At the age of seven I was stuck with the dream of "being a doctor" because that was an acceptable occupation for women in Turkey, even though my true dream was to be an astronaut. When I finished Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, I immediately felt that it should be translated and heard by girls and women of Turkey. As a Turkish-American woman and a professional working to address the issue of women empowerment in Turkey, I believe that Sandberg's book could be a medium to stir up some debate around women's roles in the Turkish society as it did in the United States.
Lean In is about us, women, claiming our own power by acknowledging our inner barriers. In that sense, the book was an eye-opener for me. It made me realize how, we as women, curtail ourselves over and over again. This was a fact that led me to question many of my long-held assumptions and made me aware of my certain behaviors. Even though I read Turkey's most well-known feminist Duygu Asena's famous book, Kadının Adı Yok (Women has No Name) when I was 12 years old and claimed myself a feminist, I recognized that I am still affected by the culture I was raised in. All of us do. I hold myself back out of respect. I listen more than I speak. I give up my seat at the table when a senior man shows up. Women of Turkey should acknowledge the cultural barriers that restrict her behavior and should not let that restrain her standing in the society.
Reading the book was also liberating as I, now, know that someone like Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most powerful women in the world feels the same way I do. In a recent CNN interview Sandberg says, "Lean In is not about fixing women. It is about all of us coming together to understand the stereotypes that are holding women back." Girls and women of Turkey should also know that everyone including the COO of Facebook has insecurities and self-doubts and not-smart-and-capable-enough moments. All women need to lean-in. That includes women in Turkey.
In terms of gender equality, Turkey is a contradictory country. Women make up approximately 26 percent of the top executives. Twelve percent of Turkish CEOs are women in comparison to four percent of Fortune 1000 companies in the United States. Güler Sabancı, the head of Turkey's most powerful conglomerate Sabancı Holdings, is regularly sited as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Turkey's largest oil company, OMV Petrol Ofisi, is run by a woman: Gülsüm Azeri. Pınar Abay became the CEO of ING Bank Turkey at the age of 34 and Güldem Berkman is one of the five female country heads of drug giant, Novartis.
Yet, the World Economic Forum's (WEF) 2012 Gender Gap Report ranks Turkey 124 out of 135 in male-female disparity. Turkey's total female employment, which is at a dire 26 percent, remains low by international standards. It is not only the lowest level among Europe and Central Asia (64 percent), and OECD countries (62 percent), but also lower than other developing countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and even Afghanistan. Reports cite the main underlying cause for these issues as poor education. Higher education attainment is associated with higher levels of female participation, and investment in education of girls promotes gender equality in earnings and labor market opportunities. Again, Turkey contradicts this. While the gender gap in education narrows, female participation in the workforce hasn't increased. More needs to be done to empower girls.
The first thing that is essential to address is cultural perception. Cultural barriers still stand in the way of women in Turkey. Women are expected to marry young, bear children and tend to the home. Some women still depend on their husband's permission to work. This is true not just of women in rural areas. Educated Turkish women in urban areas are under pressure to fulfill the Turkish mother stereotype. Girls with college education enter the labor force, but they drop out after they get married. Pınar İlkkaraçam, a founding member of the nonprofit Women for Women's Human Rights claims in this New York Times piece that "Among never-married women age 25 to 45, the rate of participation in the labor force for university graduates is about 90 percent. Turkish women participate in large numbers prior to marriage, but end up leaving their jobs upon marriage and having children." Family and cultural pressures are hard to resist in the Turkish society. A number of factors contribute to this.
The first culprit is a lack of proper and affordable childcare. Daycare has not caught on in Turkey. Without affordable childcare, and support from their families, many women drop out of the work force. A second is discrimination: A TÜBİTAK study quotes a female engineer who, despite being extremely qualified for a particular job, was not hired since the employer was "looking for someone who can have business trips" with him, and he was worried of rumors if he travels with a female worker.
In Turkey we need more awareness of deeper socio-cultural issues and should find ways to balance conservative values with realities of a global era. Turkish women need to understand that they have potential and they need to act on it to overcome societal barriers and misperceptions. Lean In, in a very personable way, can guide them. "Throughout my career, I was told over and over about inequalities in the workplace and how hard it would be to have a career and a family", Sandberg wrote in TIME magazine. "I rarely, however, heard anything about the ways I was holding myself back." Turkish women need to hear that, too.
That, however, is not enough. Turkey needs both cultural and institutional change. Turkey's female CEOs and parliamentarians can help. As Sandberg says "We must raise both the ceiling and the floor." Research shows that when we have more women in decision-making, we have a better chance of addressing issues facing girls and women. We can "lean in" all we want, but systemic economic and social policies need to be there in the first place. In an article for Turkish Daily News, Elmira Bayrasli, a writer for Forbes, underlines this need:
"So it would seem that increasing the number of women at work or in Turkish politics would solve the problem. Not quite. The kinds of jobs and positions women fill are critical. Merely having women in the workforce or in Parliament without true power to add value, make contributions and extend influence is useless. Ensuring that Turkish women have an equal say in the governance and development of their country requires the empowerment of girls."
We need leaders who will revolutionize work-life policies, innovate our cultural norms, and deepen the discourse on what constitutes being a woman.
We also need role models. The absence of senior women as role models discourages young women. I didn't have any public role models when I was growing up. The first public role model I remember was the first female prime minister of Turkey. She changed our perspective on what's available for girls of my generation. We saw that "we can do it, too." Role models inspire and give vision. We need to continue to capitalize on the power of how women naturally communicate just like Sandberg so there are more role models for girls. If we're open with our own experiences on how we gained the courage to reach for more opportunities, to sit at more tables, and to believe more in ourselves, those women and girls will be able to relate. Then our dialogues can be beyond the advice of a leader who is not "me" but a woman who understands "what I feel."
But of course, we cannot expect everything from women. Men have to be a great part of the equation. While there is so much Turkish women need to do, Turkish men need to stand up and help women embrace their rights as individuals and excel in their positions. We need men to talk about the gender disparities and the need to empower our girls if we are to have a total equal society.
In a recent TurkishWIN talk, a platform promoting empowerment through networking among women with ties to Turkey, a male professor from Drexel University visiting Istanbul with MBA students asked speakers "How has Turkish culture impacted your success?" He said that coming 6,000 miles away he was expecting a more oriental view of being a successful Turkish woman. One of the speakers mentioned the impact of her grandmother, who was very political and a dominant figure in her family. The other speaker talked about the diverse culture of Istanbul.
Their answers weren't much different than women leaders in the United States. Actually, their success stories were based on "hard work, luck and other people" as Sandberg also mentions in the book. Some things are universal for women and some issues need to be fought at the local level by knowing the local traditions and culture. But to do that, we should all first follow Sandberg's advice, and not sit on the sidelines because we think we're not smart enough, or experienced enough or whatever enough. Let's also tell Turkish girls and women to put away their self-doubt and pull up a chair at the guys' table. The Turkish Republic was built on the principle that women are an integral part of the country's success. The republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a feminist. Turkish women were granted many rights that were considered advanced for those years, including the right to vote before many countries such as Italy, France, Japan and Switzerland. As Turkey moves into the 21st century and its role in the global economy and politics grows, it's even more important to fulfill the role of women. It's time the culture starts to blend the changing role of women to reflect our era and that more Turkish women sit at the table.