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Online discussion: Gender equality in Japan and Middle-East universities

Last updated: 16 October 2020


On 30 September 2020, we had the chance to meet with four students and graduates from the TOBB University of Economics and Technology (TOBB-ETU). TOBB-ETU students joined the online discussion from Ankara, Turkey, while we joined from Tokyo, Japan. The meeting was hosted by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF), in the “Human exchange between Japan and Middle Eastern countries” project of the Middle East and Islam Program Department. The project emphasises “people-to-people exchanges” between the two regions, including between “young leaders and academics”. Opening remarks were given by SPF Executive Director Junko Chano.

The two-hour discussion focused on comparing and exchanging ideas on gender equality (GE) at the two universities. The objectives were: to share background on GE in the counterpart university; to identify offsets between GE policy and reality in both universities; to evaluate the role of student societies in contributing to GE; and to reflect on how spaces within the university can contribute (or not) to GE.

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Online discussion

TOBB-ETU Women Entrepreneurs Community

Take home messages

The take-home messages from each part of the discussion are summarised below.

Part 1: Gender equality at UTokyo and TOBB-ETU

The gender balance among the student populations at TOBB-ETU and UTokyo is quite different. The significantly larger share of female students on campus at TOBB-ETU compared to UTokyo has wide implications for GE initiatives. This difference must be considered when comparing the two universities. Even so, it is interesting that in both universities, student-led efforts to promote GE have only begun to accelerate in recent years. This suggests that the demand for gender equality is growing and has reached a similar level of maturity in both universities.

Part 2: Potential gaps between gender equality policy and reality

GE is not given top priority status by institutional decision makers in either UTokyo or TOBB-ETU. This translates into limited budget compared to other initiatives. Since TOBB-ETU is an industry-oriented university, the top university priorities are oriented towards supporting innovation and technology, which manifests itself as more financial support for student groups in this area. This is also reflected by TOBB-ETU’s request for the “Women Entrepreneurs Community” to include the word “entrepreneur” in its group name, rather than refer to a more general effort towards gender equality (which is the group’s actual intention). Similarly, since UTokyo is a research university, the top priorities are directed towards consolidation of international research rankings.

Part 3: The role of student societies

Quality, independent of quantity, is very important and usually under-emphasised when it comes to GE initiatives on campus. While it is easy to measure the quantity of GE initiatives (e.g. number of events, number of participants), it is less obvious to assess the quality. On the other hand, since ideas on gender are often deep-rooted and personal, high quality (i.e. personal, in-depth, engaging) discussions and events on GE are very important to change mindsets and attitudes towards GE.

Part 4: The importance of the campus environment

While gender-neutral spaces exist at both universities, it is more challenging to set up comfortable gender-neutral interaction spaces at UTokyo, due to the low proportion of female students on campus, especially among Japanese students.

Thank you

We thank the Sasakawa Peace Foundation for suggesting the idea of an online discussion on GE between our initiative and students in the Middle East, and for organising the event. We also thank the faculty members from UTokyo’s GSDM program who joined the discussion as observers.

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