16 April 2014, Wednesday
Today's Zaman

Gender gap persists in Turkey’s scientific workforce

8 April 2012, Sunday /E. BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ
Turkey is still struggling with many women’s issues, particularly widespread violence, including domestic violence and murder. Five women a day are killed on average, a pressing concern for the country.

In the context of this violence, the position of women in science is rarely given attention.

The oppression of women has devastating results for societies, and Turkey, despite its recent economic growth, is suffering greatly from this. Turkey’s rate of female participation in the general workforce is 27.4 percent, according to data released by the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) in 2011. Even against this grim backdrop, it is a widely held view that women in academia or scientific jobs have more opportunities and that these fields are more liberal in comparison to others. Research and data available on the topic, however, do not entirely support this view.

Studies have found that the “glass ceiling” effect in fact increased in academia between 2001 and 2010. The most detailed study on the participation of women in science was conducted in 2011 by Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) researchers Damla Özdemir and Zeynep Esra Tanyıldız. They point to many obstacles that stand in the way of women climbing the career ladder in science, but one they emphasize is the lack of government policies that aim to increase the participation of women in science. Turkey does not have any official policies to increase female participation in the scientific workforce. And according to figures provided by TEPAV, the country is paying for it. In a 2008 meeting, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) announced plans to increase the number of people in its research and development wing to 150,000. It now appears that there are not nearly enough researchers to meet that goal. In 2013, the number of full-time R&D personnel at TÜBİTAK is expected to be below 40,000. To put it in another way, it is impossible to meet such targets without the participation of women.

Life of a female scientist

Women are a minority in the scientific workforce in Turkey, as is the case in many other countries. Female academics in Turkey are higher in number among lower academic ranks. There are more women employed on a part-time basis in science jobs than men. Women earn less than men in the scientific community. At universities, they have to teach more classes and work longer office hours than men. They also have less access to grants and financial resources for research. Academia is a man’s world, and these are common problems also seen in nations of advanced development.

The TEPAV study blames systematic and cultural obstacles for standing in the way of Turkish women in science. Unfortunately, cultural patriarchal patterns remain persistent in university. In fact, a fine example of this was given by Ahmet Küçükusta, a professor of medicine, who in June -- putting in his own two kuruş in a debate on women in science, excitedly told the press: “There are few women of science in the world. How many women have won Nobels in physics, chemistry or medicine? Or look at music, literature and sociology. There are so few women who have mastered these topics.” Küçükusta was opposing the use of the word “bilim kadını,” which literally means woman of science. The word for scientist in Turkish corresponds to “scienceman” in English, and female scientists want to be called “sciencewomen” or prefer the gender-neutral version “bilim insanı” (science person).

So can we hope that as the dinosaurs of the academia “die out” -- and literally, in this case, as the older generations of sexist professors and scientists pass -- there will be fewer obstacles for women wishing to pursue careers in science? The answer is both yes and no, as cultural obstacles are only one type of problem for women in science.

The generational shift invariably helps, studies show. There has been undeniable improvement in some of the trends regarding female participation in the scientific workforce over the past decade in Turkey. For example, according to figures from the Student Selection and Placement Center (ÖSYM), the number of doctoral students has increased significantly. This includes more fields such as medicine -- that call for less demanding personal lives and highly flexible hours -- as well as fields traditionally dominated by men, such as engineering. These figures indicate that participation mechanisms in scientific education are more egalitarian than in the past.

Against the glass ceiling

Although the number of women getting doctoral degrees is higher, that’s where the good news ends. The number of females in senior academic ranks remains low: a highly discouraging hint for women thinking of staying in academia. Increasing the numbers of women holding senior academic titles is important.

In 2010, according to ÖSYM figures, 47 percent of all Turkish research assistants were women, compared to 53 percent being males. Compare this to 72 percent of all professors being men as of the same year, versus only 28 percent of professors being female. In the Turkish case, the area above the assistant position seems to be where women hit a glass ceiling, as the gap between female and male academic title holders gets significantly larger from that point onward.

Although encouraging young women to choose science and technology seems like a good solution to tackle the problem of female participation in the scientific workforce, this does not seem to be entirely true given the fact that the gender gap actually appears after the completion of one’s education, during the later stages of workforce participation and moving up in one’s career. Particularly in private universities, where salaries are higher, the percentage of male researchers is much higher than in state universities. Experts believe that the recent increase in the public sector in the number of women in universities can be attributed to the increasing R&D operations in private companies, which has attracted men to the private sector.

How can the situation be improved? TEPAV’s research suggests implementing official policies to alleviate the discouraging effect of the glass ceiling. They also advise a system of mentoring -- where older and more experienced female scientists give guidance to newcomers -- which has been proven to work in some countries. One policy to adopt could be grant schemes aimed at female researchers abroad to attract them back home.

Increasing female participation in the scientific workforce will not only help Turkey’s democratization process but might ultimately encourage other disadvantaged groups -- such as people with disabilities or other minorities -- to come on board and start pursuing careers in science. Official policies at this time seem to be direly needed, but are desperately lacking.

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