On Thursday, Ankara Chamber of Industry head Nurettin Özdebir offered his comments regarding the government's recently announced plans to extend the legal period of maternity leave -- which is currently four months -- by another two months. “We [Turkey] are taking measures that will make increasing female employment levels harder. The business world cannot simply be expected not to react [to the planned changes]. An industrialist recently said he had ordered his company not to hire female workers. […] He is not alone [in his stance]. It applies to all of us. […] This will pull down Turkey's already low female employment rate further.”
Özdebir's comments were published in a Turkish newspaper, which also noted that similar remarks had come from Erdal Bahçıvan, the head of the İstanbul Chamber of Industry (İSO). In addition to extending the period of maternity leave, the government also plans to allow shorter working hours for nursing mothers.
The percentage of female participation in the Turkish workforce is 31.9 percent according to Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) data from June, compared to 72.5 percent for men. The joblessness rate for women stood at 10.8 percent as of June, compared to 7.8 percent for men. The TurkStat data also indicates that unemployment for women with higher education is greater, while the opposite is true in the case of men. Women's groups have taken Özdebir's statement as a highly discriminatory threat against attempts to improve conditions for female parents who participate in the workforce.
The industry reaction, exasperating as it is, is not exactly shocking, according to Çiğdem Aydın, the president of the Association for Education and Supporting Women Candidates (KA-DER). “We are aware of the unhappiness of the business world regarding female employees. Nobody is innocent here. Of course some regulations, such as daycare centers, should be there for everyone and not just for women.”
She said the business world only viewed female employees in terms of profitability and notes that allowing male workers paid fatherhood leave or taking into account the number of men in an establishment to set the minimum number of parents required for the employer to open a daycare center could give equal status to men and women and end discrimination. “This is about the continuation of generations. Childbirth concerns the entire society, not just women,” Aydın said.
She noted, however, that it was the duty of the government to hear the complaints of employers and address those concerns, noting that the government had not heard the opinions of either the business world or women's groups when drafting the new legislation on maternity leave.
Aydın also said it is unlikely that any legal measures can be taken against Özdebir's statement, which clearly discriminates against women. “The only tool we have is press statements, condemnations and more visibility. He is discriminating [against women.] That part is very clear.”
Resistance of the patriarchy
“This is resistance from the patriarchal understanding in the business world,” said Aydeniz Tuskan from the Women's Rights Committee of the İstanbul Bar Association.
“Legal regulations to make life easier for women in work life are in line with international covenants to which Turkey is a signatory. These regulations are needed to improve working conditions for women. Without them, women are forced to leave their children with other caregivers, leave their jobs or take unpaid leave. All employers resist laws that call for daycare centers; they try to hire fewer female employees so that they will not be obliged to open daycare centers,” said Tuskan, adding that quotas are needed to offset the current imbalance and fight the current attitudes that work against women.
“This is just a very unfortunate statement,” Tuskan said of Özdebir's comments. She also recalled a recent remark from Religious Affairs Directorate head Mehmet Görmez, which she said trivialized and normalized violence against women. In August, Görmez caused outrage when he called on the UN “to leave aside violence against women and prevent murders against humanity first,” criticizing the body's inaction regarding Syria.
The coordinator of the İstanbul Union of Women's Organizations (İKKB) and chairwoman of the Turkish Association of University Women (TÜKD), Nazan Moroğlu, said even talking about possibly extending maternity leave -- currently 16 months in the Labor Law -- can become an obstacle in the way of female employment.
“What the state needs to do here is show determination and support the infrastructure needed for the law it has passed and foster the opening of daycare centers and similar units. Because such laws are passed with no real infrastructural basis, this actually victimizes women and increases the level of discrimination against them. The percentage of female participation in the workforce was 34.1 percent in 1990 and it has consistently fallen since. How can it be possible to increase female employment if the state is also championing a policy of three children per family?”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said on many occasions that every couple should have at least three children, although whether this has really contributed to an increase in the number of children per family is not certain.
“Female employment remains a major problem from Turkey and just passing laws doesn't solve the problem,” Moroğlu noted. She said women's empowerment is a prerequisite for a strong Turkey, adding that lower education levels and the lack of employment opportunities for women also contributed to the increasing frequency of violence against women, another persistent problem Turkey has yet to solve.
“As long as women are not seen as individuals, as long as they are treated as beings that are in need of protection, there can be no talk of gender equality or democracy,” Moroğlu said.
Educated women out of jobs
The TurkStat data from June clearly shows that women are still left out of the job market even if they are well educated and qualified, while the opposite is true for men. Unemployment is highest among more highly educated women while the men who struggle the most when looking for employment typically have the lowest levels of education among all job seekers.
In June, the unemployment rate among women with no education was about 2 percent and 8.2 percent for women with less than a high school education. For high school graduates, the unemployment rate was 19.8 percent -- a 2.5 percent increase from the same period last year. The unemployment rate for women with vocational or technical training was 19.2 percent in June and 14.1 percent for university graduates.
The unemployment rate for men with less than a high school education was 8 percent and 8.7 percent for high school graduates. The unemployment rate for male graduates of vocational or technical schools was 7.5 percent and 6.5 percent for male university graduates.