A Japanese medical school has been accused of manipulating the test scores of female applicants for years to artificially depress the number of women in the student body, a scandal that has triggered sharp criticism.

The revelations have highlighted institutional barriers that women in Japan still face as they pursue work in fields that have long been dominated by men.

Tokyo Medical University reduced the test scores of women to keep their numbers at about 30 percent of entering classes, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported on Thursday.

For the 2018 school year, 1,596 men and 1,018 women applied to the school, with 8.8 percent of men and 2.9 percent of women accepted, according to the newspaper.

“This medical school’s practice is very shocking and ridiculous,” said Dr. Takako Tsuda, an anesthesiologist who is chairwoman of the Japan Joint Association of Medical Professional Women. “This practice should be stopped now.”

Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s education minister, ordered an investigation into the school’s admissions procedures over the last six years.

“Discriminating against female students in entrance exams is absolutely unacceptable,” Mr. Hayashi told reporters on Thursday.

The discrimination began after 2010, when the number of successful female applicants increased sharply, the Yomiuri Shimbun said.

The newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying that school administrators justified the practice out of the belief that women were more likely to drop out of the profession after marriage or childbirth.

TBS, a television network, cited an unnamed former university admissions official as saying the practice was commonplace among medical schools and that administrators did not see anything wrong with it.

A university spokesman declined to comment.

The revelations triggered an outpouring of criticism online about gender inequality in Japan.

“Those who decided this system never faced problems of balancing housework and child care with a job,” Keiko Ota, a lawyer, said on Twitter. “You got away without doing all that housework and were able to concentrate on just your job thanks to whom? Can you dare say with whom you left your own children?”

Mizuho Fukushima, a lawmaker with the Social Democrat Party, said the school’s practice was clearly a violation of constitutional protections against discrimination. “This is just unacceptable,” she tweeted. “Work-style reform for doctors and child care support should be carried out.”

The reported discrimination at Tokyo Medical University, a prestigious private school, came to light in an internal investigation following the arrest last month of two university officials. The officials are accused of bribery, alleged to have guaranteed admission to a bureaucrat’s son in exchange for state funding, Kyodo News reported.

The allegation that women’s test scores were manipulated has cast a sharp light on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to advance the economic empowerment of women, a policy known as “womenomics.”

Japan has lagged behind other developed nations on female participation in the workplace. This has been blamed, in part, on traditional hiring practices that emphasize lifelong employment with a single company. Japanese companies typically require long hours, which clashes with cultural expectations that women are responsible for the bulk of housekeeping and child-rearing responsibilities.

By one basic measurement, economic prospects for women in Japan have improved in recent years, as the proportion of women working has surpassed that in the United States. But women are poorly represented in high-paying and prestigious jobs in government, management and science and technology. As a result, the pay gap is still stubbornly wide.

Acceptance rates are higher for women than men in most university subjects in Japan, including engineering, agriculture, dentistry, nursing and pharmaceutical studies. But they trail in medicine, according to an analysis of Education Ministry statistics by Kyoko Tanebe of the Japan Joint Association of Medical Professional Women.

“These stats indicate universities control the student ratio,” Ms. Tanebe wrote last year.

Some people in the field said they had long suspected that women were being actively prevented from pursuing careers in medicine.

Dr. Fumi Tsutsui, an anesthesiologist, wrote last month that it was widely believed in the medical profession that schools secretly promoted the admission of male students, who were seen as more willing to work 24-hour shifts and not take time off.

The practice meant that women with equal or better aptitude were being passed over, with unfortunate consequences for Japanese medicine, Dr. Tsutsui wrote.

“The medical community’s development was dominated by men and lacks the views of women,” she wrote. “The majority of patients are women, and the medical community needs to increase diversity by nurturing female medical professionals.”

Japan has begun hiring more doctors, said Dr. Tsuda, the chairwoman of the women’s medical association. But she said it was true that because of a lack of assistance in areas like child care, women often left the field to raise children.

Rather than artificially depressing the number of women who become doctors, she said, more steps should be taken to help them stay in the profession, such as expanding access to child care.

While more nurseries are available on medical school campuses, for instance, it is not always practical to bring children on long, crowded train rides each day, Dr. Tsuda said. And child care is difficult to find in many neighborhoods, leaving mothers who are studying or working with few options.

“We need to raise more voices to promote women and female doctors,” she said.

Orignially published in NYT.

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