HOMEWelcome to CEI ≫ Interview with Visiting Faculty- 14

"It's not about what you should do, but it's about what you want to do"


Dr. Yoko Okuyama, Assistant Professor from the Department of Economics of Uppsala University, stayed at the Institute of Economic Research as a specially appointed Associate Professor of CEI for three months from December 2021 till the end of February the following year. She is a specialist in labor economics and political economy, particularly relating to gender and socio-political participation. Before leaving the CEI, we interviewed her about what she learned in the U.S., and her life in Sweden, where gender equality is very advanced. We have also asked her for advice to young women who are thinking of following her path to working in the academic world.              

A Road to being a Researcher

Q: Were there any experiences in your childhood that may have inspired you to pursue a career as a researcher?

There were probably two things in my childhood that led me to be an economist. My father's job required a lot of relocation, we moved a lot when I was a child. I was born in Osaka and then moved around Yokohama, Tokyo, and Sendai. Changing schools many times might have influenced my way of thinking. I think it helped me develop a sense of curiosity for new things and places. Also, this is interesting, but my father always moved in the summer and I had to change schools in the middle of the school year. As a child, I didn't like the idea of repeatedly leaving friends I had become close to and going to the new school, only to find that everyone had already made a group and it was a little difficult to join in. As I grew up I found that I had an attitude to first make close observations of the already made groups of friends before I joined them. I think this attitude of making observations connects to what I do now as an Economist. Economics and social sciences in general are broadly speaking, the study of society by observing people and seeing how they act. Moving a lot made me realize that people's behavior differs slightly from society to society, which might also have led to what I am doing now.

Q:  You mean, how do people make decisions about their behavior?

Yes, that's right. And then there are differences in things that are valued or considered good within each group or community.

Q:  Were you able to adapt smoothly to new environments through such experience?

I don't know if it was smooth or not. When I was little, I was said to be very shy and quiet, but I felt that it was an unfair adult's point of view.  Because what I was doing was observing others closely.

Q:  It is incredible to know that you have gained the ability to observe from a such young age!

Oh, I was complaining all the time, "Dad, why do we have to move again?" But I guess because I led such a childhood, I do not hesitate to live around the world as I do now.

Q:  Till what age did you move around the country with your father?

 It happened till I finished elementary school. From junior high, I settled in Kanagawa till I finished my studies at the University of Tokyo.

Q:  How and when did you decide to pursue the life of becoming a researcher?

There were direct and indirect reasons. The direct reason was that when I was in college and was doing job hunting, the Great East Japan Earthquake happened. A freeze on job-hunting occurred, so I worked as a research assistant doing things like organizing data for the professor of the seminar I was attending. It was really interesting, so I stopped job hunting and decided to go to graduate school instead.

An indirect reason, I would say, was my experience in the Newspaper Club in my junior high and high school. By the way, my school was a girls' school. Our advisor was a former newspaper reporter, and he gave us guidance on writing. A local newspaper company did the printing, and it was a really interesting experience to proofread the articles together. I became an editor-in-chief a year before I retired from the club. Even though we were still high school students, we tried to write about society and about our connection with what is happening in the world today. We also interviewed our alumnae with careers. I was impressed by how they all talked enthusiastically about how much they loved doing the job, no matter what it was. I really enjoyed writing something about society. I don't think I thought much about connecting that to my profession at first, but when I came to the research path, I realized that what I ended up doing is the same as what I have been doing since high school, like writing about society!

Q:  When you decided to join the business world at first, what kind of work were you looking for?

A job at a bank or think tank, I think. I didn't care much about the job description. Now that I think about it, I wanted my own profession. I wanted something that I could do for the rest of my life. So, I decided to give a try on various things and one such thing was job hunting.

To Yale and to Sweden

Q:  What made you decide to study in the U.S.?

