Women Leaders Index Gender Equality Case Study: Turkey

By on 05/09/2017 | Updated on 05/03/2018

Every country has a different story to tell on women leaders in the civil service. Interviewing experts on the findings of our Women Leaders Index – which tracks the proportion of female senior civil servants, national politicians and business leaders in G20 and EU member states – we’ve examined the agenda’s achievements and the remaining obstacles in 11 national case studies

Although not at the very bottom of the table, Turkey deserves special mention as the only G20 country to have seen the proportion of women in its senior civil service falling year after year.

From a low base figure of 13.6% women in 2013, Turkey’s metric has drifted steadily downwards and is now at just 8.8%.

Turkey is significantly behind most G20 countries when it comes to women’s rights. There is no absence of legislation seeking to improve gender equality, but societal attitudes have not kept pace; indeed, the current government has consistently emphasised Islam and traditional values. In 2011, for example, the government rebranded the Ministry of State for Women’s Affairs as the Ministry of Families and Social Policies, a move seen by women’s activists as a retrograde step.

On the positive side, the ruling AK party has made efforts to ensure that employment rules don’t discriminate against religious women. Under the avowedly secular policies of Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, women were not allowed to wear headscarves in the police, military, universities, or public sector roles – a rule that preserved the separation of state and faith, but presented very observant and traditional Muslim women with a de facto employment bar. Then, four years ago, AK permitted headscarves in universities and public service; and the government has just passed a law enabling headscarved women to serve in the police and military.

However, within many traditional Muslim families women are strongly discouraged from pursuing careers – at least after marriage, when most are expected to concentrate on bringing up children. So these apparent freedoms, whilst allowing a few strongly religious women into civil service roles, have done little to help women into senior jobs; and the current cultural currents are flowing strongly in the opposite direction.

The purges of the civil service and other public authorities such as schools and universities which followed last year’s coup attempt have not helped matters. Tens of thousands of state employees suspected of being sympathetic to US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, accused by Turkey of masterminding the putsch, were removed from their jobs.

The latest rise in unemployment, showing jobless rates up nearly two percentage points to 12.7%, is due in part to the mass sackings of more liberal academics and public sector workers – and the increase in unemployed women is twice that of men.

Meanwhile, religious conservatives continue to push back against the equality agenda. An International Women’s Day event in March this year at an Istanbul university was attacked by an armed group chanting religious slogans. Murders of women have been rising at an alarming rate. Women have a long road ahead before they reach equality with men here.

According to George Dyson, head of research at the Centre for Turkish Studies in the UK: “The government has been facing a lot of attacks on a lot of sides, and has been using the civil service to shore up support and get interest groups on side. That could be one explanation for why you have more men in higher positions.

“Now the government looks like it is repeating that with other groups [of public sector workers] following the purges, installing ultra-nationalists who are more likely to be men as well.”

Dyson says that in Turkey, successive governments have always faced the problem of trying to secure the loyalty of the civil service. “There’s a pretence at keeping the civil service independent and non-political, but the problem is that previous governments will have stacked the civil service with their own people; so despite all the best intentions of the next governments, if they want to get things done they have to put their own people in. It’s a vicious circle.”

Asked for a comment on Turkey’s performance, Onur Dinçer – a topical expert from the Ministry of Family and Social Policies – admitted that “the rate of women in the senior level resolution position in the bureaucracy is low”, with 89% men and only 11% women.  According to data from the State Personnel Administration, in February 2017 there was one female deputy secretary, six general directors, 34 deputy general directors (10%) and 369 department heads (14%).

Recent amendments to the Civil Servants Act sought to enhance parental leave and part-time working entitlements for parents. For example, breastfeeding ‘leave’ for new mothers was raised from 1.5 hours a day to three hours for the first six months, and both mothers and fathers were given the option of taking up to two years of unpaid leave. However, these rights come with the proviso that “the time of unpaid leaves due to maternity leaves shall be considered in the degree and rank improvements of state officials”.

Early in 2016, arrangements were also introduced covering part-time employment for working parents. State employees were entitled to work part-time until the child reached the primary school age – though only one parent can benefit from this for each child.

Women fare poorly at the political level in Turkey, too. In the November 2015 elections 81 female MPs were elected, comprising just 15% of the legislature – though this is a significant increase from the 4.4% in 2002. The 15 years of AK government have seen only seven female ministers, three of whom were ministers for family and social policies. Throughout the entire 90-year history of democratic Turkey, including the AK administration, just 20 ministers have been women. The pipeline of women active in local government leadership is not heartening either: currently, just three out of 30 metropolitan mayors are women, and 40 out of 1,381 town mayors.

That said, Dyson adds that by some measures the situation for women in Turkey has improved notably over the last decade: literacy and labour participation rates have risen, along with legal protections and rights. By 2014, figures showed that 30.3% of women were employed, compared with 23.4% ten years earlier. Between 2013 and 2017, the proportion of Turkey’s small business owners who were women rose by 12% to 15%. In addition, the AK Party has implemented laws to improve property rights for women, and men are no longer officially heads of households.

Dyson says that the ruling party does try to engage with women’s rights issues, but its efforts are undermined by a “hardcore conservatism towards the role of women in family life and public life.” It may be some time before Turkey turns around the decline in female senior civil servants, and rejoins the rest of the G20 in making progress on gender equality.

Turkey trails the G20 average on every metric in our Index, with particular disparities in ministerial roles and among senior civil servants. On the latter measure, the country is going backwards: in 2013 its 13.6% score put it comfortably ahead of the average among the six countries at the bottom of the table, but it’s now half a point behind the average for that group.


Click here for the full results of Global Government Forum’s 2016-17 Women Leaders Index

Or click through to our case studies on Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico and the UK.

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

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