Published on Let's Talk Development

Low Female Participation in the Workforce: Solving the Turkish Dilemma

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During his July 19-22 visit to Turkey, World Bank president Robert B. Zoellick put his finger on a key issue, female participation in the Turkish workforce. It wasn't a coincidence that Zoellick commended Turkey's remarkable economic performance and spoke of the gender-gap in Turkey concurrently. The Turkish case presents a dilemma. Despite Turkey's successes in macroeconomic stability and poverty-reduction, the participation of women in economic life is abysmal. Turkey was among the lowest scoring countries in the 2010 World Economic Forum Gender Equality Gap Report and scored 126th out of 134th in the UNDP Gender Inequality Index. What is more worrisome is that women's economic participation rates have been declining in the last decade. The latest figures stand at 25 percent, significantly lower than the OECD average.

Female workforce Participation Rates- Turkey vs. Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

Source: "Turkey's Greatest Untapped Potential: Women": Turkish State Planning Organization and World Bank Presentation, 2009.

Why is women's labor force participation so low and declining? Two recent studies supported by the World Bank, “Turkey's Greatest Untapped Potential: Women (2009) and the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK)’s “Women Employment in Turkey" (2010), give us helpful clues.

According to these studies, urbanization is a key contributor. Women, many of whom are unpaid agricultural laborers in rural areas, stay home when they move into urban areas citing reasons such as family pressures, security, harsh working conditions, and low-wages. This is particularly the case for those with little or no education. While young men, even in the rural areas, are transitioning from agricultural jobs into better-paid jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors, women are staying home. Why? Lack of affordable childcare. According to the TUBITAK study, women in Istanbul who decide to work have to pay between 500 and 600 Turkish Lira per month (about $350-400) just for childcare. They also have to pay for additional household help.

Among other contributing factors for low women participation in the workforce are "harassment" and "gossiping." In the interviews conducted for the studies, many women said that "men often made sexual gestures towards women employees and that women did not know how to protect themselves against sexual harassment." Rumors were also considered a concern even for educated women. TUBITAK study quotes a female engineer who despite being extremely qualified for a particular job was not hired. Apparently, the employer said, "I am looking for someone who can have business trips with me. But how could I go with a female worker? It can lead to rumors."

The new initiative, Women Gender Equality Certificate, that President Zoellick announced jointly with Turkey's prominent women's organization, KAGIDER, is a highly encouraging step towards overcoming some of these challenges. The initiative attempts to bring new rules and regulations into practice to alleviate gender discrimination in areas such as  promotion, training, and working conditions. There have been other notable initiatives such as subsidizing employers’ social security contributions for newly hired women for up to five years. However, cases and stories from the field indicate that focusing solely on employers only solves half the problem. To encourage greater participation of women in the labor force, there needs to be:

1-affordable childcare opportunities,
2 more focus and awareness of deeper socio-cultural issues of the Turkish society that is still struggling to balance conservative values with realities of a global era, and
3-educational  programs targeting broader segments of society to promote men-women co-existence in the workforce.

Whatever one's beliefs and values may be, when it comes to equality in the workforce, excluding women is something Turkey just cannot afford. The reason is simple. As Diego Angel-Urdinola, one of the authors of the World Bank study so succinctly explains: In the same way that you wouldn’t play football without a full team, countries can’t compete globally if they don’t use the full potential of all their citizens.

The preceding post is an edited version of "Gender Equality as Smart Economics: Solving the Turkish Dilemma," which appeared originally on


Asli Gurkan

Social Development Specialist

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