Talking Turkey

21 May 13
As the solitary woman in Turkey’s Government, Fatma Sahin is well-placed to comment on the country’s progress toward greater gender equality. With the country’s economic growth accelerating and its global footprint on the up, are Turkey’s women also poised for a similar surge forward? Ernst & Young’s Tauno Olju finds out

By Tauno Olju | 21 May 2013

As the solitary woman in Turkey’s Government, Fatma Sahin is well-placed to comment on the country’s progress toward greater gender equality. With the country’s economic growth accelerating and its global footprint on the up, are Turkey’s women also poised for a similar surge forward? Ernst & Young’s Tauno Olju finds out

Fatma Sahin knows from personal experience how challenging it can be for a woman to climb the career ladder in Turkey. “I worked as an engineer in the private sector before I got involved in politics,” she recalls. “I struggled with the notion of ‘Can a woman be an engineer?’ Nothing comes free or easily. You have to work — and work hard!”

It’s a mission statement that might easily be applied to Turkey as a whole. Having overcome a series of political and economic challenges, the country is now enjoying a period of stable and solid economic growth and with more to come; its economy is set to grow at least 5% each year for the next 25 years, according to Ernst & Young’s Rapid-Growth Markets Forecast. Partly this growth can be attributed to its geographic location as the junction of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. This location, together with a huge domestic market and stable macroeconomic policy, has enabled it to become the 18th largest economy in the world in terms of GDP.

But has this economic progress been mirrored by advances in the area of gender diversity? It doesn’t appear so. Ernst & Young’s Worldwide Index of Women as Public Sector Leaders found that just 13.6% of its public sector leaders are women — similar to other newly emerging economies such as Argentina and Mexico. And the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2011 ranked Turkey 122 out of 135 countries, second to the bottom in the category of upper-middle income countries. Clearly, there remains some work to be done.

When asked what she thinks are the main reasons behind the low number of women in leadership positions in the Turkish public sector, Sahin, Minister for Family and Social Policies since 2001, prefers to focus on what she predicts will be a more positive future. “We believe that we will be more successful than we were in the past,” she says. “Take the proportion of women who hold upper management positions, for example, which varies among countries. The world average is 8%, with 9% for the EU, 5% for the US, but it’s 12% in Turkey. And in academia, the number of professors and assistant professors is above the world average rate as well. That’s how we build a strong community, and without a strong community we can’t achieve anything. In order to fulfill our aim to become the 10th strongest economy in the world, we have to make this strength more visible, more influential and more effective.”

And it’s not all about women either — men have an important role to play too, she adds. “In the end, all of us are in some sort of competition, either with ourselves or with others. We all are thirsty for success, and all of us, including the men, are struggling for success and seeking to climb the ladder in whatever we do. Men are struggling with the same issues as women do. There is a huge competition going on. If you want to be in this, you have to manage this competition. And this requires knowledge, equipment of any sort and strength of character to see it through.”

While the share of women in Turkey’s public sector workforce is around 37%, their representation in leadership positions is much lower, which seems to indicate that women are prone to stay in the lower-level jobs and cannot successfully break through to higher ranks. To make it easier for women to make better progress in terms of their careers, Sahin says that women need more networks to help support themselves moving forward. “A decision which has come out from a decision-making mechanism consisting only of men doesn’t constitute a strong decision,” she points out. “There should be opinions from both sides: women and men. Society is ready for this. Society doesn’t have a problem with female politician, with female governor or mayor as long as we keep the emotional state in balance. If we don’t, things go awry. That’s a proven fact.”

And she goes on to laud the contribution of education to addressing the gender divide. “Equal opportunities in education are the most important power to increase active participation of women in every aspect of life,” she says. “Better education opportunities will encourage women to be more involved in the professional world.”

Such an ambition is core to delivering a stronger society in the long term, she says. “We have a project to provide day care centers for working mothers so that our women will find more time and opportunity to focus and to gain more experience in their business life. Our goal is to form a society which knows how to share, how to produce and how to promote individuals who make a future for themselves as well as for others. Every step taken for women means an investment on the future of Turkey.”

Looking and learning from examples across borders is another important aspect of driving transformational change, and Sahin is quick to cite the example of a project that was recently unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We know that success takes a collaboration of efforts and powers,” she says. “We shared one example of this collaboration with the world last month in Davos focusing on equality in work.

“With co-chairmen Güler Sabanci and Ferit Şahenk, who are two prominent business leaders in Turkey, we have started the project that shall encourage moving the current state of business life in favor of women, to make women more active in decision-making processes, and to give them equal opportunities to men,” she says. “The goal of the project that will be continued for three years is to increase the participation of women in business and to reduce the gender gap in economic contribution to at least a level of 10%. Considering the positive effects of having women in business, for both individuals and society, it’s clear that a collaboration of all stakeholders, and continuing these efforts are important.”

Indeed, such teamwork has been a key catalyst in Turkey’s economic resurgence, she believes. “Over the last decade Turkey owe its steady growth and development, in other words, its success in economic, social, political and cultural fields, mostly to both public and private organizations,” she says. “This success belongs to both women and men. In the past we weren’t listening to each other, we didn’t have ability to empathize, or we weren’t aware of this ability. Now, though, I listen to my friends intently, and they listen to us. We are trying to understand what they mean, what we could do for the best of the country from these opinions. This understanding will in time turn into the success of the country.”

But this is no time for complacency. Sahin believes that positive discrimination in favor of women would entrench and accelerate the gains already made. “We have to achieve one more thing, and this is to be open to every different opinion, to consider every point of view regardless of whether they are wrong or right,” she says. “Even the wrong ideas and opinions have a power to show the right direction. In this context, every different thought is important for us. We have to consider everything from the women’s point of view. This is our biggest duty, our biggest social and political responsibility. “

Such a turn of events would help make it more likely that in the future there will be more than just one woman in the Turkish Government. Sahin, though, is quick to pay tribute to her male colleagues. “They give me great support and facilitate the way for me to do my duties and my job in the best way,” she says. “For the first time in the history of Turkey, women are represented with a rate of 14% in Parliament. I firmly believe that this rate will go higher because we are a strong team under a strong leadership. We still have a lot to do for this country. We only can achieve our ambitions for Turkey through teamwork. And we have the will and encourage achieving this goal.”

Tauno Olju is Director, Government and EU Advisory Services, Ernst & Young Turkey [email protected]

This article first appeared in the April 2013 edition of Ernst & Young's Citizen Today magazine.

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