I decided to study abroad when I entered the master's program at the University of Tokyo. By the time I was in my master's program, I had already decided that I wanted to pursue a doctorate to become a researcher. It connects to my earlier story, but my childhood days of moving a lot had developed a strong sense of curiosity for the outside world. I wanted to research human society and I felt that it would be a good idea to go abroad and see the world with my own eyes and study and understand it. I finally decided to go to the U.S. because I thought then that it was at the forefront of social research. I was curious about how research is done there. Another reason for wanting to study abroad was to study under a female economist. When I was studying master's there were no full-time female economists at the Univ. of Tokyo. I wanted someone to be my role model to help me think about my career and I heard that outside Japan the situation was quite different.

Here at Hitotsubashi and the IER, there are quite a few female economists, but at the Univ. of Tokyo, Economics Department still has the least number of female students even though it is increasing from the time I had been there, which was 17%.  By the way, the average female ratio of the students at the Univ. of Tokyo now is 20%. When I was there, it was 17% for the Economics Department.

Q:  How did you decide on Yale?

During my master's I was very interested in applied econometrics, and one of the most advanced universities in this field was Yale. But after I went there, I changed direction and my interest moved to gender-themed research.

Q:  What was the percentage of women at Yale?  P1070324.jpg

That is a very good question! In graduate school, it was actually not very high. When I opened the lid, the ratio was only between 20% to 25%. The average U.S. ratio is only about 30% too.  I learned about the actual situation in the U.S. after I went there, and furthermore, I learned that even globally there are very few women who study economics.

Q:  Was it the same in Sweden?

In Sweden, the female percentage of economists is about 40%, but it decreases as you climb the ladder. So, it was not just a problem peculiar to Japan. When you live abroad, what is good is that you learn that what you thought was a Japanese problem is not a problem peculiar only to Japan.

Around the time I went to Yale, which was in 2014, there was a strong feeling within the American economics community that they have to increase the number of women in the Economics Association. Some are starting to make a similar movement in Japan too.  The difference between Japanese and American economics departments is that in the U.S., the ratio of men and women is 50-50 at the undergraduate level, but as you move on to graduate school and teaching, the number of women decreases dramatically. The question is why women are dropping out along the way. In the case of Japan, the number of women studying economics is still small, with the University of Tokyo at the top. So what has to be achieved in Japan first is how to broaden the scope of the field and how we can attract more women to economics departments. Therefore, I think the root of the problem regarding the smallness of the ratio of women in Economics is a little different between Japan and Europe/America.

Q:  Is it possible that for Japanese girls at the high school stage, there is not enough information for them to consider economics as a career path for themselves?

That may be the case. When I was in high school, I didn't even know the word "Economics" well. I also heard that some avoid the department because there is mathematics for the entrance exam of the economics department. When applying to economics departments at private universities some schools require math and some do not, and at my high school as well as at others, we are advised that since girls are not good at math we should only apply to the university that does not require it, otherwise, we will lose out to boys. I was quite good at math so I did not follow that advice and applied to universities that required math. Such kind of advice from adults matters a lot to high school students.  I feel that the ability or inability of math is more of a personal thing and has little to do with gender. But the idea that women are not good at math from the beginning is quite deep-rooted and sinful. Advising girls not to take math exams so they can pass the entrance exam is a biased "kindness" and this might lead to shutting down their course in life in a way.

Q:  Those kinds of advice from teachers are heavy...

Yes, it is, isn't it? You would be made to internalize such a notion if adults advised you so. I couldn't make objectification of this problem until I entered the research world. There is a study in economics that compares children who receive such messages from adults with those who do not. This is an overseas study, but it found that students who were taught by teachers with a gender bias were less likely to continue in mathematics. And it also showed that it affects their future course and income as well. When I read this study, I thought that there was a connection between my own experience and what was observed in the world.

Q:  Are you saying that teachers outside Japan also tend to give that kind of advice? And where was this study made?

