How has the profile of business women in Turkey changed since KAGIDER's foundation in 2002?
It has changed for the good, particularly when considering public advocacy; for example, when we travel to towns and cities around the country to explain the idea of entrepreneurship. The word itself is difficult enough to say in both English and Turkish, but sometimes explaining what it means can be almost as difficult. The notion of female entrepreneurship especially is something that is often discouraged. And this is a global phenomenon, not just the local culture. For example, if a working man comes home complaining about having a bad day, his family would generally encourage him, saying that the bad times will pass. Yet if a woman comes home with the same complaints, instead of being encouraged to keep going, she will most probably be advised to quit and not get preoccupied. This is a common situation for women everywhere, not just in Turkey. Women face negative reinforcement and men face positive reinforcement about the bare fact of working. These prejudices tend to be widespread, making it is easier for women to give up. This is exactly why we want to encourage women and train and change perceptions about female entrepreneurship in the country. Entrepreneurship is a concept that people sometimes have difficulty grasping. Even though everybody understands that empowering women is positive, most of the time they do not quite grasp what a woman entrepreneur is. Is it an industrialist or a shop owner? However, the notion of entrepreneurship in general and female entrepreneurs has become quite popular and been a better understood concept over the past 12 years. If you follow the press you will see that each year they are covering more and more entrepreneurship stories and success stories about women entrepreneurs. It is talked about in the media, and it is more on the agenda, with more young women being aspired to become entrepreneurs. On the other hand, unfortunately, not all of them will be successful. At KAGIDER our role is to support women entrepreneurs on their road to success.
With whom does KAGIDER partner in trying to fulfill that role?
Receiving the special consultative status of United Nations ECOSOC in 2010 we have become an accredited Turkish NGO specialized in gender issues and thus we have the opportunity to organize events at the UN. Since then, each year at the UN CSW meetings we organize a panel to present the activities that we have undertaken to empower women in Turkey. For example, this year in line with CSW's main theme of “Women and the Economy," we have presented our “Woman Entrepreneur of the Year" contest, held in collaboration with Garanti Bank and The Economist. It is an honor for us to say that those selected as Turkey's best female entrepreneurs are also invited to participate in global competitions. This is just one of many such projects that we run. When we have ideas for different projects, we approach the relevant private and/or public sector players to partner with us; for example, we have a project that we carry out in cooperation with the Turkish Ministry for Family and Social Policies and Intel; it is an ideation and innovation camp that we organize in different cities around Turkey, where we train young men and women in finding solutions to the problem of gender inequality in different contexts. It is a think-tank that encourages thinking about women's issues to find solutions that will empower them in their region and, so far, we have taken the project to six cities and, each time, it has been a great success.
Female entrepreneurship and employment are remarkably low in Turkey, but at the same time there is a fairly high ratio of female executives in Turkey relative to the rest of the OECD region. How do you reconcile those apparently contradictory facts?
It is a highly correlated issue. The higher the education a woman receives, the better and higher performance she will demonstrate. In other words, highly educated women outperform OECD standards in top management, middle management, and so forth. This is a fact because we have very good schools producing top-level graduates. I applaud both the men and women CEOs that Turkey has succeeded to export globally. But if we look at the overall education standards for women and men we cannot say they are exposed to top quality education. Out of the entire population, some 72% of the male population are either employed or looking for a job, while only 31% of women are doing either. There is serious gap between men and women. Everything is linked, and so initially you need to provide opportunities not only for learning, but also good quality education and then the opportunities for employment. I connect the lower level of employment of women directly to the lack of educational opportunities for them, which is a pipeline issue that we need to enhance. When they have the opportunity to have good education they outperform. When they have little or no education they fall behind.
What can local companies do to address that issue?
First of all, companies can employ more women. The population is divided 50-50, and the exposure of women to primary education is on average equal to that of men. That figure declines slightly for secondary education, but when it comes to higher education, most of the women who graduate are likely to get a job. So you have to support women all throughout the pipeline. When they graduate, we have yet another project called Young Leaders of the Future, which aims to prepare young women for professional life. Companies scale candidates according to their correct fit in terms of the jobs available based on education, language ability, and so forth. In some companies being a woman is also a plus, to encourage companywide executives to employ more women. Such mechanisms are useful for increasing the level of participation among women in the workforce, but not many jobs can be assessed in such simple terms, because it comes down to the right person for the job. For example, there are still many sectors and jobs that are male dominated, for example production. Women on the other hand would generally fill the role of a PR manager in a company. Of course, there are no rules that would suggest that these roles could not be reversed, and there are very successful examples, but there are still certain jobs that are attached to gender in our minds. Our job is to break through these preconceived notions and provide equal opportunities to men and women in all areas and sectors.
© The Business Year - May 2015