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It’s been one year since my former colleague and friend, a professor of chemistry (analytical) and so much more lost her fight to cancer. Her memory lives on through her former students (many of them in graduate or medical programs), colleagues, and family, including her husband and now 2 and a half year-old; I think of her and them when I come across a picture, “bad” chemistry joke, memory, or when someone posts in her “Why HB Rocks” memorial. Most often, however, I think of her when I read STEM or chemistry-related education articles and articles about women in science. One example is this article, Japan’s ‘Science Women’ Seek an Identity, from The New York Times.

I posted it and my “this is an unfortunate perception… and not my experience…” comment among friends and family – and an engineer with 20+ years of experience shared it with a colleague from Japan. Below is part of their exchange:

Yanagi-san, I thought you may have some comment, since you married one of these “really smart woman who studied science and became a medical doctor” many years ago!!! … What do you think of this men/women ratio for science careers? (maybe it is like U.S. 40 or 50 years ago).

Mike, More than 30 years ago, likely Japanese female didn’t go to college or university and my wife said she was very very few students at the medical school. Twenty-six years ago when my wife had license of medical doctor her field was absolutely male-dominated society and she had put on standard white coat with white slippers.

In my memory there had been very few female students [at] the faculties of law, economy, science, engineering, agriculture, medical, pharmaceutical science and dental but some females are at limited field such like languages, education and cultures related faculties at that time — Japan had been keeping male-dominated society but now everything [has] been changing.

Last year my daughter got into college so she has to be an authority of today’s female education in Japan. She let us know that percentage of male and female entering college is almost the same now. In addition, female in Japan has better ability to concentrate on hard study (male has more number of passions?) and nowadays many female students are at the higher grade college at every faculties. She said still male dominates faculty of science or engineering but the percentages are growing. So I checked some local articles and found that now females occupy 1/3 of faculty of science. (On the other hand female only get 1/10 seats at the faculty of engineering …)

I think Japanese female is getting better social advancement than before and absolutely they are having more power. Companies or public offices are supporting child care leave so female must enjoy their working life better than 80’s.

Yanagi-san, this is quite interesting to hear both your wife’s story and your daughter’s situation today.  Thanks for sharing. I think that when I studied engineering [in U.S.], it seemed almost 50/50 of women and men — but maybe it was 70% men / 30% women…

So, why include the above exchange as part of What’s Right?

“What’s right” is encouraging children— girls and boys alike—to be whatever they want to be. Indeed, if their interest is STEM then engage them in STEM and while doing so break down the image described by one female Japanese chemistry student as quoted in The New York Times that “the image of women in science is that of someone whose hair is disheveled and who does not care about beauty. Men think you are not cute” (article here).

“What’s right” is educators sharing their passion for and love of their respective STEM fields with students and potential students of both sexes, much like my friend did and her colleagues continue to do. The impact we have as educators and leaders to light the fire of STEM education is great; an example from a post yesterday by one of my friend’s former students:

There was no better way to honor …  today than by giving a presentation at work on AFM-ATR, the combination of two analytical techniques she taught me to love 🙂 … I found this article today and I know you would think it was awesome…

“What’s right” is lighting the fire of STEM education among students and realizing our opportunity to do so must not to be wasted because of differences in thought, beliefs, tradition, or cultural or social demography.

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Great Teachers are Leaders and Much More. A blog post tribute to an outstanding STEM educator and so much more; available online here.

Japan’s ‘Science Women’ Seek an Identity. The New York Times. Available online here.

“The ratio of female students and the structure of institutions in college level Science, Engineering and Technology (SET).” Article referenced in communication by Yanagi-san available online here: http://www.e.yamagata-u.ac.jp/~gk/paper/22kaken.pdf. Additional details available on the website of Ginko Kawano, Associate Professor of Sociology of Education, Yamagata University, at http://www.e.yamagata-u.ac.jp/~gk/.

“Scientists capture first images of molecules before and after reaction” (Sanders, Robert). Article referenced in post by chemist (former chemistry student) as one that former professor “would think [was] awesome” available online here.

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