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Mission possible: elevating Turkey’s businesswomen

Turkey needs to instill more self-confidence in girls for women to make greater strides in Turkish society.
A trader reads a newspaper with the headline that reads "AK Party Term", during the morning session at the Istanbul Stock Exchange June 13, 2011. Turkish stocks rose on Monday after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party won Sunday's parliamentary election to secure a third term of single-party rule. The AK Party won 50 percent of the vote to give Erdogan a third consecutive term. But the AK Party's parliamentary majority slipped, as it won 326 seats, down from 331 in the previous assembly. REUTERS/Murad

A couple of days ago, Vodafone Turkey, one of Turkey’s cellular carriers, brought Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of the world’s most popular social networking service, Facebook, to Istanbul to give a speech at a special gathering of CEOs.

Sandberg shared some of the messages from her international best-seller Lean In, which recently came out in Turkish. According to Sandberg, girls should be more represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; women themselves should be offering more support to each other and rather than being judged or condemned, girls’ leadership skills and aspirations should be nurtured from very early on.

At the same meeting, Hanzade Dogan Boyner, founder of the biggest online retailer in the region and the president of Dogan Online, addressed the audience and agreed with Sandberg’s views that a lack of women’s self-determination represents the main problem. Despite low levels of women’s participation in the Turkish workforce, Boyner mentioned interesting statistics, including a 12% percentage of women CEOs in Turkey, much higher than in many Western countries. While reflecting on past studies and programs like “Father, send me to school” for educating young girls in Turkey, Boyner admitted disappointment that achieving more equality between the sexes in education did not result in increased women’s participation in the workforce. Moreover, despite defending system changes like increased maternity leave, child care services at work or breast-feeding rooms, representation of women at the top level has remained unchanged. Thus, she concluded, the main problem is not the system, but women themselves, who must change their own thinking and determination, while it is necessary to start changing perceptions from a very early age so girls don’t internalize inequality while growing up.

Speaking of women’s perceptions as a factor in their career success, (“a new job” in Turkish) recently conducted a survey of 1,392 Turkish working women with five or more years of experience. The results showed that 49.4% of participants see being a woman as a disadvantage for a career, 35.4% see it as neither advantage nor disadvantage while 15.2% see being a woman as an advantage.

Among the sacrifices that women listed as acceptable to find or keep a job or further their careers, women cited family and private life (38.1%), followed by postponing having children (30.4%), hiding health problems (26.7%), accepting lower assignments despite higher competence (24.2%), accepting a lower salary (23.9%), postponing marriage (23.9%), staying in the background (18.3%), not expecting promotions (16.4%) and agreeing to more reassignments (14.4%).

In the same survey, half of the participating women responded they had or would terminate a relationship or postpone marriage for the sake of their careers. The number of women who had postponed or would postpone having a child due to fear of not finding or losing a job is even higher (63.5%). Some 42.5% also admitted to hiding pregnancies from employers for the same reasons.

It seems that women make unhealthy choices because of a lack of support for balancing work and family. Hurriyet cited Elif Ejdar Ozel of HRM Consulting, who explained some difficulties women face during employment negotiations. Some companies even require women to sign contracts guaranteeing two years' work without getting pregnant, said Ozel. She claimed that despite this blatant violation of their human rights, many women end up accepting these conditions. The results of the survey reveal an important reality in Turkey: Here, women worry enough about keeping the job, let along fighting for a place in the top management.

Some numbers show cause for hope. According to the Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR), a quarterly survey of 3,500 senior executives in listed and privately held businesses all over the world, In terms of senior management positions held by women in developing countries, Turkey ranked 15th of 44, with 30% of women in senior management. Of these, 49% are sales directors, 33% are human-resources directors, 27% marketing directors, 15% finance directors.

Journalist and academic Guven Sak explained that companies with women CEOs in Turkey are those “well-connected to the European market” and located in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, not in the new industrial centers of Konya, Gaziantep and Kayseri in Anatolia. Sak allowed for some optimism by clarifying that the “economic transformation that comes from opening to the world market has brought social transformation with it.” The change for the better will still be slow, though, for many reasons. Primarily, as Sak explained, “Forget female CEOs; simply employing women is a new phenomenon for the companies of Turkey’s new industrial centers.”

Unfortunately, lack of gender parity is a global problem, not just for leadership and decision-making positions, or in Turkey alone. Fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

Yet, while Sandberg, one of the youngest female billionaires in the world at 44, has immensely contributed to the global debate on changing women’s perceptions of themselves, not everyone identifies with her message. One of them is Anne-Marie Slaughter, previously a professor at Princeton University and now the president and CEO of the New America Foundation and the author of The Atlantic's popular article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Slaughter appreciates Sandberg’s contribution and shares her realization that “There are millions of women out there who … need more than, 'Honey, you can do it if you try hard enough.'" Turkey needs a lot of both Sandberg's and Slaughter's proposals: instilling more self-confidence in girls to want and accomplish more, but also seeking a change in values through education and institutional systems and policies.

Gulden Turktan, who runs the Women's Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey (KAGIDER), explained that the biggest prejudice facing women is the idea that they're less capable. Turktan also reiterated pressures that women face from the moment they decide to have a child, and that women are forced to withdraw from the workforce due to the lack of child care services, or the societal perception that women are solely responsible for taking care of their children.

Similarly, Cigdem Aydın, president of the Association for the Support and Training of Women Candidates (KADER) explained that societal perceptions dictate roles for women, and called the system “wrong from top to bottom.” She claimed that men must change the mindset, noting, “Just because you are a woman, they think you make very good dolma." Dolma is a traditional dish of stuffed vegetables.

Therefore, support from successful businesswomen like Hanzade Dogan Boyner, Guler Sabanci and many more is very valuable and important for instilling self-confidence and encouraging leadership aspirations in young girls and women in Turkey. Yet still, the work of organizations like KAGIDER and KADER is equally crucial. Through the project “Women leaders of the future” by KAGIDER and the Turkish arm of the Sanofi company, since 2010, 259 young women received education and mentorship in various areas on leadership and business. TurkishWin of the Turkish Women's International Network, which by its own account serves as “a vibrant and global networking platform for women with family, cultural or professional ties to Turkey,” is another example of effort for empowerment and support though networking and sharing experiences.

Only such simultaneous, intensified efforts of all different factors can result in indispensable mindset change — primarily of Turkey’s men, but women as well.

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