This is not only a Japanese phenomenon but seems to be the case all over the world. It[i] was an empirical study of Italy. Italy and Japan are said to be similar in many ways. It seems that in Italy like in Japan, there is a belief that boys are better in math or should do better. [i] Michela Carlana, Implicit Stereotypes: Evidence from Teachers' Gender Bias, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 134, Issue 3, August 2019, Pages 1163-1224, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjz008)

Q: What prompted you to move from the US to Sweden?

 There were many reasons but the strongest was because I was curious about what it would be like to live there! In North America, they have a batch job hunt for new Ph.D. graduates and I chose to go to Sweden because I knew a researcher there.  I had a good match and went to a university that was interested in my research. I am glad I did.

Q:  Was going back to Japan not your choice then?

 Yes, it wasn't.  I wanted to stay outside Japan a little bit longer and build up my research skills more. I could have stayed in the U.S., but I was also very interested in Europe. Although in Japan we often use the term "Europe and the U.S." as one group, after living in the states for six years I had come to understand that it was not so.  Also, as I had been researching gender inequality, I realized that Europe was moving quite ahead and that was especially so in Scandinavia. They were making great progress in gender disparity research so I wanted to put myself there and do research there.


Gender Disparity Research

Q:  Let me back up a bit. You chose to study gender when you were in the United States, didn't you? Why did you choose to do this research?

When I joined the Yale doctoral course, people around me seemed to find it so rare to meet a Japanese female researcher. I was asked by many people why Japan was so slow in adopting gender equality. Since there was no answer then, I decided to do this research on this subject by myself. I had originally been studying statistical methods and the like, so I decided to use them to try to answer questions that had not yet been answered. I think deep inside I was aware of the problem, but in Japan, I just took it as it is. But having lived outside Japan made me realize that I need to analyze the reason.

P1070327 (2).JPG

Q:  I am afraid, that this is a very basic question. Please let us know in which field of studies the gender disparity research is done.

It is broadly studied but mainly in sociology, politics, and psychology. I am afraid that it is still a new field in economics. This might lead to why not many people realize that it can be studied from an economic perspective. In economics, research points to gender-based ideas of what women should be like and what men should like. Such gender-based restrictions may be creating the "right person in the wrong place", and if this "right person in the wrong place" keeps existing the potential of the society will not be achieved.  It can be said that "the economics of gender disparity " uses gender inequality as a starting point to reveal the structure of "markets and institutions that are not allocating resources effectively" and to pursue what can change that structure

Q: Do you feel that it is advantageous to be in Sweden, where gender research is so advanced?

There are two advantages to doing research in Sweden. The first is that Sweden has a variety of administrative data and other high-quality data open to researchers, so it is an environment where high-quality experimental studies and data-based arguments can be made. Secondly, I am from a completely different environment having been raised in Japan and gained my Ph.D. in the States, so what Swedish people take for granted is not at all the norm for me, and I can use the awareness of issues that I developed in Japan to conduct research in Sweden.  For example, looking at the so-called "gender gap index", it is said that Japan is quite at the bottom layer of the index being in 120th[1] place, while Sweden is at the very top layer, the 5th. I know that there are some arguments regarding this index, but apart from it...I find myself rising from being at the bottom to the top in my life, living first in Japan, then the USA, and lastly Sweden. Being a woman is totally different depending on the society you are in. I have not changed, but the way I am treated in Sweden and the way I am treated in Japan are completely different. Through such an experience it made me aware that the problem of gender is not a personal problem but it is truly a social structural problem. I find my situation very interesting and this awareness has been the driving force of my research. [1] The numbers are of the time of the interview

Q:  What kind of difference have you noticed in the U.S.?

I felt that gender disparity in the U.S. was more similar to Japan than I had expected.

