For a country which granted suffrage to its women in 1934, the economic participation of females in Turkey is alarmingly low. Rather than increasing over recent decades, the employment of women has fallen as a result of economic, demographic and cultural factors.

A joint study in September 2009 by the World Bank and Turkey’s State Planning Organisation (SPO) reveals that the share of women participating in the labour force dropped from 34 per cent in 1988 to 24 per cent in early 2009. By 2006, Turkey registered fewer economically active women than any country in Europe, Central Asia, or the OECD as a whole.

This trend can be explained by a shift of rural Anatolian families moving to the cities. Men have uprooted their kin in an effort to secure better-paid jobs in manufacturing and services.

“The demographic shift is associated with a decline in the participation of women in the workforce. Rural women do not have the education or skills to earn incomes high enough to justify taking work in the cities,” says Ulrich Zachau, the World Bank country director for Turkey. Women who used to labour as unpaid family workers in agriculture then find few attractive work opportunities.

This is because women with poor levels of education will only be considered for positions where the pay is low and working conditions are harsh, in unregistered textile factories for example. Accepting such employment often makes little financial sense, particularly considering the high cost of childcare and household help.

Cultural factors also come into play. Aynur Bektas, chief executive of Hey Group, a textiles manufacturer, and president of the Women Entrepreneurs Board at the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges in Turkey, points out that women from more conservative and less educated families need permission from their spouses or family elders to be able to work.

“As many as 98 per cent of polled women say that their most important duty is home-making, childcare and providing rest for the family,” Mrs Bektas says.

The lack of opportunities for many women in Turkey derives from the fact that girls tend to benefit less than boys from education.

“The attendance of females and males in primary education is almost the same. However, more girls tend to drop out over the course of secondary education,” says Mr Zachau. This is partly because poorer families, particularly from the east and south-east of Turkey, tend to prioritise the education of their sons over those of their daughters.

The government points out that illiteracy among women has come down – from about 40 per cent to 20 per cent in the past two decades. In this period, the number of women with more than primary education almost doubled. Moreover, about 6 per cent of women had a university education in 2006, up from about 2 per cent in 1988. Approximately 30 per cent of Turkish lawyers, doctors and professors are female.

In addition to law, medicine and academia, information technology is a sector where prospects are good. “If women have the right education, skills and motivation, they can probably advance faster than in other vocations,” says Aysegul Ildeniz, Intel’s regional director for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa.

Women have also made impressive inroads into management. “According to the 2010 Corporate Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, Turkey is one of the first three countries, along with Finland and Denmark, displaying the highest percentage of female chief executives among OECD and Bric countries,” says Umit Boyner, president of the Board of Directors of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association.

Mrs Boyner, who is also a founder and board member of the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey, points out that 6 per cent of large companies in Turkey are chaired by women compared with 3 per cent in the EU.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has in the meantime set its sights on increasing equality and the participation of women in the economy. Turkey’s Ninth Development Plan, which runs between 2007 and 2013, aims to increase female labour force participation to 29 per cent. Such a rise would result in a 15 per cent reduction in poverty levels, according to World Bank-SPO calculations.

A government programme to subsidise employers’ social security contributions for up to five years when recruiting young women should help the shift. As a further measure, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised in a May circular to monitor more closely compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

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