‘Women hold up half the sky’ -- Mao Zedong

February 22, 2013, Friday/ 16:15:00/ SEYFETTİN GÜRSEL

When I decided to continue today with the issue of working women in Turkey, I remembered the famous slogan by the leader of the Chinese Revolution and decided to use it as the title. President Mao was trying in his historic speech given during China's resistance to Japanese occupation to fight the deep prejudices of conservative Chinese society regarding the place of women in economic, political and social life.

Turkey, for sure, is not in such a dramatic situation that China was facing in the 1940s, but it is also not too far from it. The female participation rate in the labor force in Turkey is the lowest in Europe at around 30 percent. The participation rate is about 50 percent in Greece, Spain and Italy, the countries with the lowest rates in Europe.

There is no a single developed country in the world that has only a minority of its female population participating in economic activities. More women working in a household means greater income, increased savings, more disposable income for education and the health of children and finally, more rapid economic growth, without even talking about greater freedom for women. If Turkey, having reached the middle income group of countries in the last decade, wants to gain access to the club of developed countries, having much more women in the workforce is an absolute must.

The good news is that our female labor force participation rate is on an increasing path. In my column on Tuesday (“Female employment, as well as unemployment, greatly increased”), I discussed the recent strong contribution by both the female labor force and female employment to the Turkish labor market. As the labor force had increased more than employment, this resulted in an increase in female unemployment. But I would like to remark that this is just a short-term occurrence. If one considers a longer period, one observes that female unemployment is decreasing despite the continuous growth of the female labor force, as was revealed by recent research by the Bahçeşehir University Center for Economic and Social Research (BETAM). This is the second piece of good news, for sure.

According to BETAM's research (“Female participation in the labor force increases in cities,” Gökçe Uysal, Research Brief 13/143), the female participation rate increased from 17.8 percent to 24.9 percent from 2004 to 2011 while the female unemployment rate decreased from 17.9 percent to 16.6 percent. This decrease demonstrates an even stronger increase in the number of working women. One can remark that the improvement in female unemployment is rather limited, but let me also remark that it is quite consistent with the decrease of urban unemployment as a whole, which fell from 13.6 percent to 11.9 percent in the same period.

The third good piece of news is the growing share of formal wage earners in the total urban female employment figures. Indeed, this share rose from 55.7 percent to 61.3 percent, while the proportion of informal female wage earners (workers who are not registered with the Social Security Institution [SGK]) declined from 23.6 percent to 18 percent. So, female employment is not only rising but is also rising in legitimate jobs.

An interesting feature of the growth of the female labor force appears when this labor force is broken down according to educational levels. The urban female labor force increased by 40 percent as a whole within seven years, of which 47 percent was made up of women with an education of less than eight years. This fact is important because it shows that the attraction of working, for whatever reason, is just not limited to educated women. Until the cited BETAM research, it was well known that the improvement of female education is the main driver of the growth of women in economic activities. What's going on? To have some explanations we need to have more information about the decisions driving unskilled women to work.

That said, let me finish with some insights from an econometric analysis done by BETAM. Consider a married woman with five years of education who lives in İstanbul. Let her be our benchmark. A similar woman with a higher level of education will be more likely to participate in the labor force, as expected. At the same time, another woman with exactly the same characteristics but who lives in the west will be more likely to participate, while another who lives in the east will be less likely to participate. These results reveal the role of cultural factors (conservatism versus modernism) regarding the attitudes of women vis-à-vis working. If we want to accelerate the increase in female employment, we must also address the cultural dimension of the issue.