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Turkey's Dazzling Power: Women

Fortune magazine every year selects the top 100 most powerful women in the world, and even though more than half the women on the list are American, there are powerful women from all over the world each time. On the 2015 list, Italy had 3 women, Federica Mogherini (politics), Miuccia Prada (business) and Fabiola Gianotti (philanthropy), while Turkey’s Guler Sabanci occupied her usual place in the list as a top businesswoman.

38 million women live in Turkey, exactly half the country’s population. Unfortunately only around 26% of them participate in the workforce. This is the lowest ratio among all OECD countries. Hold on -this is not an article about Turkey’s un-women-friendly business environment; on the contrary, this is an article about how Turkish women get to the top in spite of all the obstacles. Of those 26% of women who join the workforce, a significant amount of them are able to move up, thanks to their competencies, hard-work and perseverance. Today Turkey has the second highest percentage (12%) of female CEOs among all OECD countries (World Bank report). Not only that, 22% of the board members in the country are also women. In case you want to compare, in Italy, the percentage of female CEOs is 9%, even though the participation of the women in the workforce is more than twice as much (54%).

Turkish women make headlines in Western media typically for unpleasant events, such as violence against them, headscarf debates, and so on. However, while Europe is busy discussing ways to increase the number of women in top positions with a gender quota, Turkey’s largest corporations have already set the pace with a remarkable number of successful female executives. Turkish women today sit at the very top of Turkey’s financial institutions (like Akbank, ING Bank-Turkey, Bank of America Merrill Lynch-Turkey, and AvivaSA), pharmaceutical companies (like Novartis and Pfizer), technology firms (like Nokia, IBM, Oracle, Visa, and WPP Turkey), oil & gas firms (like OPET and OMV), food giants (like McDonald’s), retail chains (like Boyner and Beymen), big industrial companies (like General Electric-Turkey), and many others. Their presence and power is felt in each sector of the economy.

I can hear voices that say that today’s Islamic AKP government that has ruled Turkey for the last 13 years does not look very woman-friendly, and that is absolutely true. Women make up only 15% of the Turkish parliament today, they occupy only 81 out of 550 seats, and we see only 2 women ministers out of a total of 22 ministers. Let me give you the Italian numbers for comparison: In today’s Renzi government, women occupy 6 out of 16 ministries, plus 32% of the Chamber of Deputies and 30% of the Senate. Obviously, today’s Turkey lacks the women-muscle in politics!

Nevertheless, in history, Turkish women actually started with an advantage. In Turkey, women acquired the right to vote and to be voted for in 1934, 11 years after the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and 12 years before Italian women got the same rights in 1946. It took too many years to see the first woman minister in the Turkish cabinet, in 1971; however, it was again 5 years earlier than the appearance of the first Italian woman minister. In all the Italian republican history, the country has never had a woman prime minister (nor a woman president). The highest state responsibility held by women in Italy is limited to being the president of the Chamber of Deputies. However, in Turkey, women have made it to the top of politics. In 1993, Turkey had its first woman prime minister, Tansu Ciller. A former university professor of economics, who also was the minister of finance in the previous government, she ruled the country from 1993 to 1996. How well she ruled is open to discussion, but she made it to the top. And even when the government changed in 1996, she remained to be the Minister of foreign affairs and the deputy prime minister.

OECD made a survey measuring the economic and political power of women in 160 countries, and with a few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success. There is no doubt women have more soft powers, like social skills, as well as important personal traits like empathy, patience, emotional intelligence, self-discipline, sense of responsibility, charm and charisma, and these are increasingly important traits in today’s service and information economy. Clearly a lot of things get in the way of women, and this is why they should be supported more.

When it comes to Turkish women, once they enter the workforce, they do a great job. Could you imagine how Turkish women would rock if the country’s government was a little more Renzi-like in terms of encouraging and empowering more woman into politics as well as business? Frankly, such an improvement seems unlikely in the near future; however, it is for sure Turkish women will never give up.

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