Q:  I felt that the U.S. was a quite macho country myself when I lived there. From a very young age, boys seemed to feel that "as a boy, I have to take care of the girls".  In Japan, it seemed to me that at school age boys do not act that bossy towards girls, but when they become adults suddenly men obviously seem to stand above women. This is gradually changing in recent years, but there still seems to be a tendency to view women as one rank below them. Also from the women's side, we know that we have to face change in certain phases of our lives, such as marriage and child-rearing, and these are still pretty difficult phases for Japanese women to overcome.

Yes, isn't it? In the States (or in some parts of the States, I should say...) there are feelings that boys are not allowed to cry in front of others. Also, the reason behind American men being so into muscle training might relate to this gender stereotype idea too.  
Sweden is a bit different in that regard. Since around the end of the 1960s, Sweden has been aggressively promoting a policy of gender equality, or the equal treatment of men and women regardless of gender.  The people of my generation are the second generation under such a policy.  I was very surprised to see that Swedish men take paternity leave on a regular basis...

Q:  In Japan, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was enacted in 1985, so we are 20 or 30 years behind. But even though Sweden has a long history, you found out that in some fields the percentage of female university faculty members is still in slow increase, is that right? 

That's right. It is sometimes described as a gender paradox. It refers to the correlation that countries with higher levels of gender equality, as measured by gender indices and other measures, have lower percentages of women in STEM fields. There is still a lot of academic debate to be done to find out the reasons and interpretations of this phenomenon.

Life as a Japanese Female Researcher in Sweden

Q:  Is Sweden more advanced than other Scandinavian countries over such matters? And what about other European countries such as France?

In Japanese, the word "Scandinavia" is often used as if it is one area, but when you live in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, the five Scandinavian countries are quite different from each other. For example, in the case of gender policy, no law mandates a quota system in Sweden. There is a history of political parties making policies within themselves and as they spread, others follow.  Because they have not made the quota system mandatory, Sweden finally had its own female prime minister just recently. Compared to other Scandinavian countries, that was very late. On the other hand, Norway and Iceland are consciously using quotas. Both of these approaches have resulted in high gender index, so it is interesting to learn that there are many different ways to achieve a single goal. As a Japanese, I am very interested in the Swedish approach because I feel that the Japanese do not favor a mandatory system. During this COVID period, the Japanese government did not mandate the lockdown and the COVID prevention rules but rather opted for "requests for self-restraint".  I think that in this sense, Japan is very similar to Sweden. They seem to be both a society based on requests and I feel that we are a bit similar in that sense, I think it would be quite good for a Japanese like me to learn from Sweden. But this might be a minority idea. Many people in Japan are trying to adopt the French system of parité. France is a country that decides by the majority in numbers, and I know that this works too, but I am not sure how much of that can be emulated in the Japanese culture. This is why I feel that Sweden is a very interesting place to study. I find it a good environment for gender disparity research too.

Q:  Is there anything you would like to do in the future, or anything else you would like to continue to do?

For the time being, as well as researching the situation in Japan, I would like to do research in Sweden, focusing on the theme of Swedish gender disparities. I want to dig up and study policies that were implemented in Sweden in the past. I would like to become a researcher who can talk about these issues in the two countries based on proper data. And I also need to keep on studying more to be a good researcher.

Q: Will you be staying in Sweden for the time being because you still have a lot to learn there?

Yes, I would like to stay there, if possible, for as long as I can!  But I don't know if it could be forever because I have my parents in Japan... 


Unforgettable Encounters, Unforgettable Words

Q:  Are there any unforgettable encounters, people, or words that have influenced you?

There are words! But first of all, I would like to talk about my advisor at Yale, Prof. Ebonya Washington. I respect her very much.

Q:  Didn't you have the option of remaining with her?    P1070325 (3).jpg

No, that is not possible in the American job-hunting system. Once you get your Ph.D., you have to leave the university. That is the way it works in the US. The research connection remains, though.

