The success of Turkey's leading businesswomen has long stood in stark contrast to Turkey's image as a largely patriarchal society. Yet nevertheless, this is more the exception than the rule, with women still struggling to move up the ladder, let alone reach the top. Now though, with Ankara knocking on Europe's door, debate about equality of opportunity for women seems more pertinent than ever.
A society where traditional values prevail has not prevented certain high flyers from marking their ground in a male-dominated business environment. Managing director and founder of PAN air and sea freight, Gulriz Kantek, is a prime example. Having built her company up from the ground, she now heads one of the most reputable logistics companies in Turkey. Others have succeeded in working their way up the promotion ladder too, in spite of the odds. Aysegul Ildeniz, for instance, who is now regional director of Turkey, the Middle East and Africa for Intel, launched her career without the financial wherewithal and contacts that so often facilitate advancement.
Importantly, the prospects of advancement and promotion can to a large extent be dependent on the industry at hand. "Only in a high-tech sector such as ours", says Ildeniz, "where the employees tend to be Western educated and oriented, do you find a larger number of female managers." No coincidence then that management positions for Xerox, Apple and SAS have been occupied by women over recent years in Turkey. The trend can also be explained by the fact that such companies tend to be foreign owned.
But the most important factor accounting for the success of the majority of Turkey's big-hitting women has been family, with the majority of Turkey's female executives having reached their positions in family enterprises. This of course is not to deny the business acumen or educational achievements of these individuals. Guler Sabanci most famously headed the tyre and reinforcements division of Sabanci Holding with much success prior to assuming control of the enterprise following the death of her uncle in early 2004. Under her leadership, the division was able to grow into a multi-regional heavyweight operating in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. And now, with a string of successes under her belt and the top seat in her grasp, Sabanci ranks seventh amongst the top 25 businesswomen in Europe for 2004.
Individual success stories though are less helpful in highlighting the obstacles that women often face in the business world. "Turkey gives women equal rights, but we do not encourage them to be managers," Ildeniz related. The concept of having to report to women managers essentially remains something of a problem for many men in the public and private sector.
This of course is not to deny the important role of women in the Turkish economy. The country has high percentages of female educators, bankers and lawyers, according to author and journalist Ayse Kulin. In her publication Kardelenler: Cagdas Turkiye'nin Cagdas Kizlari, August 2004, she states that Turkish women constitute as much as 60% of college professors and instructors, 50% of finance and banking employees, 50% of pharmacists, 40% of judges, lawyers and prosecutors combined, as well as 30% of Turkey's doctors.
Such figures also suggest that certain professions are more open to women than others - particularly in the traditionally female realm of education. However, percentages alone can be misleading, as the proportion of women in senior positions within such sectors is generally much lower.
Such figures also fail to highlight the structural rigidities that hinder women from assuming a larger section of overall national employment. The fact that restriction quotas for women still exist in certain professions, along with continuous inequalities in job recruitment, is plain to see. The recruitment of judges and prosecutors is a case in point. A quota was imposed on the selection of women judges and prosecutors between 1980 and1990, and even today the number of women prosecutors and judges sits at just 19.7% of the total: fortunately, this is a figure that does not apply to lawyers in general.
Such constraints have helped account for the imbalance between males and females in different professions. According to a 2004 publication by Turkish women's rights group KADER, three-quarters of working women are currently employed in agriculture, with as little as 9.7% employed in the industrial sector and 18.1% in the service sector. Conversely, a far more balanced distribution applies to men: with 33.8% in agriculture, 25.4% in industry and 40.8% in services.
The trend has also been reflected in the overall level of national employment. According to figures from the United Nations, Turkey's labour force participation rate amounts to 48.3% for 2003. Women, however, make up a mere 26.6% of this total, compared with 70.4% for men. Astonishing perhaps that women, who constitute just under half of the population, constitute one-quarter of the overall national workforce.
To characterise this dynamic purely in terms of discriminatory practices of course would be a distortion. Rural-urban migration has a lot to account for in the size of Turkey's female working force today, with women hit particularly hard by the demographic shift. This trend moreover has shown little sign of abating since it commenced in the 1950s. According to figures from the State Institute of Statistics (DIE) women's participation in the labour force shrunk from 72% in 1955 to 27.9% in 1999. The fact that 60% of working women are engaged in agriculture even today only goes to show the importance of rural activities as a share of overall employment for Turkish women.
Underlining much of the debate has been the question of education. At every level females are under-represented relative to their male counterparts. Otherwise expressed, Turkey enjoys a literacy rate of 81.1% for women versus 95.7% for males, according to the United Nations Population Fund in 2003. Little surprise either, given that women in many regions in Turkey continue to be hobbled by cultural conservatism, with traditional roles taking precedence over personal development - and education in particular.
Hence the regional variation of illiteracy levels in Turkey. According to the Ministry of Education in 2003, illiteracy for women in the south-east hit 39%, versus 21% in Anatolia and 21% in the Black Sea region.
Of course, Turkey performs admirably if judged in a Middle Eastern regional context. The literacy rate of women in Iran is 63%, 45% in Iraq and 54% in Syria according to the UN. But these are not standards that Turkey wishes to compare itself to. Rather, it looks to those of say, Greece and Georgia, where literacy for women stands at 94% and 97% respectively. Now, with local NGOs and the state trying to narrow the gap, the future is looking decidedly rosier for Turkey's rural women. A joint girls' education campaign launched in 2003 by the Ministry of Education and UN is looking promising in this regard. But changing the mindset of family heads will inevitably take effort and time.
Analysts however argue that women need to enjoy equal political representation if they are to stand on an equal footing to men in Turkish society. But this concept remains truly elusive. Out of 550 deputies in parliament, only 19 are women - equivalent to just 3.5%. Even less impressive are the total number of female mayors: with only 25 women out of 3234 in total. Thus, in 2002, Turkey ranked second before last in terms of women represented in parliament for all Council of Europe countries. With even less women represented in Ankara these days, Turkey's elite clearly have some thinking to do if they wish to even the economic, social and political playing fields.
This is not to suggest that there has been an absence of initiatives in the political arena. However, attempts by the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) to incorporate affirmative action in the government's constitutional package came to little avail in May 2004 thanks to a rejection by Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies. Meanwhile, the state minister for women and family affairs, Guldal Aksit, claimed that affirmative action for women was more urgently needed in the business world than in politics.
Turkey has nevertheless been experiencing a positive momentum from the EU debate. Women's groups see the prospect of EU membership as a vehicle for possible change.
"The EU process has had an enormous effect on us," according to Devran Melik, a lawyer and head of a local women's rights group. "Women are waking up." Such local NGOs as KADER and Ka-Mer are sure to harness Europe's attention, particularly as Brussels identifies the need for harmonisation in equal pay, equal treatment in employment, maternity leave as well as compulsory and vocational social security themes - all of which are issues of local concern.
All things considered, Turkey certainly has the framework to implement greater equality of opportunity between men and women thanks to the state's secularist principles. This is not to deny progress over the years. Positive steps have been taken since the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985, and the establishment at home of the General Directorate on the Status and Problems of Women in 1990.
But the rift between women's rights in theory and actual implementation remains troubling. While there is no denying the impressive number of women academics, instructors or employees in the financial sector, a real free-flow of women up the business ranks and into politics can only come about with more far reaching social change.