From Social Compact to Legal Responsibility: Protecting the Rights of Women in Turkey’s Corporate Culture

Recently, the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) published the Turkish translation of its report, An Assessment of Women’s Rights in Corporate Compliance Programs in Turkey. This in-depth report conducted by PAR Research and Consultancy studies corporate compliance programs in Turkey and evaluates their impact on women’s rights in the Turkish private sector.

This study found that comprehensive women’s workplace compliance frameworks in Turkey are primarily limited to large, multinational corporations that are typically based in Istanbul. In medium to small-sized companies, policy frameworks for women’s protections remain limited. This study also found that in Turkey, protecting women’s rights is often treated as a matter of social responsibility or public relations without any legal weight, resulting in unenforceable compliance frameworks.

On paper, Turkish law addresses a variety of protections for women in the workforce. For example, the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s Equal Opportunities Commission guarantees the principle of no discrimination and declares that maternity leave is a right of every female worker. However, gaps in this legislation have led to further discrimination for many women in the workplace. Women who take maternity leave are promoted at much lower levels than men, for instance. One reason for this is that performance evaluations often measure the amount of time that women have worked and taking maternity leave has a negative impact on that metric. Additionally, the legally guaranteed ability for women to work part-time to care for a child has led employers to be hesitant to hire women who have children because companies often view maintaining a potentially part-time worker as a financial burden.

These current gaps in Turkish labor law and its implementation mirror similar issues found in the United States before modern workplace protection policies were developed. From 1908 to 1970, the US Supreme Court upheld the right of workplaces to impose different requirements regarding the number of hours that women and men were expected to work. Although women were protected from exploitative hours in factories, these restrictions reinforced the idea that women should stay in the home as mothers and caretakers. Furthermore, policies limiting the hours that women could work discouraged many companies from hiring women because their availability was comparatively limited.

In the United States, the Equal Pay Act, Civil Rights Act, and Pregnancy Discrimination Act were passed in the 1960s and 1970s. These acts reduced discrimination and increased protections of the rights of women and minorities in business. A sustained campaign took place during these years to level the playing field for those most vulnerable. Changes such as the development and implementation of these acts helped to create a more robust and productive workforce and private sector. The landscape did not change overnight, but constant advocacy led to a gradual mindset shift that enabled women to access more freedoms and rise to a higher position in society. In the Turkish context, similar changes in law accompanied with consistent advocacy to promote a general mindset shift is imperative to enable women to access more economic opportunities and social freedoms.

The report also points to other challenges that Turkish women face in the private sector, including discrimination, harassment, violence, and a general tolerance for a misogynist culture. The importance of working to ensure gender equality, as well as decent labor conditions and economic opportunities for women, is recognized in the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Globally, countries that ensure that women have comprehensive protections in the workplace have seen a higher percentage of women participate the workforce and receive promotions to management positions.

Currently, more Turkish women are attempting to enter the workforce as families grapple with the country’s economic downturn and its adverse impact on family income. In order to maximize long-term business success, Turkish companies must shift their mindset regarding protecting women’s rights in the workplace. This shift will require the Turkish private sector to add a legal framework as part of its compliance measures to strengthen its commitment to protecting women’s rights in the workplace and provide legal avenues for support against harassment, discrimination, and more. The private sector’s enhanced commitment to protecting women’s rights will also help to allay public concerns, particularly in a culture where families are exceedingly protective of women, by instilling confidence that the workplace is a safe place for them.

The new landscape of corporate compliance, which has expanded beyond anti-corruption measures to include adherence to principles regarding social impact, provides a platform to foster this shift. While the internal debate over the strength of the country’s legal framework to protect women’s rights continues, private sector leaders and other stakeholders, including civil society, can take the lead in raising the bar to facilitate the safe and equitable inclusion of women into Turkey’s corporate workforce.

An overwhelming number of women interviewed in CIPE’s report recommended a collective action approach. Turkish enterprises can champion promoting and protecting women’s rights by incorporating specific articles, including gender equality and protection from gender-based violence, into corporate compliance programs.

This recommendation can build on successful precedent. Over the past several years, CIPE’s partnership with the Turkish private sector has resulted in an ongoing robust collective action approach to combat supply-side corruption by incentivizing ethical and transparent business practices. As a result, sectoral associations such as the miners’ and shipbuilders’ associations have adopted international standard anticorruption compliance programs to increase their competitive edge in the global market. Corporate leaders in Turkey can adopt a similar unified approach to develop comprehensive, legally enforceable workplace protections. These protections will ensure that Turkish women are supported in every workplace and face far less discriminatory obstacles that stand in the way of achieving their goals.