I was impressed by my advisor, the first woman economist I encountered. She teaches political economy and her studies are on racism and gender disparity. She is very strict but I was impressed by the fact that she was really supportive of her students. It wasn't racism, but when I first came to the U.S., I was often left alone because my English was still poor and I sometimes felt I was not taken seriously. I also struggled with a culture gap in terms of behavior, such as not being able to go up and speak out about my ideas. She understood me and treated me as an equal from the beginning. I also feel that it would have been difficult for a young scholar like me to continue my research without the help of such a person.

I consider myself very lucky to have met such a person, but at the same time, she had been a very strict teacher, who would immediately say "NO!"(smiles) to me if I came up with an idea that was not very interesting. But I could accept her denial and make corrections because I knew that her "No!" came from having understood and listened closely to my idea. I think there are not many researchers who can deal with people in that way, and I respect that.

Q:  Not everybody can get to meet such a wonderful teacher to help them cope with their new environment.  Do you have any advice for those who are going abroad?

If it is the language problem that is holding you, the biggest enemy is yourself. We often are too unconfident about the skill of other languages and our desire to speak perfectly is too big, which often leads to failure. What we need is a lot of practical experience. This is what I learned through my experience.

Till I went abroad to study, I was not used to asking for something I did not have. I didn't want to tell others what I wanted or what I wanted to do because it felt so selfish. Such a kind of attitude was planted deep in me. But in the US or Sweden, the opposite seemed true. Many people are more willing to speak out about what they want to do or ask for something they want. For example, I receive requests from my local students, asking me to be their mentor or to teach them about something. Such experience has made me realize that it is not at all bad to approach others actively.

Recently, a person I met at the Women in Economics meeting in Scandinavia gave me a piece of advice. She told me, "No one will notice or appreciate you for your thinking that you might be bothersome if you talk to them, or that you should refrain from approaching them.  All that is happening is that you are losing your chance! So why don't you just go and ask? No matter what happens, at worst, they will just say no, so don't be afraid to ask for help. " When I was told that, I wished I had been given that advice earlier.

Q: Did the person give you such advice because you are Japanese?

She told me that lots of women tend to be that way. She is a German working in Denmark. Her words struck me as true. Do women tend to think that approaching others from their side might make them a nuisance?

One more thing, this was a piece of advice given to me by another mentor I had at Yale. He thought that I was too quiet, and he was worried about me.  He told me to speak out if I didn't understand, and if I wanted to argue, I should argue.  And to that, I answered him "yes, I should do so." But he was frustrated by my answer! He told me that I tend to think about things in "should" or "should not".  He told me to think by " What I want to do" and "What I don't want to do". It struck me like lightning.

His exact words were, " It's not about what you should do, but it's about what you want to do."  I was told that when I just started studying at Yale.

Q:  Is he saying that it is okay to put your feelings first about what you want to do?

Feelings, or should we say 'needs' inside ourselves? To fulfill these needs, we think and choose how we should act and what we should ask of others. Of course, in the process of doing so, there are times when we have to consider the needs of others. But the starting point is "what I want". Until I studied abroad, I was weak in this area, and I think I mixed up "what I wanted" and "what society wanted from me".

Q:  It seems to me that when you use the word "should", you are already concerned about what people think of you, you are already passive, and when you use the word "want", you no longer care what people might think of you.

That's right. Going back to that, I think I absorbed ideas like 'because I'm a woman I should/shouldn't do things', and 'this is not feminine', like a sponge and making them into my blood and flesh. Coming to the US, I was forced to take a fresh look at this. I have actually spoken to another person who was also studying in the US, and she said that she felt like she was falling apart for a moment, and I really sympathized with her. When you seriously question what you have always thought was right and what you have always thought you should do, you sometimes have a moment when you don't know what to do and your identity is shaken.

Q:  On the other hand, I also feel the rigor of having to make it up as you go along when you always have to pursue "want"...what the Yale professor said is very profound.

