japan. Kavli IPMU Website -


About the University of Tokyo

The University of Tokyo is Japan's leading university and one of the world's top research universities. The vast research output of some 6,000 researchers is published in the world's top journals across the arts and sciences. Our vibrant student body of around 15,000 undergraduate and 15,000 graduate students includes over 4,000 international students. Find out more at or follow us on Twitter at @UTokyo_News_en.

Published: 16 Oct 2019

Contact details:

Motoko Kakubayashi

The University of Tokyo, 5-1-5 Kashiwanoha Kashiwa, 277-8583

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Funding information: 
This work was funded by the Japan Science and Technology Agency - Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society (JST-RISTEX) research programme number JPMJRX17B3 and supported by the World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI),