The road to equality in the labor force will first pass through equality in housework. This was the main message women from different nationalities shared with their counterparts in Turkey at a conference in Istanbul on Thursday.
Turkey needs a lot of progress to reach an egalitarian division of labor in housework. While a woman in Turkey spends approximately 5 hours and 17 minutes per day (37 hours weekly) taking care of the house, a man spends just 51 minutes a day. Turkey also appears low on the list of European countries when it comes to the share of women in employment.
At the invitation of İpek İlkkaracan, the founder of Women for Human Rights Ğ New Ways Foundation and an associate professor at Istanbul Technical University, six women from France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, South Korea and Mexico came to Turkey to share their experiences and give information on measures that were taken to increase the number of women in the workforce, as well as to support them in their careers.
"Considering the development in industrialization and employment within Turkey, the number of working women is too low. Even compared to the developing countries, Turkey falls behind," İlkkaracan told Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, explaining the motivation behind the conference. Additionally, women’s issues is one of the most problematic areas in Turkey’s EU accession process, said İlkkaracan, adding that while the average number of men in the labor force was close to the EU’s average, the women’s labor force was much too low.
İlkkaracan’s foundation started in 1997 with the aim to help women with equality issues. One of the stumbling blocks in increasing women’s share in employment is the cultural perception in Turkey. "Housework is attributed to women in our culture, with women considered the ones responsible for taking care of the home. As men are usually seen as the breadwinners who earn money to support the household, women are forced to stay in the house," she said.
Half of women in Turkey have worked at least once in their life, but there is a lack of continuity and this remains another problem for a sustainable labor force.
For some circles, Turkish society’s conservatism is an obstacle preventing women from work, but İlkkaracan disagrees with that theory. "The reason women are not working is not conservatism, but if women continue to not work, it may well trigger conservatism."
"We don’t need to discover the wheel again, and we don’t want to start from scratch," İlkkaracan said, adding that they called for professional help so that Turkey can evaluate and carry out the best solutions. One of the topics elaborated on in the conference was maternity leave, an important element for working women.
Flexible parental rights
"Women are given 16 weeks of leave from work in Turkey. What we want is to have flexible parental rights. Pregnant women are often not considered for the job even if they are qualified enough," İlkkaracan said. She also said there is a law in Turkey that says maternal leave should be supported by paternal leave. Additionally, according to the foreign participants, there should be a nontransferable leave and wage replacement offered to fathers to encourage them to participate more in child care.
The Netherlands allows parents to take their six-month parental leave over 14 years so that parents can use it as they wish without taking a long break from work, which has encouraged men to contribute more in child care. While the Netherlands’ parental leave is a progressive benefit for parents, the country also experimented in offering women more part-time jobs, which negatively resulted in a cheap labor force.
While some of the EU countries still struggle to support women in the labor force, in Sweden and France the idea of women not working is not even a topic. Spain is similar with women playing a role in nearly every sector. Mexico and South Korea, which have programs to reinforce the idea of a women’s labor force, have gone through the same phases as Turkey.
"When looking at other countries, the state takes the responsibility for the development of women in the labor force. There is a great deal of action from the government. They accept the responsibilities. We first need to get to that point," İlkkaracan said.
Ito Peng, who does research in South Korea although she is a professor at the University of Toronto, mentioned that South Korea has been developing a new policy on social care expansion. "The main component of the policy is to enable women to go out and work. The South Korean government realized that women have a high education rate but they are not working. In 2005, it had the lowest fertility rate in the world and elderly people needing care created job opportunities," she said. South Korea took action after it realized that countries with high work opportunities were those with higher fertility rates.
Cecilia Matarazzo, who works at the Institute for Security and Democracy in Mexico, said women started participating in the workforce after the 1980s crises because their husbands lost their jobs. While just 21 percent of women worked in the early ’90s, that figure has increased to 41 percent today. For many people, the mother is the best person to take care of the children, but actually there is no difference in this ability between women and men, she said.
Swedish women want more
Lecturer at Stockholm University’s center for gender studies, Annita Nyberg, said the way Sweden does things might not work for Turkey because the countries have so many differences. "The background and the culture should be considered when making decisions here," she said, adding that no matter how great Sweden seems for women’s rights, women in Sweden are not satisfied. They want more.
Nyberg, Peng, Matarazzo, Lourdes Beneria from Spain, Rachel Silvera from France, Janneke Plantenga from the Netherlands and the rest of the members of Women for Human Rights Ğ New Ways Foundation are planning to publish a book at the end of this year from the reports they prepared. They say they will continue working together to increase public awareness and government attention to the issue. Complaining about the lack of ground in Turkey because trade unions, companies, employers and government have not joined forces to find a solution, the women ambassadors underlined that the government was indifferent to the subject, whereas the companies are not even loyal to the rules and regulations that encourage women’s employment.