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The Diverse Barriers to Women’s Employment in Turkey

Dr. Asli E. Mert outlines the employment barriers facing women in Turkey and discusses possible solutions and efforts to overcome the gender inequality and segregation that continue to plague the employment market.

Asli E. Mert
Asli E. Mert
Asli E. Mert

Women’s status in the workforce is closely linked to their position in wider society, and their increasing labor market participation is in a tight-knit relationship with economic development. In Turkey, while women’s employment rate has remained evidently low (32.5% [i] of women were in paid work by 2016), further problems are observed when examining labor market patterns. In relatively lower-prestige job categories, informal employment continues to be a significant issue for working women in Turkey mainly due to the lack of social security and poor working conditions; the overall informal employment rate was 44.3% for women in 2016. On the other side of the labor market, there are also many obstacles for women with higher qualifications: only 15.1% of managerial positions were held by women, and 40.7% of highly educated women were not in employment in 2016. The latter shows an immense level of human capital loss in the transition from education to the labor market, in large part because of the exclusion of women from the male-dominated jobs that their training corresponds to. Clearly, barriers to female employment exist for women from various educational and socio-economic backgrounds, mostly exacerbated by similar determinants.

There are various explanations as to why gender inequalities as well as segregation in different areas of the labor market persist in Turkey. On the micro level, a fundamental issue related to women’s employment is the unbalanced domestic division of labor, in other words women’s double burden, representing a highly explicit restriction to women’s prospects in paid work. In 2016, 55.3% of economically inactive women stated their reason not to engage in paid work as “being a housewife.” It is also not surprising that Turkey has the lowest maternal employment compared to other OECD countries (ii): the recent preliminary results of Family Structure Survey of 2016 released by Turkish Statistical Institute reveal that daycare of children aged zero to five is undertaken by mothers at a rate of 86%, followed by grandmothers at 7.4%, while the percentages are remarkably low for paid daycare/kindergarten (2.8%) and nannies/child-minders (1.5%). The rate is 0% for fathers, which is highly concerning and sheds light on the problems surrounding maternal employment. Thus, the barriers to women’s employment at the micro level constitute one of the most explicit and persisting issues in terms of gender inequality in the labor market. This suggests that the support network for women at the social policy level could be strengthened by recognizing household responsibilities as a family matter rather than women’s duty by default, and supported by stimulating gender-egalitarian political discourse.

On the meso level, statistical discrimination continues to be a major obstacle, specifically in terms of women’s entry to high-prestige occupations. Statistical discrimination based on gender, mostly referring to the exclusion of women from certain positions due to prejudices regarding productivity and family-related career breaks, is clearly a remarkable problem for women’s advancement in the labor market. It is prominent in recruitment processes acting as a “glass door” even before a “glass ceiling” is encountered. Providing gender equality training to employers and monitoring hiring processes would combat gender discrimination at the institutional level. Moreover, positive discrimination practices and gender quotas at relatively higher-prestige occupations are needed to prevent exclusion until a certain level of gender equality is achieved at all segments of the job market, and vertical and horizontal gender segregation at work are reduced to a satisfactory level. 

Macro-level issues regarding women’s entry to the labor market primarily concern social policy formation related to gender, family, and work. In Turkey, there are social policies supporting women’s employment to a certain degree, yet the central concern is the lack of inclusion of men within family formation processes in the social policy agenda. It is significant to underline the importance of reinforcing men’s roles in the household as much as women’s position in the labor market, considering that women’s double burden is a great obstacle to their employment. While social policies can be adapted to the existing conjuncture, they could also transform the socially structured puzzles for change to occur. The latter seems to be necessary for changing men’s position in the household as spouses and fathers in a positive direction as well as to challenge the gendered roles ascribed to women and men in the family and society.

On the macro level, vertical and horizontal educational expansion policies need to continue being a priority for girls and also for boys—not only for their subsequent labor market trajectories and to provide equal educational opportunities, but also considering the positive impact of education on women’s and men’s levels of gender awareness and gender sensitivity. Last but not least, an increase in the number of women role models throughout all parts of the labor market is crucial for breaking the vicious circle of underrepresentation in certain job roles and to help build a network of support for accessing these occupational areas. 

  i. All descriptive statistics have been taken from the Turkish Statistical Institute website, please visit for further information.
  ii. OECD, 2016 (updated). OECD Family Database, available at