Yes, it is. And if you are not trained from a young age, you may be at a loss. It may seem that in a society like Japan, where you always feel the eyes of others watching you, life seems tight, but on the other hand, it may be a society where you don't have to make your own decisions every time.

Q:   Please tell us about the unforgettable words you mentioned earlier.

'Now there is a bend in it. I don't know what lies around the bend, but I'm going to believe that the best does. It has a fascination of its own, that bend,'. It was from L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and my mother gave it to me at the time I was going to the US to study. She wanted to cheer me up because I tend to shy away from new things.

 Q:  Your mother is marvelous! Was Anne of Green Gables your favorite book too?

No, mine was a Little House on the Prairie. It's funny to think now that when I was reading that book, I believed America was a place like that!  


To People who would like to be a researcher

Q:  Could you tell us about the significance of going abroad for young researchers who are thinking about pursuing a career in research?

First and mostly, your perspective will broaden. You learn that things you normally take for granted are not taken for granted. On the other hand, you realize that the problems you think are 'peculiar to Japan, hence Japan must change' problems, aren't just our problems. Surprisingly, many of them are common problems you find all over the world. I think that going abroad is to go through the process of relativizing and objectifying what you usually say or think. If you have a chance, I would highly recommend it whether it is for the short term or a long term. Also, one of the good things about going abroad is that you become a 'minority' in that society, an extreme minority, and what you can see from that position may be significant. It's like becoming aware of both the dark and the good sides of society. That may be a good thing.

Q:  Besides going abroad, is there anything else you would like to tell people who are thinking of pursuing a career in research?

May I advertise about a group I made with other Japanese women researchers?  Because there are so few women who are interested in pursuing a career in economics, we recently created a group called the "Economics Ph.D. Cafe β" which is a gathering of young Japanese female researchers using a kind of online group called Slack. If you are interested in joining the group, please contact us and feel free to ask questions since it is a group for young female researchers. The purpose of the group is to create a place where you do not feel isolated and where there is someone nearby to ask questions when you wish to. Especially when studying abroad, you will usually find only one Japanese woman per school, so it is easy to feel isolated. We started this group to find a way to prevent this from happening. Currently, the group is limited to women and non-binary people, but we are considering whether to include men in the future. Rather than discussing gender issues, this group is currently a place where people can talk about their problems. It is a place to discuss issues such as child-rearing, job hunting, life planning, etc. It is difficult to meet face-to-face, but we feel that online makes it easy. We hope that women researchers who are starting to find their research interesting would not give up their careers after facing such problems.

(*Contact information is provided at the end of this interview.)


Dr. Okuyama, thank you for your precious time!

Dr. Okuyama's interview was very interesting as it is intertwined with the issues of women in general and not just us Japanese women. We sincerely hope that Dr. Okuyama will continue to be active not only in her research but also as a good advisor to other female researchers in Japan who will follow in her path.

Interviewer: Michie Kano and Eriko Yoshida, CEI Office (Recorded on February 16, 2022)


☆For Japanese-speaking women who are considering a career as an economist~ ☆

"Economics Ph.D. Cafe β" (in Japanese only)
About the group:
Participation form:

Recommended websites by Dr. Okuyama


- CSWEP https://www.aeaweb.org/about-aea/committees/cswep/newsletters

- Women in Economics podcast https://www.stlouisfed.org/timely-topics/women-in-economics


-  Women in European Economics (Data) https://www.women-economics.com/index.html

- EEA Women in Economics https://www.eeassoc.org/committees/wine

- CEPR (UK) WE_ARE Women in Economics (seminar series) https://cepr.org/event/weare-seminar-series

- Nordic Women in Economics (event announcement etc.)   https://www.nhh.no/en/research-centres/women/


-Economic Society of Australia: A Women in Economics https://esawen.org.au/

Gender Economics Workshop held here is easy to attend and very interesting for people interested in gender matters. It is open to everybody: https://esawen.org.au/content/858/australian-gender-economics-workshop