In the past several decades, Turkish women have made important strides toward gender equality. Near-equal numbers of girls and boys now receive primary education, virtually closing the education gap. Women hold approximately half of all academic positions and comprise a third of engineers and lawyers. These gains are cause for celebration, but they only tell half the story of the quest for gender equality in Turkey. Women still hold little political power, and they struggle to maintain a presence in the labor market. With only 32 percent of working-age women employed full- or part-time, Turkey ranks last in women’s workforce participation among all 35 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Moreover, women account for just 15 percent of Turkish parliamentarians and hold only one cabinet-level position.
Pinpointing the cause of women’s absence from Turkey’s economic and political arenas is no simple task. The country has legislation in place to promote women’s equality and ease the hurdles that women face when entering the labor force. However, a combination of gaps in legal implementation and lingering traditional perceptions of women belonging in a domestic role hold women back from obtaining higher rates of employment. While most men are not opposed to their wives seeking employment outside the home, many still regard childcare and chores as a woman’s duty. After marriage, the hours in a day that women spend doing unpaid work in the home increases by 49 percent, while that of men decreases by 38 percent. Many Turkish women find it difficult to balance work with the childcare and household responsibilities that typically fall on their shoulders. Based on a study compiled by the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation (TURKONFED), 1 million Turkish women left their jobs between 2010 and 2015 to care for children, while over 100,000 women left their jobs to care for elderly family members. Daycare and other childcare alternatives are expensive and hard to find, and many women ultimately decide that dropping out of the workforce to care for children is a more economically viable choice. Turkish law stipulates that companies with over 150 female employees offer on-site daycare services, but many businesses opt to pay a fine rather than extend this legally required benefit to working moms.
When women are excluded from the workforce, employers miss out on a wealth of untapped skills. Women’s employment and entrepreneurship have the potential to generate new income, innovative ideas, and drive economic growth. But more importantly, addressing the attitudinal and legal challenges to women’s empowerment allows them to become stewards of their own destiny and claim the rights inherent to their humanity. Women want the freedom to determine the division of domestic labor and paid work on their own terms. A 2017 Gallup survey found that nearly nine out of 10 Turkish women would prefer some sort of paid employment opportunity over solely staying at home. Reforms in both policy and attitudes are necessary for women to pursue the careers they desire. These issues ultimately tie into democracy and governance because women’s economic and political liberation reinforce one another. When women play a role in policymaking, they can influence laws that affect the way they work and run businesses; meanwhile, when women achieve financial security, they are better equipped to represent their own political interests.
Education is a transformative vehicle for increasing women’s participation in the workforce. Women who graduate from college are more likely to return to work after having children, and they experience higher rates of employment in general: 71 percent of women university graduates in Turkey are employed, compared to 22 percent of women with a primary school education. Fortunately, an increasing number of Turkish women are going to college, which could eventually drive up the women’s labor force participation rate. Early childhood education also has positive impacts on mothers’ careers; when children attend preschool, mothers are relieved from some daytime care responsibilities. However, two-thirds of Turkish families are unable to afford preschool, and nearly half of families do not have a preschool nearby. By adding just one year of preschool in Turkey, women’s labor force participation could rise by 9 percent.
Exploring alternative options for childcare presents another solution for encouraging women to enter the workforce. Turkish law mandates that employers provide 16 weeks paid maternity leave, plus six months unpaid leave if requested. However, paternity or parental leave laws could help to shift cultural expectations toward a more equitable division of labor at home. Meanwhile, emergent policies offer some support for families relying on alternative caretakers. For example, a European Union-funded initiative in Istanbul and Ankara gives stipends to working mothers who hire a socially-insured nanny. Another new initiative gives grandmothers who care for children 400 Turkish lira (approximately $100 U.S.) per month. However, this initiative has drawn criticism for only applying to families in which mothers work part-time and failing to encourage peer socialization at daycare facilities. Nonetheless, policy changes that help mothers balance work and home life would encourage more women to participate in the workforce and contribute to Turkey’s economy. Similarly, changes in attitude toward the role of women in society can empower women to choose the life they deem most fulfilling for themselves.
Erinn Benedict is a Program Assistant for the Middle East and North Africa at the Center for International Private Enterprise.